Sunday of Week 18 of Ordinary Time

Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2,2:21-23; Colossians 3:1-5.9-11; Luke 12:13-21

Our attitude to material things is the subject of today’s readings. It is about the things that we really regard important in our lives. They also suggest that what we ARE is of far greater importance than what we HAVE.

The Gospel begins by introducing a man who wants Jesus to act as a mediator in a property dispute. “Master, tell my brother to give me a share of our inheritance.” It was quite common to bring such disputes to a rabbi to be solved. But Jesus has no interest whatever in dealing with this problem because it represents a point of view that is totally at variance with his own. Instead, Jesus gives a warning: “Be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for a person’s life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs.”

It is possible that the man making the request was actually one of Jesus’ followers. In which case, he needs to learn very quickly that such problems have nothing whatever to do with the following of Jesus, with being a Christian.

A different agenda
It was quite irrelevant for Jesus that the man should get a fair share of an inheritance, especially if the man can satisfy his daily needs without it. This, of course, is not the way “normal” people think. They would be prepared to hire lawyers and go through expensive court cases in order to get money that they believed was due to them, whether they needed it or not. We have frequently seen families torn apart in bitter disputes over the allocation of moneys.

So many dream some day of being rich, to be able to buy all the things they would love to have, to be able to travel, to have no worries. There is a belief, which we see contradicted every single day, that once we have financial security, all our problems will be solved: housing, children’s education, cars and other desirable luxuries, retirement and old age. Wealth, it is believed, is a sign of “success” though it is not quite clear where the “success” really lies. It also brings “respect” and “status”. To drive up in a luxury car to a big hotel or exclusive club, hand the keys over to a hotel attendant, sit down at an expensive dinner table and knowingly peruse the wine list and, while waiting for the dinner to be served, make a few calls on the mobile phone, get nods of recognition from other successful people who can also afford to dine at this place…and so on.

Quite honestly, for many of us Christians these priorities often take precedence over our following of Christ. Sincere young people want to establish their careers first – and, once set up, then maybe consider being a “good” Catholic.

Another approach
Today’s readings ask us to consider another approach altogether. It is important to emphasise that Jesus is not saying, “You must give up all these things and lead a life of bleak misery for my sake.” On the contrary, Jesus is offering a much more secure way to happiness and a life of real enjoyment rather than the way that most people insist on believing in even though it is seen to fail again and again. Against the greed that obsesses many people Jesus, offers an opposite alternative to security and happiness – sharing.

How many can identify with the rich man in the parable that Jesus tells today? In his own eyes, this man had been really “successful”. He had just made a “killing” not on the stock exchange but in a particularly good harvest. It was so good he would have to pull down his barns and build even bigger ones. And then he could sit back and say to himself. “My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time.” He had worked very hard all these years and this was what he deserved.

It is worth observing, however, that no other people are mentioned in the story. He himself was the absolute centre of everything – nothing else mattered, no one else mattered. The world and all its goods were there purely and simply for him to take hold of and keep for himself. And now there was nothing else to do but to enjoy it all.

“Fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?”

“How much did he leave?” someone asked of a trillionaire who had just died. “Every cent,” was the answer. Or as Ecclesiastes today puts it: “Vanity of vanities!… A man who has laboured wisely, skilfully and successfully must leave what is his own to someone who has not toiled for it at all…What of all his laborious days, his cares of office, his restless nights?”

“So it is,” continues Jesus, “when a man stores up treasure for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God.” Jesus is not opposed to being prosperous, if there is no inequality, but he suggests that true and enduring wealth lies elsewhere. The rich and the poor both share the same common fate – they die. But to whom much was given, much is expected.

A better alternative
We get some hints of a better alternative in the Second Reading, which is from the Letter to the Colossians. “You must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is…Let your thought be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on the earth…” Not very practical advice, I hear you saying. But Paul is not telling us to close our eyes to mundane realities and, hoping for the best, keep looking heavenwards. Rather he is urging us to identify our understanding of life, our values, with those of God, which have been communicated to us by the life and words of Jesus.

“You must kill everything in you that belongs only to an earthly (that is, a God-less, materialistic mentality),” Paul says. And then he goes on to list some “earthly” activities: degradation of women (fornication), abuse of our sexuality (impurity), self-indulgent desires (guilty passion), evil ambitions (it doesn’t matter what you do as long as it makes money) and, especially, greed “which is the same thing as worshipping a false god”. And finally, lying, which can take many forms as it includes every kind of deceit, pretending to be what we are not, denying the truth in ourselves and in the world around us.

In following Christ’s way, we are to “strip off old behaviour and the old self”. In Christ, we have put on a new self, which shares the same vision of life and the same value system and the same goals as those that Jesus proposes. It involves “progress towards true knowledge”, a knowledge that is not found in university courses but in a deep insight and understanding of what life is really about. It involves being ever more “renewed in the image of the creator”, of whom Jesus is the perfect model. To grow more and more like Jesus is to grow more and more into the image of God, by whom and for whom we were created.

In the kind of society that is the Kingdom, we do not need the security of an inheritance or winning the lottery. Our security comes from being part of a loving and caring community taking care of each member’s needs. But even in the Church, which is the visible sign of that Kingdom, this kind of society, with some exceptions, has not yet been put in place. We still tend to believe that, if we do not look after No. 1, no one else will.

The society that is the Kingdom involves a life of total immersion in and involvement with other people and our environment. The old divisions which are the curse of so much living must fall away. “There is no room for distinction between Greek and Jew, Chinese, European, Filipino or Vietnamese; between the circumcised and the uncircumcised, between Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists; between barbarian and Scythian, slave and free…there is only one Christ – he is everything and he is in everything.”

Here is where that security that people long for lies. Real security is not in the future. Genuine security is in the here and now. And it is this security that is the real wealth we dream of. Material plenty by itself does not guarantee it. This security is there for the asking but most of us cannot see. “Lord, that we may see.”

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