Eighteenth Sunday of Year (C)
(Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21)
(Jesus) said to them, "Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses."
Jesus’ words are very ’scientific’, in so far as they 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 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 personal living. In industry too the same practice is followed: analyse and control production methods, closely monitor product quality standards, continuously assess the requirements of customers etc. etc. Jesus, therefore, in His advice to us today is most up to date and also 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 personal pleasure or immediate advantage blind you; and above all, seek out and learn from the Giver of all good gifts, that:
Life does not consist in the abundance of the things (one) possesses.
Notice, in passing, that Jesus, in replying to the man who called out to Him from the crowd in our Gospel passage, did not try to expound on the man’s false appreciation of life, or explain what is the real truth about life’s purpose and its ultimate, heavenly, possibilities; for, answering a man described by the Old Testament as:
A man with an evil eye, (who) hastens after riches, and does not consider that poverty will come upon him (Proverbs 28:22);
He simply gave him -- and all who were then listening -- something to think about, a word of wisdom:
Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
That should have encouraged the man to think, and hopefully re-consider and revise his attitude: for only after having done that, would he then be in a position to fruitfully inquire of the good, the true, and the beautiful; and here, the words of St. Paul in our second reading are most pertinent:
Put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him Who created him.
Only one made new by faith in Christ is able to see and appreciate the beauty still to be found in our experience of life in a world so desperately afflicted by the effects of human sin; only one renewed with the guiding and strengthening Spirit of Christ can – through all the personal troubles and trials, social changes, international confrontations and world-wide catastrophes now so much a part and parcel of earthly life – find fulfilment and peace through hope for and delight in the Christian prospect of eternal life and the promise of heavenly salvation.
Until that change had taken place within him, however, the evil man would continue to run after riches totally oblivious to the fact that ultimate poverty was hastening in his direction, eager to meet up with 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 – for our further enlightenment -- puts today’s Gospel passage together with readings from Ecclesiastes and St. Paul as we have already 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 both 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 toiled with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and that one’s legacy must be left to another who has not toiled for it. This is vanity and a great evil.
In other words, our hold on life is uncertain; the number of our years is unknown; and we cannot take our earthly possessions with us when we leave this world no matter what they may mean to us, nor how much time, care, and effort we may have bestowed on them. Therefore, such a lightly-held legacy, such a tenuous life-heritage, cannot – rationally -- be considered as the ultimate purpose, significance, and fulfilment of our life.
To lead us further, the second reading from St. Paul then told us that, when our time on earth is ended, life itself 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 … your (real) life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ Who is our life appears, then you also 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? Yes! After all, didn’t Jesus say:
Provide money-belts for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief can reach and no moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also? (Luke 12:33-34)
Jesus did indeed mean and say 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, ultimately 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 belt-full of good works of whatever sort, will be both ‘a treasure’ for us in heaven, and a gift from God: a treasure, ours indeed, but not exclusively; for our glory, yes, but not a treasure that will enable us to buy our way into heaven, to save ourselves. On the contrary, our heavenly treasure will be found to be one bearing eternal witness to the Father’s goodness to us, in Jesus, by the Spirit, throughout our life on earth:
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16) WORKS.
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) FAITH.
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 may have built up over the years will enable them to experience. They have provided for themselves; all is well!!
That is how Catholic insistence on ‘good works’ appeared to past followers of Luther: Catholic ‘good works’ could apparently guarantee salvation for people who were otherwise living at variance with the laws of God. That was a failure to understand Catholic doctrine but, nevertheless, such a false attitude by individuals is not absent even among some Catholics today. Of course, there is no public reliance on indulgences bought or sold, but there is still an excessive and unwarranted personal trust in occasional ‘contributions’ of whatever sort or in passing devotions in no way backed up by faithful Church observance and Catholic obedience. There are too many, even today, who follow esoteric teachings and practice various spiritualities and devotions, without giving serious attention to building up a personal relationship with Jesus to be assimilated from the Scriptures by prayer, encountered in the Sacraments -- above all the Eucharist -- of the Church, and nourished by daily, loving, obedience. Mother Church’s greatest sacrament, the Eucharist, is far too frequently ‘used’ in an impersonal manner: with no response of personal commitment to Him Who sacrificed Himself for us, and no return of sincere personal love to Him Who loved us to the end.
There is only one infallible sign and expression of Catholic and Christian holiness: it is not simply works, it is not just faith, it is LOVE, the crown of faith and the ever-fruitful vine of God-good works:
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, to be experienced – as it were face to face -- in a personal relationship with 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 Cor. 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, a sharing in Jesus’ own love for His Father, and it is that even here on earth. It is not a human emotional love, it is not an intellectual attraction or scholarly absorption (so attuned to what men think!), 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 Him 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, will be God-good works, accomplished -- not for human appreciation -- but in Jesus and by His Spirit; they will be a treasure for us in heaven indeed, but no 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. They will be for us an eternal inspiration to gratitude and an irresistible provocation to praise, before the Father Who worked such things for us through His Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, dwelling in us and forming us in His likeness.