Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Minding the Business of Others

Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2013

“We hear, St. Paul says in our second reading, “that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others.”

When you think about life 50 years ago (I have to do this hypothetically) – it was so much more difficult to know what was going on in the lives of other people.  If you wanted to know about another place in the world maybe you could find a picture or two in a book, some stories from someone who had been there, perhaps some black and white footage from a news crew aired during daily news hour.

How different our world is today!  We have up to the second news channels and sports channels by the dozen.  You can get on google and in a matter of seconds find a detailed aerial view of anywhere in the world.  You want to know about Batswana’s president?  Wikipedia can give you a full article with his personal and professional biography with two clicks of a button.  Want to hire someone from another state for a new position in your company?  Just Skype them and you can see and speak to them almost as if they were in the room.  And then there is facebook, which places at your fingertips the personal information, photos, and life patterns of hundreds of family and friends.  All accessible at any hour: where they have been, who they’ve seen, what they are thinking about, videos and photos of various life events or just random things they want to share.

“We hear, St. Paul says in our second reading, “that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others.”

Could we not say that we live in an era that has made minding the business of others into a way of life?  Minding the business of others is the new American past time, it has become our obsession.  We live in a voyeur culture, a spectator culture.  We are obsessed with watching others.

But is this an entirely bad thing?  What is wrong with knowing more about the world around us?  What is wrong with knowing what is going on in the lives of our family and friends?  Shouldn’t we care?  Why would we choose not be aware of the tragic loss of life in the wake of the typhoon that hit the Philippines?  If we can, why shouldn’t we have been able to watch as Pope Francis was elected and walked out onto the loggia?  Isn’t it edifying to be able to read the uplifting stories of human compassion, to follow sports teams as they work together and achieve their goals on the field, to listen to news reports of new technologies and other developments so that we can more easily navigate this constantly changing world?

And furthermore, we might ask, what is the alternative?  Social isolation?  Going off into the woods and starting a commune somewhere?

No… Pope Francis has a twitter account and Pope Benedict before him spoke about how important it is for the Church to have a presence in the new media of our time.  Being faithful to St. Paul’s example, his teaching, does not mean that we have to entirely reject these new forms of communication.

Yet we do need to be careful and discerning in our use of technology.  There are weaknesses and sinful tendencies that are a part of our human nature and that can easily be exploited by new communications technology if we are not careful.  What are they?  I want to identify a three:

1. Passivity.  This is one that St. Paul addresses in our second reading.  We have to be careful that we don’t settle into a kind of lax and lukewarm lifestyle.  Many times it is easier to amuse ourselves in front of a screen than to go out and be with real people.  Especially when we are tired or in pain or grouchy, it is easy to plop down and plug in.  And we might try to justify this time, saying that we need to "relax."  But is it really relaxing?  Most of the time spent in front of screens is not true leisure, like a hobby or other kinds of activity that are healthy and refreshing: it is an escape that many times leaves us feeling more drained.  Because modern technology requires so little of us it is easy to stay up and compromise our sleep because we are plugged in to one thing or another too late.
Recent studies show us the addictive nature of technology: it is easy to fall into habits that are not healthy and that compromise our relationships with spouses, children, or parents.  And so sometimes we have to seriously limit our access in order to fight these tendencies.  There is work to be done, St. Paul tells us.  It is beneath our dignity and our calling as followers of Christ to sit around and just pass the time watching life go by around us.  Love requires us to be active, not passive.  If we get used to being passively entertained for hours each day, we tend to bring this mentality and passivity into other areas of life.  We aren't just couch potatoes, but we also become pew potatoes and desk potatoes and other kinds of potatoes.

2. Another thing that tends to happen when we are overly fixated on the business of others is that we find ourselves becoming more fearful and more anxious.  Why?  Well one reason is that by nature we tend to notice the things that go wrong.  You don’t notice the 100 times that someone is kind to you, but the one time they are rude.  You don’t notice the 1000s of families that are doing well and working hard, but the few that are completely dysfunctional. The 24 Hour news cycle obsesses on the failures and the sins of humanity - and bloggers decry every injustice on the planet.  Minding the business of others always tends toward drawing attention to their faults.

Furthermore, there is a constant comparison that begins to happen.  We subconsciously compare how we are doing to what we see.  "Well, my family is not as bad as this family."  Or "I don't have what they have, I'm not as successful as they are."  A recent study showed that time on facebook causes envy and depression for this reason.  As we compare we begin to think that we need to be like those around us or that we need to have what they have in order to be happy.  It is hard not to be influenced by consumerism or careerism.  Hard not to become increasingly image conscious and to be constantly thinking about what others must think of us, how we stack up, where we fit in, whether we are being successful.

3. And this leads to the 3rd and most problematic tendency with all of this social media-induced awareness.  And that is that we can easily loose a sense of the transcendent.  We become preoccupied with this world, with who is doing what, who has what, instead of looking to Christ and to our faith.  Jesus does not host a 24hr news channel with the 12 apostles.  The saints do not compete on the Price is Right or Jeapordy.  The cherubim and serphim do not tweet.  There is no Pintrest in purgatory.  We cannot see status updates from our guardian angels: “Saved Jonny from killing himself for the 300th time.  Lol.”  “Helped Tricia to finally get to confession today. Yolo.”

And this is what our Gospel asks us to consider today: Christ tells us that most of what is visible in this world is deceptive.  It is so easy to be distracted by the beautiful temples and the big personalities, to think that the visible and tangible, what we can describe and predict – that this is the real world.  But how small a world!  The horizons of so many today seem to have shrunk to the trivial and small and very passing mess of superficial data that we manage to pick up on video cameras and project onto screens.  The irony is that our technology-enabled awareness of others may actually be shrinking our understanding and appreciation of the complexity and beauty of life.  Caught up with looking at one another we forget to look up, forget to look inside, forget to be aware of the ‘now’ where Christ comes to meet us with the whole heavenly host.

There is nothing wrong with being aware of this world.  But, my dear brothers and sisters, Christ tells us to be careful that we are not deceived by superficial distractions and false prophets.    Our spiritual health requires that we limit how much time and attention we give to the trivia of this world, not because it’s bad, but because being spiritually aware is a much greater good.  Our lives must testify to the primacy of Christ and his kingdom.  That is hard to do in our world.

Our efforts to keep our eyes fixed on Christ can cause conflict in our families, as he tells us in the Gospel today.  Sometimes the remote control or the mouse can seem chained to us or to a loved one.  But we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted, to be lulled into a false reality that is ignorant of God.  You and I are called to testify to Christ.  And that must begin by our simple efforts to stay grounded in him throughout the day as we go about our work.  “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

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