Father Donald Senior, CP

Aug. 4: 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Can't take it with you

Ecc 1:2; 2:21-23; Ps 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14 and 17; Col 3:1-5, 9-11; Lk 12:13-21

The Scripture readings for this Sunday seem to gang up on us and insist on a truth that may not fit comfortably into our mid-summer leisure activities. The tone is set by the first reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes or, also known by its Hebrew name, Qoheleth. 

If among your friends you have someone who consistently takes a dim view of things and is skeptical of everything, then he or she may be a fan of this unique biblical book. The tone is set in the opening line: “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” 

This book was probably written during the third century B.C., a very trying period for Jews when they were under the thumb of the Greek dynasty that was ruling in the wake of Alexander’s conquest of the Middle East. It emphasizes that all things are transitory, and no human structure or achievement will last in the face of death. 

The book ends with a vivid poetic passage that depicts the death of humanity itself: “And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it.” The words that accompany the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday are taken from this passage: “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”

The response Psalm 90 plays the same sober tune: “You turn man back to dust” and “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.” The psalmist prays, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.’

A similarly blunt lesson is found in the second reading from the Letter to the Colossians, where the author (either Paul or one of his disciples) urges: “Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry. Stop lying to one another.” Instead, “put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.”

This lesson is driven home by the Gospel passage from Luke. When Jesus was preaching to the crowds, someone asks him to tell his brother “to share the inheritance with me.” Jesus refuses: “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” 

This taste of family strife about money prompts Jesus to tell a strong parable about the futility of human greed. A rich man who enjoys a bountiful harvest ponders what to do with all his wealth. Rather than sharing his bounty he decides to build bigger barns and to hoard his gains, thereby — he thinks — ensuring he will have good things for many years and can “rest, eat, drink, be merry!”

There is one calculus, however, that the man forgets: “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” Jesus frames the parable with its stark lesson: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” And, “Thus it will be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”

We encounter here a particular emphasis of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ words challenge those with abundance to care for those in need. To this parable of the rich man and his barns can be added to Luke’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus or the story of Zacchaeus, who learns to give half of his possessions to the poor. 

There is a deeper lesson here, for all of us not just those who have abundance. Although life is to be loved and celebrated and lived to the full, we also know that life is short and strangely fragile. From time to time, the wisdom of our Christian faith invites us to think more deeply about our ultimate destiny and our dependence on God and God’s unconditional love for us.


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