Father Donald Senior, CP

Mass readings remind us not to become attached to possessions

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

July 31: 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23; Col 3:1-5, 9- 11; Lk 12:13-21

There seems to be something in the Bible for everyone. Those who look at life with a skeptical eye, for example, will find strong kinship with the book of Ecclesiastes, also known as Qohelet. The name means a “collection” or gathering of a number of proverbial sayings that deal with the futilities of life.

The famous recurring phrase of this book that appears at the beginning of today’s first reading gives us the spirit of this wry observer of human folly: “Vanity of vanities, says Qohelet, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” The example of folly in this brief passage from the book has to do with the case of the wealthy person who, through hard work, has built up his estate, only at his death to have to leave it to someone who has never lifted a finger to contribute to it. (Qohelet must have anticipated all the current debates about estate taxes!)

All of the “toil and anxiety” the man put into his life’s achievement seems to lead to nothing but “sorrow and grief” and sleepless nights. The author of Qohelet was not the sort of person you would want to be stuck with on a long cruise.

Even the Psalm response seems to get in the act today. Addressing God, the psalmist laments that life is short. “You turn man back to dust, saying, ‘Return, O children of men.’ … You make an end of them in their sleep; the next morning they are like the changing grass, which at dawn springs up anew, but by evening wilts and fades” (Ps 90:3-6).

All of this reflection on the frailty of life is echoed in the Gospel account for today — Jesus’ parable of the man and his barns from Luke 12:13-21. It begins with a man asking Jesus to intervene in a family dispute about an inheritance: “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.”

Every family knows a squabble like this. Jesus refuses to get entangled and instead tells a parable about a rich man who had a bountiful harvest and wonders to himself what he will do with all this good fortune. “Aha,” he says, “This is what I shall do; I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones.” With his harvest now safely stored away, he tells himself: “Rest, eat, drink, be merry!”

Jesus must have read Qohelet, too, for this is actually a quote from that Old Testament sceptic. The “vanity” of this sort of behavior strikes home that very night: the rich man’s life is taken and, Jesus asks, “to whom will the things you have prepared belong?”

What is the lesson for us here, as we encounter these readings on Sunday? One obvious point is that instead of simply hoarding our abundance we should think of sharing it with others. That is the point Jesus makes at the outset of the parable: “Take care to guard against all greed.”

But, in the spirit of Qohelet, there may be an even deeper lesson here. As Jesus notes, “one’s life does not consist of possessions.” At the conclusion of the parable, he warns us about those who “store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”

If someone can only be sour about life and fails to see the beauty and goodness all around them — especially in the ones they love and cherish — that is sad. It is also sad when someone is so absorbed in their possessions — money, clothing, cars, houses, status — that they fail to see that there are deeper and more enduring dimensions of life beyond their own needs and gratifications. Graciousness, kindness, treating others with respect and dignity, caring for the vulnerable, living a life of integrity and, above all, lifting our minds and hearts to God who gives us everything — this is the reality our faith challenges to see.


  • scripture