EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23 Col 3:1-5, 9-11 Lk 12:13-21
Having Our Priorities Straight
What Is the Good Life?; Wealth as a Sign of God’s Favour; Against Vanity; Money and the Good Life.
Some of the most famous tourist sights in the world are tombs. Among them are the Great Pyramid of King Cheops in Egypt, which was built of five million tons of stone and took as many as 400,000 men two decades to build; the elaborate sarcophagi of ancient Rome; the Taj Mahal in India, containing the body of a beloved princess; Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, with the graves of Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde, and the Jewish Cemetery in Prague, where Franz Kafka is buried. At temples throughout the Far East, despots made sure during this life that provisions for the next life would be left at their grave, food, clothing, jewels, their favourite chair. In China, at Xian, an “enlightened” emperor, rather than having his servants buried with him as had been the custom, had thousands of beautifully made life-like terra cotta figures of his army buried with him instead.
The United States has Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, which contains the striking mausoleum of Adolphus, patriarch of the Anheuser-Busch beer empire, which bears the words “Veni, Vidi, Vici”, and the grave of Gen. William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, topped by an obelisk. Buried on the shaded grounds of Calvary, a Roman Catholic cemetery next door to Bellefontaine, is playwright Tennessee Williams, whose large, upright, pink-marble slab is inscribed with a quotation from his play, Camino Real: “The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks.” In the palm-and pine-studded cemeteries of Hollywood, many of the interred seem to have thought that when they died they would be able to “take it with them.”
Modern alternative are no less grandiose. On the Internet, there are web sites where you can post, for perpetuity, a picture of the deceased, accompanied by a favourite song, a spoken greeting, and even a bunch of electronic flowers to leave in the virtual memory garden. For the ashes of those who are cremated, funeral directors often try to sell the bereaved a full-size coffin or a fancy jewellery box. And for those who want to stop or even reverse the aging process, there is cryonics, the freezing of a just-deceased person for later reviving.
A sign on a hospital maturity ward bulletin board read: “Research Shows that the First Five Minutes of Life Can Be Most Risky.” Pencilled underneath was this anonymous postscript: “The Last Five Minutes Ain’t So Hot Either.”
The Book of Ecclesiastes, which is a series of glimpse into life written in the third century before Christ, gave thought to these phenomena. Herman Melville in Moby Dick (ch. 97) ststes that “the truest of all books is Ecclesiastes.” Its influence is strong even today. One day in the summar a vacationing man trekking through the Maine woods met an old hermit who hadn’t live in so-called civilization for forty years, but who seemed uncannily wise. When asked how he got his wisdom, the hermit pulled form his pocket the only book he had read in all that time – a tattered, yellow copy of Ecclesiastes.
As Qoheleth, Ecclesiastes’ author, looked about the world, he came up with one main word to describe it: vanity, which in Qoheleth’s Hebrew appropriately connotes “vapour” or “a chase after wind”. Aside from the title and the epilogue which were added later by someone else, “vanity” is this book’s first and last word. The author uses the term “vanity of vanities” to indicate the superlative.
Vanity is well illustrated by Aesop’s fable of the fox and the crow. The coal-black crow flew to a tree with a stolen piece of meat in her beak. A fox, who saw her, wanted the meat, so he looked up into the tree and said, “How beautiful you are, my friend! Your feathers are fairer than the dove’s. Is your voice as beautiful? If so, you must be the queen of birds.” The cow was so happy in his praise that she opened her mouth to show how she could sing. Down fell the piece of meat. The fox seized upon it and ran away.
In our time, vanity would be applicable to the young lady of sixteen conceitedly preening before a mirror whose father reminded her: “You can take no credit for beauty at sixteen. But if you’re beautiful at 60, it will be your own soul’s doing. Then and then alone you may be proud of it and be loved for it.” Even worse was the case of a woman who, aiming to prove her contention that men are more vain than women, said in a speech: “It is a pity that the most intelligent and learned men attach least importance to the way they dress. Why, right in this room the most cultivated man is wearing the most clumsily knotted tie!” As if on a signal, every man in the room immediately put his hand to his tie to straighten it.
The pursuit of life as a sole end is vain. Qoheleth heightens the futility of that by his concrete description of the trials inherent in the world of work – the toil under the sun, the anxiety of heart, the sorrow and grief, and the restlessness at night.
Jesus, who knew more about life than Qoheleth, in today’s Gospel seems to confirm his observations. The rabbis of his time were often consulted about civil affairs, especially inheritances. But despite the fact that Jesus was a new Moses and was the subject and about whom Moses had taught, he refused to hear the case about inheritance put before him. There were courts of law to settle secure matters; Jesus refused to get involved in them. Had the man before him seemed capable of perfection, Jesus would probably have said to him, “Give your share joyfully to your brother and follow me.”
Surely all of us have met people like the man in Jesus’ story – sometimes, sadly, he is ourselves. An anonymous author wrote:
First I was dying to finish high school and started college.
And then I was dying to finish college and start working.
And then I was dying for my children to grow old enough for school,
so I could return to work.
And then I was dying to retire.
And now I am dying… and suddenly I realize
I forgot to live.
The man in Jesus’ story had the wrong priorities. The first was that he never saw beyond himself. His plan of life was a constant repetition of “I” and “my”. Contrary to his thinking, it’s been said that life’s five most important words are “I admit I was mistaken”; the four most important words are “What is your opinion?”; the three most important words are “If you please”; the tow most important words are “Thank you”; and the one most important word is “you”. From many points of view, life’s least important word is “I”.
The man’s second wrong priority was that he never saw beyond this world. His whole basis of security was wealth. He believed in the modern axiom, “Money talks; learn its language.” The driving force today is, no less than in Jesus’ time, to build bigger and bigger barns. Upper management receive obscenely high salaries, while workers are laid off by the thousands. Big companies use bankruptcy laws to default on debts, which little persons have to pay. Corporations seem ruled by a dog-eat-dog philosophy which encourages people to climb over the bodies of others to reach the top.
The man in the Gospel was a rich man (v. 16) – one who people might say owned property, but in reality the property owned him. He never thought in terms of the later proverb, “There are no pockets in a shroud.” God called him a fool (v. 20). In the Sacred Scriptures, a fool is one who is “mindless” – even to the point of denying God’s existence. Thus, the psalmist said, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps 14:1).
The author of today’s section of the letter to the Colossians tries to identify what is essential in life and to separate it from what’s not. Some Jews had been trying to get the Christians of Colossae to go back to “the good old days” of Judaism by practicing Jewish feast – day observances and kosher rules. But the author says that the old rules were merely human precepts dealing with things that perish, a principal effect of which was to indulge pride. He challenges them to the new way, life in Christ.
The correct proprieties (vv. 1-4) – which are on things above and not on things of earth – change our whole idea of the good life. We are to join ourselves to Christ. This doesn’t mean withdrawal from care for the world and its problems. On the contrary, it means a truer love for the world. But that love is with a difference. We are to see everything in the light of eternity.
For the writer of this letter, it meant a great deal to say “Christ your life” (v. 4). Sometimes we say of a person, “sports are his life,” meaning that such a person finds the meaning of life in sports. Many such people forget the experience of a famous basketball coach who, at the age of 47, was suffering from terminal spinal cancer. Looking back on his life, he told a story about himself as a 23-year-old coach of a small college team. “Why is winning so important to you?” the players asked him.
“Because the final score defines you,” he said. “You lose, so you are a loser. You win, so you are a winner.”
“No,” the players urged. “Participation is what matters. Trying your best, regardless of whether you win or lose – that is what defines you.”
It took 24 more years of living for the coach to say, “Those kids were right. It is effort, not result. What a great human being I could have been if I had had this awareness back then.”
The author of Colossians, though, refers to something more far reaching. We must find our present resurrection as well as our future resurrection in Christ. This richer and higher life is to begin now, not after we die. This means putting to death all the evils in our nature that are earthly (v. 5), taking off our old self (v. 9), and putting on a new self (v. 10) who grows gradually into what Jesus wants.
We who are trying to live out our baptism have a new set of values. We think of giving instead of getting, serving rather than ruling, for giving and not avenging. We are grateful for life given by God without cost, friends provided without price, eternity promised without merit. We have the insight that our worth isn’t measured by what we owe but by what we share and that we have the opportunity to grow in the lasting wealth of love. We see that wealth isn’t necessarily a sign of God’s favour, and that poverty can be.
We are not to define ourselves by our salary, by our material possessions, or by our accomplishments on earth. We are to realize that it’s possible to “spend less and enjoy more,” “to live simply so that others may simply live,” to reject greed and grow rich in God. We are to prepare to move into the dwelling place prepared for us in heaven rather than building bigger barns. Do we have our priorities straight?