Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Purpose of Life is ...

Eighteenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

One of the most memorable villains in cinematic history must be the enigmatic Mr Smith of the Matrix Trilogy, who constantly spews nihilistic philosophical lines questioning the purpose of life. His philosophical ramblings finally culminate in this fatalistic conclusion: “The Purpose of Life is to End.” During his final showdown with Neo, the hero and main protagonist of the story, his moral counterpart, Smith angrily dismisses causes such as freedom, truth, peace, and love as simply human attempts to justify a meaningless and purposeless existence, and is completely unable to comprehend why Neo continues to fight him despite the knowledge that he cannot win. Neo’s resilience and refusal to accept his fatal ‘end’, was clearly a monumental chink in the armour of his personal philosophy. Ironically, it is only at the very end of his virtual existence that Smith comes to realise the fallacy of the fatalistic ‘truth’ which drives him. He finally gets it. Neo, beaten and bloodied, provides him with the answer: “Because I choose to.” That is what sets Neo and other humans above the machines. It is the freedom of choice, the divine spark: to choose love or hate, to choose life or death, and finally to seek the things below or those above.

Today’s first reading introduces another piece of philosophical rumination which deals directly with the question of man’s existence. It asks and attempts to answer the question many people struggle with, ‘What is life all about?’ ‘What is man’s purpose in this life?’ Thus the Book of Ecclesiastes is a philosophical essay, attributed to being written by Solomon. The author wrote this book from the mistakes he made. He shares his own life’s search. The man had wisdom, riches, horses, armies, and women (that’s an understatement, he had lots of women). Yet, in the end Solomon declared everything to be vanity; in other word, pointless, worthless, meaningless, and purposeless. To pursue vanity is to chase after the wind. Starting with the well-known words, "Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity," and repeating them in the last chapter after having taken us through all the vanities of life, the book contains the important lesson he learns from God, in a sort of ‘roundabout’ way. The Book ends by giving us the antidote of vanity: fear of the Lord and the observance of the moral law. It points out that the secret of a true life is that a man should consecrate the vigour and vitality of his youth to God.  All man’s efforts to find happiness apart from God are of no result. Without God, truly ‘all is vanity’. But with God, nothing is in vain.

In the gospel, we are given two examples of such earthly vanity  - the greedy brother and the rich man in a parable told by Jesus. A man in the crowd begins our story by putting this request to Jesus, “Master, tell my brother to give me a share of our inheritance.” The question sounds oddly familiar. I’ve seen how family battles over inheritance have set kith against kin. The law of primogeniture says (Num 27:1-11 Deut 21:15) that the first born gets a double portion. If you had two brothers, you divided the estate three ways and the oldest got two parts. So guess which son this is. His request suggests that he’s the youngest son. Greed has blinded him to place money above kinship.

Understanding the context of the disgruntled brother sets the stage for the parable. There is a comparison and contrast going on between the two characters in the parable and two characters outside the parable. The rich man in the parable is compared to the greedy brother in real life. Christ in real life acts as judge and arbiter, a role taken by God in the parable. Why is Jesus telling this parable about the rich man who had no greed to a greedy man? Jesus builds up the rich man as a good guy, a content man. This guy is just the opposite of the greedy man. What do we learn? Both thought that life consisted in ‘things’, that the end and purpose of their lives were the acquisition of such ‘things.’ Selfishness and self-satisfaction have blinded them to life’s ultimate purpose and end.

Both the greedy younger brother and the rich man, in their pursuit for wealth without realising that they risk losing everything in a single moment proves the point that ‘all is vanity.’ There is a major reversal in the parable – the man who thinks himself clever is proven foolish; the rich man ends up being poor to God. Notice the poetic justice.  The rich man, like the greedy brother and like so many of us, so obsessed in storing up treasures for ourselves in this place, acquiring knowledge, wealth, possessions and a list of achievements, finally lose sight of the fact that our ultimate goal is our own salvation – making ourselves ‘rich in the sight of God.’ The rich man is not condemned for his wealth or even his greed. His is condemned for forgetting the ultimate ‘end’ or purpose of his life is salvation. He had made no preparations for this. He was too busy investing in this world.

This parable speaks loudly to our generation, it speaks of the purpose of life and what defines it? Have you been defining life in your career, your house, your stock portfolio, in terms of your achievements, the knowledge you possess, the popularity you’ve gain, or the assumption that you will live much longer? What is going to happen when you lose one or more of those things? What happens when you get laid off? What happens when the stock market crashes? What happens when you get some disease which takes away your physical ability? What happens when your friends leave you? If you define life according to these things, you will be devastated. If these things have become the ‘end’ and purpose of your lives, the goals you are ultimately pursuing, the treasures you are seeking for, then the diagnosis is terminal – vanity of vanities, all is vanity!

St Thomas Aquinas teaches that the real end for which man is made is to be reunited with the goodness of God through virtuous behaviour as well as the use of reason in order to know and love God above all. In the words of St Augustine, “that is our final good, which is loved for its own sake, and all other things for the sake of it.” St Ignatius Loyola in setting out the First Principle and Foundation in his Spiritual Exercises writes, “The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by doing so, to save his or her soul. All other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created. It follows from this that one must use other created things, in so far as they help towards one's end, and free oneself from them, in so far as they are obstacles to one's end.” Thus, the riches of this life are only potentially good. Their goodness is actualised when they serve the greater good – the glory of God and love of neighbour.

The irony we face is that many people would prefer to love the means rather than the end. Man need not just love bad things in order to be condemned to hell. As the old adage teaches us, “The road to hell is lined with good intentions.” Man can pervert his ultimate end by loving seemingly good things, which seem to bring happiness, and mistake these things for the actual, infinite source of happiness - God. Whenever we choose the lesser goods over the greater good, whenever we convert the means into the end, whenever our vision is obscured to see beyond what lies immediately before us, then we are in trouble. Everything comes down to the choice: do we choose these things as a means to the end, or do we choose them as a substitute for the end? Seek the Source of all Goodness, and not just the goods he dispenses. Desire the God of Miracles, not just hunger for the miracles of God. Long for the giver and not just the gifts. Our thoughts should be on the ultimate prize: Heaven. Things of this Earth either lead us to that prize or they may distract us from that and therefore should be placed in their proper place. When we trudge the road of happy destiny we must remember that the road is just a means to an end and not the destination itself.

In an ancient homily given by the father of Eastern monasticism, St Basil the Great assured Christians that when they are prepared to share wealth with the poor in this life, they will certainly reap the reward that is in store for them in heaven, “All the people will stand round you in the presence of Him who judges you all: they will acclaim you as the one who feeds the hungry and gives to the poor, they will name you as a merciful benefactor.” But when we avoid meeting people in case we might feel obliged to part with even a little of what we have and if we can only say, “I have nothing to give you. I am only a poor man,” then be prepared to receive this fate: “Indeed you are poor and utterly destitute. Poor in love, poor in humanity, poor in faith in God, and destitute of any hope of eternal happiness.”

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