“Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!”
Today’s readings seek to help us have the right attitudes towards earthly things, towards material possessions. In the first reading, the wise teacher in Ecclesiastes calls materials things “vanity of vanities”. St. Paul in our second reading today says: “Seek and think what is above, not of what is on earth,” (Col 3:1-2). The passage from Luke’s Gospel takes up the theme introduced by Ecclesiastes in the first reading by warning against greed and its consequences in the life of a human being.
The sentence “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!”, from the book of Ecclesiastes (also known as Qoheleth), is famous for its power to remind us that in comparison with the things of God, human endeavors are fleeting and insubstantial. The word for “vanity” in Hebrew means “vapour”. Thus the author of Ecclesiastes gives us a vivid picture of human activity as amounting to nothing so much as water vapor that rises into the air and is quickly dispersed. The passages selected in the liturgy goes on to apply this view even to the legitimate wealth gained by hard work. Death normally forces one who has toiled legitimately to leave the results of his/her toil to someone else, possibly to one who has not toiled at all.
1. THE CONTEXT OF THE GOSPEL PASSAGE
A man comes to Jesus to ask for a favour. He does not ask Jesus to decide what is right. He asks Jesus to take his side in a family dispute. Jesus refused to do so. From a crowd this man said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” (Luke 12:13-14). Jesus can sense that this man’s heart is motivated by greed. He, therefore, addresses the real problem rather than the surface problem. Jesus turned to his followers and said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Lk 12:15). Jesus points out that our value is not measured by our financial worth. To illustrate His point, Jesus told a story about a very successful farmer. This man had a bumper harvest and we get the impression he had a number of such harvest. He was so successful that he could not store all the surplus. He proceeds to build barns in order to store up his harvest, and live in superfluity. Jesus condemns this attitude of hoarding property
2. JESUS IS NOT AGAINST US HAVING WEALTH OR POSSESSIONS
Let us watch out that we do not draw the wrong conclusion here. There is nothing wrong with what has happened to this man or with material prosperity. His harvest is a blessing from God. Abraham, David, Solomon and many others throughout the Bible were abundantly blessed. The problem is seen in the verses that follow: “He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”
Shockingly, the man says “I” 6 times and “my” 5 times in these three short verses! Evidently, he has become self-absorbed. He had been blessed abundantly and never even considered how he might honour the Lord or help others with what he had been given. We see this in the concluding picture, Jesus says: “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Lk 12:21). To illustrate the emptiness of the man’s pursuit the Lord addresses him, “‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” It is clear that this life is all temporary! It is “vanity of vanities”! It is vapour. No matter how much we have, it can be taken from us in an instant or we could be taken from the stuff in an instant!
3. SOME CHARACTERISTICS OF A MATERIALISTIC HEART
The Bible speaks quite clearly about greed and coveting. Greed is the excessive want of things. Sir Fred Catherwood is quoted as saying that greed is “the belief that there is no life after death. We grab what we can while we can however we can and then hold on to it hard.” A greedy person is one who has needs, real or imagined, and thinks that his/her needs have priority over the needs of other people. In Ecclesiastes 5:10, the wise teacher says: “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is vanity” In 1 Timothy 6:10 Paul wrote, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” Hearts that are distorted by materialism cannot hide. One can know them in the following ways:
a) When one begins to believe that his/rhe worth is tied to what he/she possesses. Jesus say in today’s gospel, “a man’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions.” (Lk 12:15). However, this is not the way the world around us tends to view things. People are considered “successful” or “valuable” and “blessed” based on their net worth, their earning potential, the achievements of their children, their appearance, the number of committees on which they serve, etc. etc. Jesus points out that all of these things are superficial and temporary! The Lord does not measure our lives this way. Man looks at the surface things but God looks at the heart! A person has worth when he/she can honestly say with Paul: “I have learned to be satisfied with the things I have.… I know how to live when I am poor, and I know how to live when I have plenty” (Phil. 4:11–12).
b) A person is caught in greed when he/she is more focused on gaining rather than giving and using. In verse Lk 12:21 we read, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” When one’s goal is to accumulate, there is a good chance that we have missed the boat. When God gives great blessing, He does so in order for us to use that blessing to accomplish his purposes. When an increase in blessing does not result in an increase in generosity, it indicates a heart full of problems. Unfortunately, that is not the way the world expects us to live. In the world order, as we earn more we “need” more. We buy bigger homes, nicer cars, and cooler gadgets. Many people have much but become imprisoned by their greed.
c) One can know he/she is caught in the snare of greed when he/she lives to retire rather than to serve. The goal of “Rich Fool’s life” is seen in verse Lk 12:19 “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” The goal of his life was to be able to do nothing!
This man had a wrong view of labor. Like him, we tend to look at work as a way to pay bills and provide what we need in order to buy stuff. God meant labour to be something productive. Work is a way for us to serve Him and bring Him honour and glory. We are not saying that it is wrong to stop working at one’s place of employment at a certain age. There are times when we can no longer physically and sometimes mentally do what we used to do. We may reach a point where we cannot do what we once did. However, at that time we should be looking for things that we can do. At this stage, one can volunteer to give assistance to the sick, help those who are troubled and reach out to those who are lost. Nowhere in the Bible does God call us to be lazy, self-absorbed or to simply amuse ourselves.
d) We know we are caught in the grip of materialism when we grieve excessively over the loss of that which is temporal. Think about how we moan when the power (electricity) is out. We curse: when cannot watch TV; when we cannot use our computers; when we cannot get on the Internet; when we do not have any air conditioning (or heat), when our microwave wouldn’t work so we are afraid of starvation! We moan and complain because supposedly, “life is so hard!”. We need to listen to what we are saying! We have become inordinately attached to things! Think of how many people have lost everything because of war, natural disasters, or other catastrophes! Where, in us, is that attitude that says with Job, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I will return. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord!”
e) We are caught in the grip of greed when we place our security in material things. Many people live their lives with the goal of being financially independent. In other words, they think that when reach a certain level of income they will feel secure. It is a mirage! Money cannot make us secure. The truth with money is:
Money can buy bed but not sleep
Money can buy books but not brain
Money can buy food but not appetite
Money can buy a house but not a home
Money can buy medicine but not health
Money can buy companions but not real friends
Money can buy marriage but not love
Money can buy anything but not heaven.
Only God can grant us security. Nowhere in the Bible are we told to take refuge in our wealth and material things. It is much better to anchor ourselves to the Lord. He never changes. He cannot be defeated. He is not impacted by the economy, disease, or the fickleness of human beings. No matter how slippery the circumstances of life may become, God can keep us steady and get us to our destination.
4. COMBATTING OBSESSION WITH MATERIAL THINGS
In order to overcome our excessive passion for material wealth, we need to do the following:
a) We need to regularly consider the shortness of life. The psalmist prays: “Lord, teach us to know the shortness of our lives that we may gain wisdom of heart.” (Psalm 90:12). We like to think that we will live forever or that we are invincible. On the other hand, we need to tell ourselves the truth: Life is fleeting. We must not delude ourselves. If this is all there is then we should be miserable: we live, we die, we are forgotten. But, if Jesus is telling us the truth; if He truly did rise from the dead (and we believe with all our heart that He did do so) then this life is only a prelude to the real thing.
b) We need to confront our excuses mercilessly. We are great at justifying everything. We can quickly move from “I’d like this” to “I need this”. We can easily turn our WANTS into NEEDS, for our own justification. We easily convince ourselves that our lives will actually be diminished if we cannot obtain certain things. We need to regularly tell ourselves the truth: We are hungry but not starving or we don’t need a particular thing; we just want it. Materialism is an addiction that can destroy our lives. Like a drug, the “high” of one new thing will always be followed by emptiness and a “need” for more.
c) We need to redirect our natural greed toward things of God. We must take time to reflect on God’s greatness. The core of the human being’s problem is this: we do not really believe that God has our best interest at heart. We know what He commands. We have heard His statement that if we put Him first; if we pursue His Kingdom; we will find what we truly need and we will also receive many of the other things we desire. But we do not really believe Him. If we did, we would follow His instructions as one follows a map to a hidden treasure. We would listen carefully, obey precisely, and move forward with anticipation. We would recognize that whatever we seemingly possess—life, health, family, friends, food, clothing, housing, medical care, education, job opportunities—actually all comes from God’s hand. They are all His gifts to us.
In Conclusion, we underline that the rich man’s His SIN lies in what he did not do. (sin of OMISSION, not COMMISSION). We also repeat here that Jesus does not say that being wealthy is wrong nor that “wealth and God’s kingdom” are incompatible. After all, he was the one, who taught us, LAST WEEK, to pray for “our daily bread.” He does not want us to starve. At the same time, he does not want us to be greedy or to be in a habitual grabbing mode. As the Preacher said in the first reading of today: “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
- Let us pray for a spirit of generosity and concern for the wellbeing of the less fortunate!