THE EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C


Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23

Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11

Luke 12:13-21

I decided to look up the word vanity in my dictionary because I had always thought a better word could be found to put on Qoheleth’s lips for the opening of the reading from Ecclesiastes. What I found was that what I thought was the word’s primary definition, i.e., undue pride in one’s self or appearance, actually was its third meaning.  Qoheleth had it right all along.  Or at least his translators did.  A vanity is something that is vane, empty or useless. That is exactly what Qoheleth is talking about and urging us to recognize in terms of what our hearts’ desires might be.

Perhaps he exaggerates a bit when Qoheleth says, all things are vanity. But when you hear that, his statement certainly gets your attention.  All things are vane, empty and/or useless.  Surely, not all!  From Qoheleth’s starting assumption, all things would qualify as being vane, empty, or useless in the final analysis.  You see, for Qoheleth, a person’s existence came to an end with death.  There was not yet a belief in life after death.  So that is why he would think that all the things with which we preoccupy ourselves in the end come to naught.

From King Midas to Ebeneezer Scrooge to the great Gatsby, our literature is dotted with characters that made the mistake of thinking that wealth was the most important thing to attain in life.  If one were wealthy, one had everything anyone could ever desire and everything else that one might want would follow or could be purchased.  In the materialistic age in which we live there is little that would give us a contrary message.

I am always intrigued with the television commercial that shows people buying this and that with cash and concludes with the statement that for everything else there is MasterCard.  Really?  And when the charges come due, what is the easy spender supposed to do?  Wouldn’t you think that advertisement would ring hollow in the ears of people stung by foreclosures, the ones who had the sorry lesson to learn that just because someone said go for this home that is clearly out of your price range because it could be yours for a minimal down payment and at very low non-fixed interest rate, that would not make that fantasy into reality.  Remember the drop in the market?  The drop in home values?  And the rise of the interest rates?  Home after home went into foreclosure.  And some people lost even the little that they had.  When will people learn that if something is too good to be true, it probably is?  Why didn’t all the people burned in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme pay attention to their first instincts and steer clear of that disaster waiting to happen?  Because Mr. Madoff became the genie in the jug that seemed to say, trust me, it will happen.  Wealth is your wish, isn’t it?  I’ll grant it.

What is the most important thing in your life?  About what does your fantasy life center?  What one thing do you think would make you happy?  Those are really the questions to ponder here as we move toward the gospel reading and listen to what Jesus has to say.  We’re Christians, after all.  We are not like Qoheleth.  We do believe in heaven.

Notice that the one that asks Jesus the question at the beginning of the reading is a person in the crowd, and that he address Jesus as teacher. It is clear that this person is not yet a disciple.  That is what the designation of crowd means and why the person calls Jesus teacher and not Lord. The person in question is clearly impressed with Jesus’ power as a lecturer.  Even the crowds said that this man teaches with authority and not like the scribes.  The person might be contemplating becoming a disciple.  But he is not there yet.  And what follows may or may not help.  All he wants at this point is for the Teacher to help him get from his brother his share of an inheritance.

Jesus calls the person, friend. That would seem to indicate that there have been some previous encounters.  Jesus wastes no time in clearing up erroneous assumptions the person is making.  He is not a judge or arbitrator.  Those are not his areas.  Then with no transition he tries to draw the man to new values and understandings that he must have if he should ever decide to accept Jesus’ invitation to be with him on the way.  Be careful to guard against all greed. Notice: ALL greed.

This is not the first time Jesus has talked about this issue, and he has done it by way of highlighting the importance of poverty in the life of a disciple.  The invitation is always to sell possessions, give to the poor, and then follow.  We know that some people followed Jesus because they thought he would be the source of security in their lives.  There are some today who preach wealth and security coming from acceptance of Jesus in your life.  And they take the line from last Sunday’s gospel as the basis of their assumption: Ask and you will receive. Some so-called mega-churches thrive on that gospel.  I have to confess, that line of preaching has never made much sense to me.  I’ve always heard the promise of the cross if one follows Jesus, the cross that leads to eternal life.

Guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions. I remember many years ago, sitting by a man lying in a hospital bed and I listened to his grief.  Tears flowed down and he made no attempt to wipe them.  He had just received a diagnosis that said his life was drawing to a close.  There wasn’t much time left for him.  But that is not what he was weeping about, at least not directly.  He talked about wasting his life, about being a high-functioning A-personality.  His whole life had been about his work and amassing the fortune that came as a result.  Yes, he had been married.  Yes, he had children, but their relationships were distant and strained.  He knew why, because he had never had time for them.  It was always next year when he might be able to take a vacation and they would be able to do things together.  That next year never arrived.  He missed their games and their other significant moments and all the while told them that he loved them.  He made sure that they went to Mass every Sunday.  That was one thing he could brag about.  But that was about all.

And his wife?  She endured the marriage by finding other people and activities to occupy her life.  She loved and cared for the children and often said that she was representing him at their functions.  Then she always added: You know your father loves you very much. After years of that she stopped and just was present for their important times.  They never divorced.  But, he said, their marriage should have been so much more.  And now, this.  Chilling words came next.  Well, at least they will have an inheritance.

That man was not unlike the man in the parable Jesus then told about the one with the bountiful harvest, so bountiful that his present barns could not hold it all.  It seems laughable to think that one would tear down the existing structures to build larger ones to accommodate the reaping.  But that is what he does and concludes that when all is stored he will have arrived and have nothing more to worry about.  Now I have many good things stored up for many years. Now he can rest, eat, drink, and be merry.  Don’t you wonder whether, if the man in the parable had been successful, after it had all been gathered into the new structures, would even that have been enough?  I wonder if he wouldn’t start fantasizing about next year and the possibility of an even bigger crop.

That’s not an option in the parable, though: You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you. To whom will all you have gathered go then?  And, how is your relationship with God?  That is really what the parable asks.  In the end, what is important is the condition of one’s relationship with God?  What role did faith play in that life?  He might have been too busy to pray.  And there is no indication in the parable that the man thought about sharing his wealth with others.

I was impressed by a discussion with Bill Gates, Jr. I was privileged to hear.  One of the riches men in the world talked about his mother and how much of her life was taken up with philanthropy.  On the day of his wedding his mother told him and his new wife, Melinda, that the important thing wasn’t how wealthy they became, but what they did with their wealth to ease the sufferings of the poor.  Gates’ mother died of cancer a few months later.  But he never forgot what she had told him.  It is amazing the difference the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is making in this country and in African nations.  Then I read that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, another wealthy billionaire, together have started a campaign to urge other billionaires to give a good portion of their billions to charity.  And several of them apparently have committed themselves to doing that.

You may not be a billionaire or even consider yourself wealthy.  In terms of the vast numbers of the impoverished in the world, you and I are.  I try not to whine about what I do not have and rejoice in what I do.  The next step is to determine what I want to do with what I have.  Dare we ask God what God would have us do with what we have?

We must listen to Paul’s words in the second reading: Brothers and sisters, if you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Don’t you pray that there is some tangible evidence that that is what you are doing?  I know that I do.  And I will pray more about this.  Will you?

Don’t be afraid.  The Lord is with you, after all.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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