Scripture Readings: Book of Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23; Letter to the Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Gospel According to Saint Luke 12:13-21
This Sunday’s Scripture readings provide us with another opportunity to reflect on the fact that “you can’t take it with you,” when one leaves this life. There is certainly purpose and value in our human life, so that is not the point, as if we should despise our existence from birth to death.
Rather, we believe that life has great value and is sacred from the moment of conception to natural death, and how we live is vital to how we will spend eternity. Of course, such a theme is not popular in our present culture, even among believers, who can also get caught up in the whirlwind of acquisition of goods and material pursuits, who may be pro-abortion and/or pro-euthanasia, for example. However, these are ways not in accord with Scripture or Church teaching.
The Apostle Saint Paul teaches that following Christ is all about being strangers to sin and risen to a new life in which there are no barriers to God working powerfully in human lives. “Set your heart on what pertains to higher realms where Christ is seated at God’s right hand. Be intent on things above rather than on things of earth,” says Saint Paul.
Even in this life, we might ask? Yes, and Saint Paul goes on to say, “Your life is hidden now with Christ in God.” Does that sound more like a teaching for monks? They are included, but Saint Paul certainly is addressing each and every follower of Christ, monk or not.
The Gospel text this Sunday is a teaching of Jesus about the dangers of material gain and worldly pursuits, which often results in covetousness, defined as grasping and hoarding for its own sake.
Instead of such path, the Lord outlines an ideal of poverty and simplicity in imitation of Christ. Is this intended more for Franciscan friars and other like-minded souls? In fact the teaching of Jesus is directed to all, friar or not.
How each hearer of God’s word is to put the teaching into practice will vary from person to person, vocation to vocation, but the reality that life is short and that no U-Haul trailers are to be seen in cemeteries must always be borne in mind. Someone will have to clean out our rooms or homes, garages or self-storage sheds when we die.
To what will the acquisition of goods amount to in the end? Something along the lines of what the Book of Ecclesiastes describes this morning: “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” In other words, life consists in more than wealth, despite what the prevailing culture teaches.
Such words sound harsh but are not meant to discourage or distress us. Instead, they are a wake-up call to put things in perspective and set priorities straight. Do we labor for what has no value or in order to stay healthy, as best we can, and assist those less fortunate? We must examine our conscience to see how we fare, discern any needed changes in our lifestyle and values, and then go to work to make the needed changes.
Again, this is not so much about scolding oneself or “beating oneself up,” as we say today, but of setting our hearts on God’s path and making informed decisions that flow from a commitment to hearing and heeding God’s call each day, attentive to God’s Law and the teachings of the Church. Those who follow Christ are called to do this.
In the Bible a fool is one who for all practical purposes denies the existence of God. “The fool has said in his heart, there is no God above,” is the opening line of Psalm 14, for example, written a thousand years before the birth of Christ. For many, wealth or pursuit of pleasure (which normally requires wealth) becomes one’s god.
The final and vital question becomes, as found in the Gospel this Sunday: “To whom will all this piled-up wealth of yours go?” Maybe to a good cause, but how has it shaped the life of the one who is leaving it? This is the crucial question the Lord wishes to address to his hearers and to each of us.
The spiritual journey which we are on, as monks or not, is about enriching oneself before God, laying up treasure in heaven rather than on earth. Saint Paul’s first letter to Timothy presents the notion this way:
“As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life” (First Letter of Saint Paul to Timothy, chapter 6, verse 17).
Live by this teaching and all shall be well, as the medieval English mystic Saint Julian of Norwich would express it. That doesn’t mean a life free of trial, suffering and death, but a life on fire for the things of God, so that even in trial we will not be crushed or thrown off balance, but secure in knowing that Christ is with us and if so, then nothing and no one can be against us.
What more need be said?
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB