Vanity of Vanities

18th Sunday of Ordinary Time

    Recent studies of violent youth gangs in our country reveal that a vast majority of these youths come from homes where one parent, usually the father, is permanently absent. The young members in these gangs often stated that what drew them to the gang in the first place was the affection and love they received from gang leaders and other members, something they did not receive in their homes. In other words they gravitated to these gangs because they were quite literally starving for love, and in these strange and violent communities they often found what they were looking for and did not find in their homes.

    In an unfortunate way, these young people are simply confirming what Pope John Paul II said to our world in his exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio that man’s greatest need in this world is for love. Without love man, he wrote, man cannot survive as man, and these young people are in their own way reaching out for the love without which their life is not worth living. When man sets his heart on things, on possessions rather than on love, he finds himself in a truly unbearable, inhuman situation.

    What Pope John Paul was saying to our world about the supreme importance of love when it comes to the human person is what the whole Christian tradition has believed, based upon the life and teaching of Jesus the Lord. It was repeated most recently by Pope Francis to the youth at World Youth Day in Brazil.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us the parable of the rich man who thinks he can assure his future happiness by simply acquiring more earthly goods so he can “eat heartily and drink well and enjoy himself.” But in God’s eyes such a man who spends his short life growing rich for himself, rather than growing rich in the sight of God, is a fool – “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you.” That judgment of God is echoed in today’s first reading from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?” (Ecc. 1:2-3) Yes, foolish and vane is the laborer who uses up his whole life to acquire the goods of this world, which in the end he cannot take with him, but must leave to others who have not wasted their lives in acquiring these goods. Is not the prophet Qoheleth, the Preacher, correct in this assessment of the worldly man? Is not Jesus correct in his parable?

    Of course, what Jesus is teaching is not that a man is a fool for laboring in this world to have a decent standard of living for his family, nor that a man is a fool for leaving his children an inheritance. But what he teaches most emphatically is that a man is a fool if he neglects the eternal goods for the sake of riches in this world, that is, for the sake of acquiring not necessities, but empty riches. Notice in the parable, the man is already rich – “there was a rich man who had a good harvest!” He is rich! He is not condemned for being rich, but for being selfish, for looking at his prosperity simply in terms of providing for his own happiness and enjoyment in this world. It never enters his mind to share his good fortune, even the excess of his wealth, with the less fortunate. No, he only thinks of his own future happiness, his own earthly well-being and security. This self-absorption makes him totally blind to the truth Jesus teaches; that a man’s possessions do not give him life, and thus these earthly goods can never guarantee his future happiness, for his life ultimately depends upon God, not his riches.

    The rich man’s deadly attitude is that he lives only for himself and only for this world. He does not think let alone work for the happiness of the world to come, that is, to grow rich in the sight of God. But what does it mean to grow rich in the sight of God? Who is the rich man in God’s presence? The man who is rich for eternity is the man who possesses not things but God, possesses not things but love, and above all the love of God and neighbor. Jesus teaches this truth in so many places. He tells us to make friends for ourselves in heaven by using the goods of this world to help your poor neighbor, and then you will be rich with their love and more importantly with the love of your and their Father in Heaven. God loves a generous giver.

    The person who lives only for himself and solely for his happiness in this world, is not a person who is rich in love, neither the love others have for him, nor his own capacity to love others. He is a shell of a man, a fool, says Jesus. He is in reality sunk in poverty in terms of his humanity, and he will be poor for all eternity – thou fool this night you will render an account of your life before God. Will your earthly riches that you hoarded for your own pleasure make you rich in God’s sight?

    There are so many ways in which the foolishness of the rich man in the parable can be repeated in our world. How often parents today work so hard to acquire a very affluent living standard, that in the process their children, while rich in the material goods they supply them, are lonely and deprived of their love. Keeping up with the affluent segments of our society can make one like the man in the parable, effectively living for material goods, and having little time or interest in acquiring the goods of eternity, especially the riches of love, that are only acquired by giving, and receiving, not by possessing.

    And then there is the motivation of the rich man in the parable, who thinks he can secure his future through his own hard earned wealth. That too is a very real problem in today’s world. How many people in our society sacrifice the present for the future, the goods of the human person that are free, for the goods that can only be bought with money. How many people today live as though their only happiness is securing a future of material well-being, good eating, drinking and self-enjoyment based upon the goods they are storing up, not in new barns, but in ever new investments and ever larger portfolios!

    Again, there is obviously nothing wrong, and something quite right about exercising prudent planning for the future, but when it so absorbs our present life that we have no time left over for the family and its deeper needs, for our own need for God and His love, and when we are so focused on our own ever-higher standard of living in the future, that we have nothing left-over for the needs of the poor who lack even the necessities of life in our world, what is God thinking about us? Is God thinking “thou fool,” you should be growing rich in love in my sight, then you would be rich forever.

    St Paul repeats much the same teaching in today’s second reading: “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. … Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.” The rule of life for a Christian is straightforward – set your hearts on higher realms than this world … be intent on things above rather than on things of earth. This is the formula for happiness in this world, as it is in eternity. Real happiness in this world is never measured by our earthly possessions, but by the degree to which we are loved and by the quality of our love in return. Possessions are secondary, and can be used for good or evil, for growing in love or growing in selfishness. Seeking our ultimate human happiness in anything else but love is the worst of worldly delusions. God alone teaches us what life is all about, what love is and how to live and how to love. That is why we must keep our hearts set on the higher realms, because it is the place where love is all, where the only riches are the riches of His eternal love, and where happiness is simply another name for God.

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Categories: Homilies

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