18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you;
and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’
Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves
but are not rich in what matters to God.”
How often have we heard or read the same old story in the news. A man works himself so hard to acquire more and more earthly riches, and suddenly he dies in an accident or from a heart attack or other disease. Then all his accumulated wealth goes to another who has not worked at all to acquire those riches, perhaps a worthless offspring who has never held a job, or perhaps even the state in rare instances when the person has no living relatives. “Vanity of vanities” is always what comes to my mind; as in today’s first reading where Qoheleth says “and yet to another who has not labored over it, he must leave property. This also is vanity and a great misfortune.” Indeed, but how many have ever read or heard that passage in the Bible?
How often Our Lord echoed that wise teaching from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes. Such wisdom is not easily learned apart from the Scriptures, for man is convinced that he is the source of his own wisdom, and this is especially true in our own day. We live in a increasingly godless culture, and men in such cultures readily play the fool when it comes to life in this world. Jesus makes this clear many times.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus echoes the teaching of Ecclesiastes in His parable of the rich man who thinks he can assure his future happiness by simply acquiring more earthly goods so hat he can “eat heartily and drink well and enjoy himself.” But in truth anyone who spends his life, be it short of long, growing rich for himself, rather than growing rich in the sight of God, is truly a fool: “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you.” That judgment of God is really twofold; in this life he is a fool and in the next he is the poorest of the poor, a lost soul.
Qoheleth asks wisely, “What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?” (Ecc. 1:2-3) Of course, he has in mind this foolish man who spends 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 labored in acquiring these goods. The prophet’s vision is simply looking at this from an earthly perspective, but even here, the man is judged to be fool and his labor in vane.
On the other hand, the teaching of Jesus in this parable of the rich man and his barns has a much, much broader vision or perspective. His thought here has to do with the way this world relates to Heaven and the way erthly labor related to man’s final happiness. Obviously, what Jesus is teaching is not that a man is a fool for laboring hard in this world to have a decent standard of living for his family, nor that such a man is a fool for leaving his children an inheritance. On the other hand, what he is teaches us most emphatically is that a man is indeed a fool if he neglects the acquiring of eternal goods for the sake of acquiring greater riches in this world for himself or for his children to inherit. He must work in a proper way to take care of his needs and his family, while not neglecting the acquisition of the greater goods which are eternal.
Nonetheless, Jesus is not condemning the acquisition and possession of riches as such, but He is warning here and elsewhere that how we go about this acquiring and how we make use these riches is a matter affecting one’s salvation. Notice in the parable, the man is already rich – “there was a rich man who had a good harvest!” He is already rich! Yet he is not condemned here for being rich, but for being selfish and avaricious, for looking at his prosperity simply in terms of providing for his own happiness and enjoyment in this world, without any reference to the life beyond 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, and only thinks of this in terms of his own earthly well-being and security. This self-absorption and avarice makes him totally blind to the truth that Jesus teaches in the Gospel, that “one’s life does not consist of possessions” and by inference that earthly possessions cannot give us the life and happiness that never ends. The truth about man is that his life, whether we are speaking about lifer in this world or supernatural life is always a pure gift from God. In the end, you cannot purchase either with earthly riches.
The rich man’s attitude toward work and wealth truly deadly. He never thinks about the fuller purpose of man’s labor and the true meaning of man’s wealth which have to be seen from the perspective of man’s final happiness, not just happiness in this world which is always passing. Thus he never labors in relation to or for the happiness of the world to come, that is, he never works in such a way as to grow truly rich, with wealth that cannot be lost or taken away by death . 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 may things but God, possesses not many things but great love, and above all the love of God. Jesus teaches this truth in so many places, including how to use earthly wealth to grow rich in Heaven. For instance, He tells us to make future friends for ourselves in Heaven by using the goods of this world to help the poor neighbor, for then one becomes truly rich when these poor intercede for us before God and God rewards one’s earthly generosity with much greater goods.
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, nor in His love for God. 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 modern parallel to 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 one’s family and its deeper needs, for our own need for God and His love, and when we are so focused on maintaining our 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 and for 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 Himself and His eternal love.
This whole lesson was driven home for me this week when I read about the poor priest in France who was murdered by Islamic terrorists. He was a poor man who chose to give that little town a priest for many years after he could have retired. But he was rich in love for Christ and for His people. He died a martyr, unlike his murders, and his life was enriched far beyond the great reward for his daily labors. For when Christ our life appears, he will “appear with Him in glory,” as Paul says. Who can be richer than that?