Sunday, August 4, 2019

Rich for What?

“Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.”

An old story – a family conflict over inheritance, something we’ve all seen happen too many times. What better advertisement for Jesus’ famous advice to give everything away – now!

Perhaps that someone in the crowd who wanted Jesus to take his side in his family’s quarrel may well have had a good case. Who knows? That’s a concern for a lawyer – a role Jesus refused to play. “Friend,” Jesus replied, “who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?”

Jesus looked beyond the immediate case at hand – to the bigger problem of what wealth (and our obsessive preoccupation with wealth) does to us. So Jesus warned: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Even so, so much of our lives and how we have structured our society send the opposite message. Ours is what Pope Francis, in his agenda-setting encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, called an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills, while we for our part calmly accept [money’s] dominion over ourselves and our societies [Evangelii Gaudium, 53, 55].

The problem with that, as we all know of course, is that things actually are important. Having at least some things – sufficient food, some sort of shelter – having at least some things really is important, if we just want to survive. And having more things, while maybe not quite so necessary, certainly seems to make life a lot better – or at least a lot easier. Jesus didn’t deny that, but (like Qoheleth, the teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes) Jesus understood how limited – and limiting – wealth’s benefits can be. For time too is limited. When we’ve only a limited amount of time, the length of which we cannot know for certain, what we do with that time, how we choose to live, the objectives we pursue, the priorities we express in the way we choose to live, these become the important questions – questions that concern who we really are, regardless of what or how much we have.

Greed (which Saint Paul equated with idolatry) - and its equally corrupting cousin envy – can totally take over a person, leading to a seemingly obsessive but quite common need to compare oneself with others and a compulsive desire to acquire and acquire and acquire. There’s always that bigger house, or cooler car, or the latest model phone, or whatever! To quote Pope Francis again: The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us [Evangelii Gaudium, 54].

And yet it’s still always a race against time – a race one can only lose.

“You fool,” Jesus says, “the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?”

Life is like a race someone else always wins. Even the inheritors will lose the race in the end. Either it is all (as Qoheleth warned) maybe just one long meaningless vanity. Or it has some purpose beyond its apparent end. But, if so, what we get to take with us will not be what we have (or, rather, at that point, what we had), but rather who we are, who we have become by the way we have chosen to live.

As Christians, our lives are shaped by the reality of the risen Christ, who is already (Saint Paul tells us) seated at the right hand of God. Shaped by and focused on that reality, we can begin to look at our lives, already here and now, with a perspective that the greedy man in the parable obviously lacked – not just a resigned fatalistic acceptance of life’s limits, like what we heard from Qoheleth, but a freedom to face life frankly and live it fully, with all its challenges and disappointments, based not on what we have, but on who we can become in Christ.

Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church Knoxville TN, August 4, 2018.

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