18th Sunday in Ordinary Time- C
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21–23
Colossians 3:1–5, 9–11
“Vanity of vanities,” says the preacher, “vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” Its another way of saying point blankly, things are fleeting, fleeting, fleeting. All is passing. Jesus says: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though you may be rich, your life does not consist of possessions. Tonight your life will come to an end and everything you have, whose will it be?”
The Preacher and Jesus, especially, make it clear that it is possible to get side-tracked on the way. Instead of focusing on the goal of the journey, instead of looking where Christ is, as Paul suggests to the Colossians, we forget the vision of God who holds all things together and is the source of all life. To forget the one into whose image we are being transformed means that we make up our own images; we create our own idols, as Paul says. If we forget the origin of our life and the goal of our life, we become ridden with anxiety. One consequence of that is to start grabbing at anything. And then to keep on grabbing at what we think to give meaning to our life.
Wisdom and common sense tell us to plan ahead of we want to save ourselves some grief. Preparation is an important part of life. On the other hand, wisdom tells us that death is the great leveling factor. Jesus parable makes that very clear. And we are fools if we think our great preparations are going to save us in the end. We are fools if we think we can somehow or other live without death or hold it off at our will till we enjoy what we have grabbed at.
It is clear especially in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus is hard on acquiring material goods. This is not because material reality is sinful or evil. Not at all. What is at stake here is the relationship between material goods, the wonderful harvest of the man in the parable, and the one who claims to posses it. Possession of material things can never become the sole activity and reason for our existence if we wish to remain true to the fundamental relationships God has inaugurated in the world and human society.
Within humanity’s desire to own things is a search for identity. We need things in order to live; they are an aid to becoming human. It is the development of the human person that remains the ultimate goal. The goods of the world are to serve that goal. To hoard the world’s goods is an indication that one has shifted from acknowledging the true course of one’s very being. It also prevents others from growing into their full humanity.
What Jesus teaches in the little parable today is that it is possible for us humans to shift our values around. Instead of being served in our formation process by the good things of the earth, we end up serving them. Possessions can posses us. We can all too easily opt into a value system that claims that the constant acquiring of new and many material goods in any form is the sole criteria that guides our choices. The parable serves to illustrate that such a way of living in the world, such a way of making the human journey is really a commitment to emptiness, to vanity of vanities, as Qoheleth says. What we perceive as making us permanently happy is really from another view point, quite fleeting, quite passing.
The Kingdom is not a matter of acquiring let alone let alone hoarding. It is not about more and having more. The Greek word for greed is pleonexia; it translates simply “having more.” That is not the goal of human life in the Kingdom. Isn’t it rather a matter of living with, of joining what we find around us? Isn’t it a matter of allowing what we discover as we journey, both people and things, to help us in putting on the new self?
If Jesus makes it clear that we are not happy when conforming ourselves to the things and goods of this world, then to what are we to be conformed? From whom are we to receive our identity that will free us from the need to have more, liberate us from the sense of incompleteness? For you and I who gather on the first day of the week that new self, that source of identity is not something we create and not something that we acquire and then store up. Our self, our identity is always a gift. The striking feature of the man in the parable is that he assumed center stage. The language is all about “I.” The harvest was all about him, the building of bigger and more barns was about him. There is no sense of God or neighbor.
The image we strive for us, the new self, is given to us in Christ. And for us to be complete, we must acknowledge our humanity to be given to us through him. Our task is not the gathering up on our terms. As though the more we have the more or better we are. It is more a process of surrendering, of stripping off the old so as to receive from the Father the fullness of who we are. Jesus makes it clear, what we think is ours is not ours. To be a member of the kingdom is not about having and gaining because that having will pass; it is fleeting. Membership in the kingdom is about sharing; it is about welcoming the blessing and then passing it on for others. That must characterize the identity of members of the Kingdom, Christians.
Jesus refused to mediate legal rights or property inheritance. What he does not refuse to mediate is our humanity and humanity’s true inheritance in God. He offers that to us as the real riches, the real inheritance that God wishes to share. Real riches are not the things we gather up as leverage against the final day or for using to eating, being merry and drinking now. Real riches are a gift from the Father. The real wealth is that we are already the Father’s image in the world. Believing in Jesus is to have the assurance that this image will not be lost, our identity is always being offered to us. It is a permanent gift to the world in the risen Christ.
When the wisdom writer says all is vanity, all is fleeting, all is passing, he is not saying life is meaningless. What he is saying is what Jesus says; remain focused on the real riches that count: God, neighbor, creation and the love and Spirit that hold them together. They come from above and they will not disappear. Invest in those relationships and your inheritance will be great indeed. And in Christ, death will not take it from you.
St. Paul’s Abbey
4 August 2013