I think I have a new favorite verse in the bible. It comes from today’s Old Testament lesson (Jeremiah 22:13-23): “Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar?” I’ve known that Jeremiah has a sharp tongue, but this isn’t a verse that I had previously committed to memory. In so many ways, it sums up my experience of contemporary society.
Like many others, I have fallen into the trap of materialism. It’s hard not to—we live, as Madonna put it, in a material world. I’m not ready to concede that money is what makes the world go around, but it’s pretty close. Although this verse is actually directed at the King of Judah, what I love about it is that it stings me like salt in a fresh wound. “Who do you think you are? Do you think you are royalty because you compete in material possessions?”
I don’t have any cedar in my house that I know of…well, except for a few shoe trees. And I certainly don’t have the sort of house or car or other possessions that are the envy of the world. But I do have that attitude which says, “Look at me. I deserve this. This makes me special.” Where does that come from? Who do I think I am? Why am I insistent on looking at my life and comparing it with the lives of others?
This verse from Jeremiah smacks me with three things: pretense, competition, and possessions. The material world draws us in with the fancy lure of being someone we’re not. “Do you think you are a king…?” We may not fool ourselves into thinking we’re royalty, but we do overstate our own worth (not just in the financial sense). As I heard from the pulpit a few weeks ago, more and more of us think we’re “very important people.” Actually, we’re just people. But the real fun of it—that which really drives a desire to accumulate wealth—is competition, and this verse get that. “Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar?” It’s a competition. It’s a race to see who can end up with the most stuff when he dies.
The power of this verse isn’t in its ability to speak not only to those consumed by the love of money but also to the rest of us—those who are only slightly tainted (is there such a thing?) by an over-attachment to the material world. I’m not a Bill Gates. I’m not a Ke$ha. I’m not even your average income in our parish. But I’m still competing. I might be in the minor leagues of mammon, but I’m still playing the game. Although on a smaller scale, I’m still buying into the contemporary phenomenon that says you can be (need to be) someone you’re not through an expression of your possessions. I might not have as much money to buy in to the game, but I’m playing it. Are you?