Thursday, July 28, 2016

Rich in the Sight of God

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Over my priestly life, I have been stunned by how many people come to see me to get my assistance in drawing up wills to protect their inheritance from potential family disputes or where I’ve been roped in to arbitrate ongoing disputes among siblings over inheritance. I had thought I had left my past profession behind me. I’ve seen fraternal ties severed, individuals disinherited, families divided, sometimes for decades, because of such contentious disputes. People say, “blood is thicker than water,” but I think it's correct to say that, “money is thicker than blood.” I’m reminded of Jesus’ response to the disgruntled sibling who requested that the Lord command his brother to give him his share of the inheritance. I would offer the contesting parties a paraphrase of the rhetorical question used by Jesus, “My friend, who appointed me your judge, or the arbitrator of your claims?” and add “I wasn’t ordained for this.”

Today, the pursuit of wealth has become inevitable— almost as if the desire to be rich is already a forgone conclusion in our lives. All sin can be summarised in a sense by a desire to place possessions, or money, and ultimately oneself over other people, including one’s family members. Everything that we do seems directed to this end – our education system, our career, our courtship and marriage, our family life and not wanting to sound morbid, even death is not immune from a discussion on the topic of finances – how do I distribute my wealth when I’m gone? How do my loved ones reap the payouts from my life insurance, which is a polite way of saying, how do they benefit from death or how could I benefit from theirs?  

The prevailing view is that wealth is good, that it should be pursued, that material possessions and riches enhance our enjoyment in life, and that wealth provides opportunity to find greater fulfillment in life. Today’s gospel exposes this myth and reveals that the pursuit of riches is based on a faulty premise. It is based on the incorrect rationale that the presence of money is always good—that it always brings benefit into our lives. This is not always the case. Once our basic needs have been met, money contributes very little to our overall happiness and well-being. When the rich man of the parable experienced a bumper crop, he had to worry about building bigger barns and ensuring that his wealth is securely protected from both the forces of nature and theft. It would appear, that his wealth brought him more anxiety and exposed him to greater dangers. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it, “money often costs too much.”  

It is interesting to note how this prevailing view has also influenced our spirituality. The popularity of the gospel of prosperity, “give to God and He will bless you with so much more,” attests to this. Notice how most of the prayers deal with worldly matters. “O Lord, fix my finances, fix my cancer, fix my spouse, fix this or that situation.” None of these things are wrong to pray about, but notice the worldly and passing quality of most of it. It is almost as if we were saying to God, “Just make this world a better and comfortable place for me. Give me enough health, friends, money and creature comforts, and that’s all I need, I’ll just stay here forever!” I am sure God waits for the day when we will finally say from our heart, “Lord, let me see you face to face …. Help me hunger and desire for your presence.” Ironically, these are things which we wish to postpone or even avoid altogether.

Jesus didn’t come from heaven to earth to settle inheritance disputes but to make us aware of a totally different type of inheritance. He gave an important antidote as medicine against this spirit of acquisitiveness that leads to all types of sins:  “Watch, and be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for a man’s life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs.” He then tells a parable about the rich fool who was blessed with a bountiful harvest who instead of sharing any of his good fortune with those who were hungry after the harvest of grain had filled up the barns he already had, decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones in an unbelievable building project of selfishness. The man egocentrically commends himself for his good fortune.  And that led to other excesses as he convinced himself to “take things easy, eat, drink and have a good time!” And he had a rude awakening coming. That night he would die and little good would his wealth do to him. As the first reading taken from Ecclesiastes reminds us, vanity would be our downfall. This is when Jesus drew the moral of the story: “So it is when a man stores up treasure for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God.”

The parable thus becomes an apt description of our modern culture. We’re living in a culture of hoarding. We obsess about storing treasures or even junk up for ourselves, constantly building new storage facilities to house the stuff that can no longer fit in our homes, rather than giving the stuff we don’t need away. To all of us in this culture, Jesus calls us to become rich in the sight of God. In the end, nothing matters more to God than you, yourself, and that you be made ready to be with him forever. Salvation is our true wealth. Money, who cares? Health? That passes anyway, as does the body, and worldly glories. Sic transit Gloria mundi, thus passes the glory of the world. But the soul? Now here is something that matters particularly to God.

No amount of material wealth, power or prestige will make us permanently happy. On the contrary, the wealthy and powerful are often people whose interior has become barren and turned in on itself, a place where peace and happiness are as absent as rain in the desert. Their ground is spiritually parched, and material treasure provides no healing balm to alleviate the pain. Material wealth is not a sin per se, of course, but it does not lead to the happiness we unceasingly crave and seek.

What does lead to permanent and lasting happiness? As Jesus points out, becoming “rich in the sight of God” is the key. When we place God first, and love our neighbor as another self, we soon begin to experience a perceptible, lasting happiness that is not of this world. It is “other-worldly” because it does not originate from our interior, from creatures or material possessions, but from God, whose love fills us with true and lasting peace, joy and happiness. The second reading from St. Paul reminds us to put aside our earthly desires and to focus on being risen in Christ. To live as Jesus lived, that is, a life of holiness, is to store up eternal treasure. This treasure is lasting and permanent, and cannot be tarnished or diminished by anything in the world. In loving God we become free, truly free! We may boast of no personal wealth attached to our name, but we can simply boast of this, we are “rich in the sight of God!” And that would make us the wealthiest man or the wealthiest woman in this world!

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