For many years, the Gospel has been interpreted as an evacuation plan for the next world. This perspective, suggests Brain McLaren, has overlooked the prevailing thrust of the Gospel to provide an insertion plan into this world. The Gospel wants to guide us into living by standards of justice.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable or allegorical tale. While the context and timeframe of the narrative occur in the heaven and hell dimensions of the next world, the message is obviously one of justice in this world. It is possible that the rich man represents the attitude and lifestyle of gross consumptive habits displayed in many economically prosperous countries. Lazarus, whose name means "without help," might personify those who are starving, ignored and distained by the lifestyle in the dominant cultures.
One reason the environment is in serious peril and many of the planet’s eco-systems are near collapse is due to human consumption habits. For the most part, we see the Earth not as a sacred endowment, but a resource for our consumption. The Earth is assessed as a pre-manufactured commodity. Such a consumer mentality drives our economy and our personal lives. The goal of the current economic stimulus plan presented by the president and passed into law by Congress seeks to stimulate more jobs, so people will have more money, so they can purchase and consume more goods. This is madness. We are seemingly willing to exhaust the Earth’s resources or deprive future generations in order to feed our economy and satisfy our ravenous desires.
While the destruction and devastation to the planet caused by human consumptive demands is becoming more apparent, the human impact is often overlooked. Through a measuring tool called Global Footprint, we are now able to assess the impact of our lifestyles upon the Earth. It is a complex process, but a simple formula. At present, there are approximately 6.7 billion humans alive on Earth. If we divide the planet evenly so that each of us receives a fair-share, every person would be entitled to 6.5 acres. From that 6.5 acres each of us would have to find the wherewithal to cultivate our food, the materials to construct our homes, make our furniture, produce our clothes, manufacture our appliances and turn out our gadgets. 6.5 acres would be our fair-share.
How many acres does it take to support the lifestyle of your country? If you live in Tanzania, it is 2.6 acres, while the number of acres to support the lifestyle of the average person in Congo is 1.3 acres. Iraq takes 3.3 acres; Saudi Arabia demands 6.5 acres. The average Chilean needs 7.4 acres to sustain their lifestyle; India 2.2 acres; Japan 12.1 acres; Germany 10.4 acres; Ireland 15.5 acres; and Canada 17.5 acres. In the United States of America it takes a staggering 23.3 acres to support our lifestyle.
Regardless of our personal habits of consumption, anyone living in the United States benefits from the infrastructures, conveniences, food choices, travel options, and medical advantages of a standard of living that demands 23.3 acres of the Earth. If our fair-share is 6.5 acres of the Earth’s resources, that means others must do with less so we can maintain our way of life. This disparity gives an entirely new meaning to the Biblical admonition: thou shalt not steal!
Some suggest justice necessitates that we strive to raise all nations to our standard of living. However, that is impossible given the limitations of this planet. Estimates indicate that it would take four or five Earths to accomplish that elevation in lifestyles. By simply looking around one quickly becomes aware that there are not another four Earth-like planets anywhere in site.
The Gospel parable and the season of Lent encourage us to assess our consumptive habits and begin experimenting with voluntary simplicity. It is a choice to live simply so that others may simply live.
Fr. Joe Mitchell, CP is the director of the Passionist Earth & Spirit Center in Louisville, KY.
See his website: earthandspiritcenter.org