Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
Jesus’ words are in close accord with the modern scientific attitude which requires us to know the nature, the type, and the quality of whatever we might be using if we are to get the best working results from it. Today we are constantly bombarded by governmental warnings about the dangers of smoking and ‘binge’ drinking, and recommendations concerning healthy eating and physical exercise, to mention only the least controversial items of advice for suitable personal living. Jesus, therefore, in His advice to us today, is indeed up to date in His approach but far, far, deeper in His thought and understanding which are absolutely fundamental: think about life if you want to get the most out of it; learn from the experience of mankind in general, don’t just let immediate personal pleasure or advantage blind you; above all, seek out and learn from the Giver of the gift that:
Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
Notice, in passing, that Jesus, in replying to the man who called out to Him from the crowd, does not try to explain, publicly, what is a false appreciation of man’s life on earth and what is the real truth about its purpose and possibilities. Jesus is answering a man whose mind and heart are centred on money, and the Old Testament (Proverbs 28:22) tells us clearly:
A man with an evil eye hastens after riches, and does not consider that poverty will come upon him.
And so Jesus does not attempt to reveal -- either by explanation or persuasion -- what is holy, to one with an evil eye. He simply gives a warning:
Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
That should have helped the man to stop, think, and hopefully reconsider and revise his attitude; for, only after having done that could he be in a position to appreciate the difference between passing satisfaction and abiding fulfilment, and then to fruitfully proceed to inquire about what is truly good and worth-while. Here the words of St. Paul in our second reading are most pertinent:
Put on the new self, which is being renewed for knowledge in the image of its Creator.
Only one renewed by faith in Christ and endowed with the guiding Spirit of Christ is able to see and appreciate the ultimate beauty, truth, and love behind our experience of life in a world afflicted and at times ravaged by the effects of human sin. Until that change had taken place within him, however, the evil man will continue to run after riches totally unaware of the fact that ultimate poverty was hastening in his direction, eager to meet him.
However, Jesus did -- as the Gospel account reports -- go on to explain further to His disciples what could not be given to those with ears that would not hear and eyes that did not see; and Mother Church does likewise for us today in so far as she puts today’s Gospel passage together with readings from Ecclesiastes and St. Paul as we have heard.
What is life? What -- if we are humble, devout and attentive enough -- can we learn about it that will enable us to use it rightly and wisely?
First of all, the passage quoted from the book of Ecclesiastes makes a supremely important fact about life abundantly clear:
Here is one who has laboured with wisdom and knowledge and skill; and yet, to another who has not laboured over it, he must leave his property. This is vanity and a great misfortune.
In other words, our hold on life is uncertain; the number of our years is unknown; and we cannot take our possessions with us when we leave, no matter what they may mean to us, nor how much time, care, and effort we may have bestowed on them.
The second reading from St. Paul then told us that, when our time on earth is ended, life does not come to an end, for we have a heavenly destiny, a heavenly fulfilment, to attain or to lose:
Set your mind on things above … for your (real) life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with Him in glory.
Do those words ‘set your mind on things above’ mean that we should seek to build up a treasure in heaven instead of one on earth? After all didn’t Jesus say:
Provide yourselves a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also? (Luke 12:33-34)
Jesus did indeed mean and say precisely that; and thereby hangs a tale, so to speak, a tale of confrontation and conflict which has helped to divide, but also, let us pray, might ultimately serve to guide and prosper, Western Christendom.
In order to understand those words of Jesus we have to remember that He had said immediately before:
Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32)
Therefore, our good works of whatever sort, will be ‘a treasure’ for us in heaven, and also a gift from God: a treasure, indeed, but not exclusively ours; for our glory, yes, but not a treasure enabling us to buy our way into heaven, to save ourselves. On the contrary, our heavenly treasure will be found to bear an eternal witness to the Father’s goodness to us, in Jesus, by the Spirit, throughout our life:
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
He who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. (John 14:12)
The old Protestant battle-cry of ‘sola fides’, trusting in the Scriptures of Christ that alone can obtain for us the grace of justification, was based on, or rather provoked by, a misunderstanding of the Catholic attitude, a misunderstanding induced, we must admit, by massive personal and institutional scandals, together with a scholarly over-emphasis on the powers of reason at the expense of biblical sensitivity and personal responsiveness.
Today we are very familiar with debate about the need for people to have pensions to help their needs in old age; and many, indeed probably most people, regard retirement as a time to relax and enjoy the fruits which the nest-egg they have built up over the years will enable them to experience. They have provided for themselves, all is well! That is how ‘good works’ appeared to Luther in the Church of his times: ‘good works’ acquired by gifts of money, works of penance, pilgrimages etc. apparently could guarantee salvation for people who were otherwise independent of Christ, certainly not living for Him, loving Him, and hoping totally on His Spirit. This false attitude is not absent even today. Of course, there is less emphasis on the buying and selling of indulgences, but there can still be excessive and unwarranted trust in occasional contributions or passing devotions in no way backed up by faithful Church observance and Catholic obedience. There are far too many Catholics, even today, who follow teachings, practice spiritualities and devotions of various sorts, without giving serious attention to building up a personal relationship with Jesus to be found in the Scriptures and encountered in the Sacraments and teaching of the Church. Indeed, the greatest sacrament of all, the Eucharist itself, is far too frequently ‘used’ in an impersonal manner: with no return of personal commitment to Him Who sacrificed Himself for us, and no deep response of personal love to Him Who loved us to the end.
And yet, there is only one infallible sign and expression of Catholic holiness: it is not works, it is not faith, it is love:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
And what love is being spoken of by the Apostle there? Love of God: seen darkly indeed here on earth, but, nevertheless, experienced most surely in Jesus:
When that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:10-14:1)
Why is such love of God the greatest? Not simply because it is love for God, Whom we shall see clearly, face to face; Whom we shall then know as He now knows us; not even simply because it was said by Jesus to be the fulfilment of the first and greatest commandment:
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30)
The Love of God of which we speak is the greatest, above and beyond all other virtues and excellences, because it is divine charity, that is, a sharing in Jesus’ own love for the Father, and it is that – essentially, though as yet initially -- even here on earth. It is not a human emotional love, neither is it an intellectual attraction or fascination, it is a sharing in the Holy Spirit of Jesus:
Because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:5)
And, People of God, as we look back on the life and death of Jesus our Lord we recognise that that Spirit of love which drove Jesus to such lengths for His Father and for us cannot remain inactive in us: if the love of God is truly in us, then He -- the Spirit of Love and Truth -- will be at work in us and through us in some way or other. And our good works, thus accomplished in Jesus and by His Spirit, will indeed be a treasure for us in heaven; and yet, they will in no way be a cause for personal pride, for they will humble us every bit as much as they delight us: being eternal reminders of God’s wondrous mercy and goodness to us in Jesus throughout our life on earth; and, by the Spirit, an eternal inspiration to gratitude and provocation to praise before the Father Who worked such things through His Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, dwelling in us.