Forty-fourth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21
So how do we do it? How do we pray and work? How do we live with God and live in the world at the same time? It’s not the easiest of balancing acts, of course, and yet that is what this religion of the “both/and” that is authentic Christianity not only calls us to do but gives us the tools to do. Jesus achieved the cosmic balance for us by His all-fulfilling sacrifice, and now it falls to us to balance ourselves. After all, each of us is the Church in miniature, each of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit. God’s dwelling truly is with the human race – and our failure to recognize the full extent of that fact that keeps us off our game.
The author of the First Reading knew too well that we forget God’s place among us at our own peril. Ecclesiastes’ oft-repeated refrain “Vanity of vanities!” (Hebrew hebel, vapor) alerts us to the constant absurdity of laboring only for the rewards that this world can offer. Truly, all the work and worry we put in on a daily and even nightly basis – as he writes, “even at night his mind is not at rest” – is a ridiculous exercise if the goal is simply to accumulate store for ourselves, a store we can’t even take with us. These sentiments have an echo in Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel reading. The man Qoheleth speaks of toils endlessly, only to give his property to someone who hasn’t worked for it; Jesus’ rich man stops working in order to sit back and enjoy his treasures – “eat, drink, be merry!” he says to himself – only to die in the night and lose everything. One works hard over all his life, only to have to give his wealth away to someone who hasn’t. The other could give his excess wealth away to others who have less, but instead hoards it to enjoy himself – and loses it in an instant. It does seem sometimes that we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t! Whatever we gain, we lose.
And yet, it need not be so – even for those who have many possessions. The goal, as Jesus says to conclude His story, is for human beings not simply to “store up treasure for themselves” – though at times this can be important, and Jesus does speak elsewhere about “making friends with dishonest wealth” – but more than that to be “rich in what matters to God.” Saint Paul, as we continue to make our way through his Letter to the Colossians, shows us more clearly in the Second Reading what this idea means: “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Our main focus is the great spiritual gifts about which Paul frequently spoke, especially the supreme gift of love. The things of this world have their place, and their uses. And we are meant to use the things of this world responsibly, as we steward it for future generations. But to those reborn in the new life that the risen Jesus promises, these things cannot afford to rule over us. They can only have priority insofar as they help us to love our neighbor as ourselves, for that is the fulfillment of the balance.
When Paul advises us to “[p]ut to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly,” he means much the same thing that Jesus did when He said, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” When we do that, when we give God’s love and wisdom priority, when we trust that God will do what He promises to do, we can find that prayer and work are much more in synch that we thought at first – and actually come more naturally. Selflessness and unity show their true natures, and life becomes even more alive. It no longer becomes a game of “Can you top this?” or “Whoever has the most toys wins.” No matter how rich or poor we are, we can all pray and work for and with each other, impartially and in reconciling unity. All the toys take a backseat to being “merciful like the Father.”
To those who have already died, the goal is life. Pursuing a goal of death – that is vanity.