Eighteenth Sunday of the Year – August 1, 1971 – CNR
More than the other three, Luke’s Gospel displays something like what today would be called a “social consciousness,” a concern to make the Gospel relevant to concrete social issues. You may recall how he presents the teaching of John the Baptist: John is not only the prophet of judgement; he also gives specific practical advice to those who come to him: Do an honest day’s work. Do not cheat your workers. Etc. The poor have an especial place in Luke’s vision. Mary’s Magnificat is a poor person’s praise of God for looking on her lowly self: “The hungry he has satisfied with good things, the rich sent empty away.” Luke is the only evangelist to tell the story of Lazarus and the rich man who ignored the starving man at his gate. And in today’s reading, which comes just before the words of Jesus about the carefree birds of the air and lilies of the field, Luke tells a parable of a man whose whole life was his riches, and his whole concern his greed.
The lesson drawn is simple: “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” This judgement neatly isolates the real threat that comes from wealth, that a man should cease to locate the genuine criteria of human life and success in matters of character and service and should start to find them in the much more “objective” and accountable terms of dollars and cents. Risky as it may be, conducting one’s life in such terms still gives much more security than the enduringly precarious business of creating an authentic self and history. It is for all of us to note the traces of the temptation in ourselves, even if we are devoted to poverty, for there are many kinds of “possessions.”
I’d like to suggest that we also expand the vision of the parable out from merely personal and individual considerations to include a judgement on our own affluent society. I did some work during the iast year on the theology of development and liberation. Normally, the “underdeveloped” nations are considered those of the southern hemisphere, the Third World, in contrast to the highly developed areas of North America, Europe, and Russia. But it has been suggested by a number of observers, that there are many kinds of development, and that the easy assumption that we are the developed nations may reflect the very criterion Jesus rejects, that “a man’s life consists in the abundance of his possessions.” That is one of the reasons why a number of Latin American thinkers are rejecting North American models of development: they don’t want human life and dignity defined in terms of material wealth.
The problems involved in all this are numerous, immense, and complex, but it is surely necessary that we at least make Christian moral judgements on a larger scale than we are normally accustomed to. I do not think that the Gospel is going to give direct insight into the social, political and economic policies that can remove social injustices from the world; but surely it can prevent us from being easily content with a state of affairs in which one-third of the world lives in unequalled material comfort and abundance, while the other two-thirds struggle just to survive from day to day. The absurdity of the situation is typified for me by newspaper photographs of wheat piled in streets or rotting in silos, or of farmers plowing lettuce under because of a railroad strike. I don’t know how these things can be changed; but that they should be changed is surely certain. And it should be one of our central Christian concerns that our society have its vision of man ennobled, its values purified, and the scope of its moral interest expanded to include the poor and hungry of every land and place.
18th Sunday of the Year – August 5, 2001 – Blessed Sacrament
In our second reading today we have heard a passage that can help us to think through some basic dimensions of our Christian lives, and particularly the relationship between our identity and our mission in the world.
Paul speaks of our taking off our old self with its practices and our putting on a new self in the image of our creator. He is clearly alluding here to the ceremony at which his readers were baptized, most of them as adults, when they would have taken off their old clothes as they descended into the baptismal pool and then put on new white clothes as they came up from it. The changing of the clothes symbolized the changing of identities and the changing of practices: the immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, and lying. Put these to death, Paul says–keep on renewing your baptism.
But he doesn’t think of this transformation of identity, this putting off of one self and donning of a new self, simply in moralizing terms. There are deeper dimensions to baptism: “You have died,” he says, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God… If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above.” The transformation of baptism is participation in the death and resurrection of Christ: the going down into the water and being buried there was participation in Christ’s death–“You have died,” he says–and the coming up was participation in his resurrection–“You were raised with Christ.” There is a level of our Christian identity that involves a mystical unity with Christ, whose death and resurrection were not merely events in the life of that one individual but the source also of the transfigured identity of all those who have come to believe in him. We are at the core of Christian identity here–with a reference to Jesus Christ that is more than historical memory; he lives with God and that is where we live also, now that we have put on a new self in the image of God.
You can’t get much more spiritual and theological in your understanding of Christian identity. But the last words of today’s reading show that to focus on this core identity is not to go off into some private realm of religious exclusivism. “There”–in God, in Christ, in the Church–Paul says, “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all in all.” Those differences existed in the ancient world, as similar differences exist today–national and ethnic differences, ritual differences, economic differences, class distinctions–but these did not matter when people came to Christ and went down into his death and rose up into his resurrection. Jews and Greeks, barbarians, even Scythians–those whom the barbarians thought were barbarians–all were welcome, all became one in Christ. And it was a phenomenon noted for its novelty as Christianity began to spread: there had appeared a “new race”, a new kind of people, among whom the old distinctions, rivalries, enmities no longer mattered.
You can see, then, how the most intense kind of concentration on our specific Christian identity–our identification with Christ and his death and resurrection–so far from forcing us off into some kind of exclusivism–opens us out into the most Catholic welcome and embrace possible. And if the people are correct who predict that in the coming decades the greatest threat to civil, national and international peace and stability will come from a revival of nationalism and ethnocentrism, then one finds in this catholicity of welcome something which the Church has to offer to our country and our world. And it is supposed to offer it, not simply because we are a worldwide communion in Christ, but because everyone of our assemblies, gatherings, including this one, are catholic, redemptively integrating mankind’s wonderful variety into a new fellowship, a new communion. What we can bring to the world derives from what, by God’s mercy, we are in Christ.
18TH Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 1, 2004 – Blessed Sacrament
To prepare us for the Gospel reading, the liturgy offers us a brief passage from the most world-weary book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth. The unknown author of this work, written perhaps 250 years before Christ, has seen everything about human life; he has heard the preachers and not been persuaded; he has watched people in everyday life finding meaning in work and profit, and not been impressed. “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities. All things are vanity,” says Qoheleth. Nothingness of nothingness, uselessness of uselessness. Everything is emptiness.” It will be a comfort for anyone who has ever suffered from depression to know that this book is part of the Bible. Even the depressed, after all, can utter words of wisdom. I had an aunt who suffered from depression and on her deathbed she said to one of my young nieces: “Oh Dana, when you come into the world, you don’t know anything, and when you leave the world, you don’t know anything, so in between you have to try to learn something.”
It is part of the wisdom-tradition in ancient Israel, one of the works in which little proverbial nuggets are offered for the guidance of human beings on this earth. Jesus’ own words, and his little parable, are in the same tradition and make the same point as Qoheleth. One might even think that it is so obvious as not to need stating. But its truth and its obviousness have not prevented vast numbers of people in every generation from devoting themselves to accumulating possessions, and certainly our generation, in this country, is no exception. Our economy seems to rely on the expectation that people will want more and more wealth in order to buy more and more of this or that or the other thing, and more than a few of us find inordinate comfort both in amassing all those things and in comparing ourselves to others engaged in the same pursuits. Watch an evening of television, both the programs and the advertisements. Can you get much farther from Gospel priorities as to what’s worth while in life, what counts as genuine possessions?
Jesus’ main point is that greed and possessions distract attention and qualify loyalties. Well, yes, Lord, I will follow, but surely you don’t mean I have to give up this or that or that other thing. Can we talk? Is there some compromise possible here? Let’s negotiate here. The possessions are a burden that prevent us from running free; they’re chains that prevent us from even trying. Think of that defining moment in the life of St. Francis of Assisi, son of a well-to-do merchant. One day he hears the Gospel of Jesus’ invitation to the rich young man to sell all and to come follow him, and Francis hears it as directed to himself and does precisely what Jesus required and he became thereby one of the freest people who ever lived.
Now I know that not many of us are tempted at the moment to follow Francis, but if we at all envy Francis his freedom, it might make us pause and at least say to ourselves, Well, look, if Qoheleth, and Jesus, and Francis are saying the same thing, and if, in my heart of hearts, I have to admit that they’re right in saying it, well what should that mean for what I’m doing with my life, with the way I’m devoting my time and energy, with the way I’m treating other people, most especially those I love, with the way I’m dealing with God himself. That at least would be a start. If Qoheleth were a New Yorker, he might be saying to us today: Hey, it couldn’t hurt!
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 5, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
The point of the little parable Jesus tells in the Gospel we have just heard is not a new one in the biblical literature. Our first reading, from the world-weary pen of Qoheleth, is itself an illustration of the folly of placing too much emphasis on the accumulation of wealth. At the end of the day, it is not fulfilling and reveals its emptiness, its vanity. And in the prophetical and wisdom literature elsewhere in the Old Testament we find passages enough to urge the same or similar points.
In the teaching of Jesus, however, wealth often appears as one of the main obstacles in the way of receiving and acting upon the Gospel he has brought and himself embodies. Elsewhere the rich young man, eager to be a disciple, even to be perfect, flinches at the thought of having to surrender everything and goes away sad. (How sad to go away from an encounter with Jesus–sad!) Jesus astonishes his disciples when he speaks of the great difficulty with which the wealthy will enter the Kingdom–so widespread was the belief, now being revived by some evangelical preachers, that wealth is a special sign of God’s favor.
When Jesus refuses to intervene in the dispute between two brothers over their inheritance, he warns against greed, the tendency to identify oneself with one’s possessions. In our second reading, St. Paul speaks of greed as “idolatry.” Possessions, he is saying, can be the god we really serve. It’s a functional definition: tell me what or who it is to which you devote most of your time and energy, and I’ll tell you who or what your god is.
This is a difficult lesson, I think, for many people in this city, which places such a premium on wealth and power, for which success is largely measured by those two criteria. The point Jesus is urging on us today is that our possessions can wind up possessing us, that our desire for power can enslave us, that we can become deaf to the call of the Gospel, which always asks for a total response to it, while we always want to keep something back, because we have identified ourselves with some possession, some title of power.
None of us has a right to determine in advance what we will permit God to ask of us, but for each of us probably there is some thing or some one that we would like to hold back from God. We have to remember that if God asks much, or even all, from us, it is only in order to give something more, something greater. St. Augustine had a great image: in order to receive what God wishes to give, you have to empty your hands of what they are holding. We can’t go before God with our hands full. If we do, he cannot give us what he wishes to give. Last week I quoted part of another comment of St. Augustine. In full, what he said applies to today’s Gospel too: “God is more willing to give than we are to receive, he is more willing to show us mercy than we are to be freed of our miseries.” Today’s Gospel asks that we open our hands and our hearts to let God show us where true wealth lies.
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 1, 2010 – St. John’s Goshen
All three of today’s biblical readings warn us against greed and against placing the meaning and the value of our lives in our possessions. The first reading is from the book of Ecclesiastes in which we hear another one of the gloomy assessments of the world-weary man named Qoheleth. (Today we would probably say that he suffers from depression!) “Vanity of vanities,” he sighs, “Emptiness of emptiness!” “Nothing is worth anything,” “Everything is useless,” we might paraphrase. A man labors all his life to gain possessions, but then has to leave it to someone who’s never worked. Perhaps our example today would be the man who works and works to accumulate as much pension as he can, and then dies a week after he retires. And then there’s all the worry that comes from possessions, worrying about thieves and other problems. (Qoheleth is lucky he didn’t know about stock market fluctuations!) All this is the somewhat jaded common sense that comes from long observation of the human comedy.
With our second reading things get more serious. Greed is the last on St. Paul’s list of “earthly things” that we are supposed to “put to death” because we have died and been raised with Christ–“immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire.” Greed is last but probably not least, because Paul calls it “idolatry,” worship of a false god. As one scholar puts it, Christians are not to make Gain their god. But are there not many people who do that? People who devote their lives to the accumulation of wealth, of things, with a passion, a dedication, an expenditure of time and energy that religious people would find it difficult to match in their devotion to God. St. Paul reminds the Colossians that they have died with Christ and been raised with him and are already living with him, and now they must show this by dying to a way of life centered upon self to one that is dedicated in love for the things of God.
Finally, there is the Gospel reading of the day. Jesus begins by urging us: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” He then tells a parable aimed at those “who store up treasure for themselves, but are not rich in what matters to God.” Simple sayings, we might think, reinforcing the point of our first reading. The parable also is a simple one: a landowner has such a fruitful land that he needs bigger barns and builds them, and then settles down in expectation of a life of luxury and ease, only, like our exhausted retiree, to have his life end before he can enjoy it.
But in our tradition more was read into the story. The man was not criticized by Jesus, so the Fathers and medieval authors thought, because he cultivated the field and enjoyed its abundant harvest. He was criticized, they felt, because he kept his wealth for himself in ever bigger barns when he could have shared it with others and not have needed the bigger barns. If God gave you more than you need, they said, it was so that you could share it with those who do not have even the necessities of life. Why else would God make one person wealthy and another poor? Here is a paragraph from St. Basil the Great, addressed to people like the man in the parable:
But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose that you are doing nothing wrong when you cheat so many people? Who is a greedy man? Someone who is not content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes what belongs to others. And are you not a greedy man, are you not a cheater, when you take the things you received for the sake of distributing them and make them your own? If someone stripped a clothed man naked, we would call him a robber. Well does not the same name fit anybody who fails to clothe the naked when he is able to do so? The bread you are hoarding belongs to the hungry; the coat you keep in your closet belongs to the naked; the shoes moldering in your closet belong to the shoeless; the silver you hide in a safe place belongs to the needy.
You may have heard an echo of that powerful sentence in a more recent figure. Peter Maurin, along with Dorothy Day the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, echoed St. Basil when he said: “The coat that hangs in your closet belongs to the poor.” A Catholic Worker website in London speaks of their “houses of hospitality” as “centers for learning to do the acts of love, so that the poor can receive what is, in justice, theirs, the second coat in our closet, the spare room in our home, a place at our table. Anything beyond what we immediately need belongs to those who go without.”
What a challenge this poses to us in our American culture! I am probably not talking to many millionaires in this congregation, but I am talking to people whose lives are far more comfortable and secure than those of hundreds of millions of people in the world today. We are living in a society where conspicuous consumption still gets all the attention, where the advertising industry exists to convince us to buy things we don’t need. A story in the local paper last week told of a U.S. Senator who owns a 7 million dollar yacht. Chelsea Clinton’s wedding is said to have cost millions of dollars. The average wedding in the U.S. costs between $20,000 and $30,000. A Christmas or two ago I went into a huge Best Buy store and remarked to my brother that no one really needed about 90% of what was on sale. How many of the gifts we give, and get, at Christmas are things people really need? And I would be willing to bet that most of us–including myself–have more than one coat, more than one pair of shoes, in our closets.
Of course, if everyone followed St. Basil’s advice immediately, the worldwide economy would probably collapse into an even deeper recession. Still, isn’t there much more that we could do than we are doing? We could start by keeping in mind the distinction between things necessary for life and superfluous things. Maybe we should all go home and go through our closets and drawers and bring what we really don’t need–or can’t fit into!–to local charities. Couldn’t we at least consider making our lives simpler? Many people have decided to let care for the environment determine how they will spend their money, what sorts of things they will buy. Could we not let care for the needy enter into our decisions about such matters? Maybe we could decide that every time we buy something we don’t really need, we’ll give an equal amount to the poor. Or perhaps we could revive the old biblical requirement of tithing, that is, giving 10% of our income to God. Could that not be a guide? A commitment to give 10% every year to the poor and needy? St. John Chrysostom had a good rule, I think. “It is not required that you give a lot, but that you not give too little, given what you possess.”
St. John also had a fine phrase when he spoke of how God had created the things needed for human life–air and water and land–and made them common possessions. They were ours, he said, until the day came when people began to use “those cold words ‘mine’ and ‘thine.’” That’s when rivalry and competition arose. “Mine” and “yours” are cold words, he said, words that cause the warm affection that should exist among human beings to turn cold. The man in the parable lived in a very frigid world. We don’t have to join him there.