Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
This weekend, all three of our readings speak to us about the appropriate attitude to have when it comes to wealth. From the Book of Ecclesiastes, we hear the voice of Qoheleth, whom many suppose was actually King Solomon himself, in his elder years: Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
These aren’t the words from someone who’s bitter from getting the short end of the stick throughout life. This is coming from someone who’s had it all. King Solomon had ruled over Israel and Judah during their Golden Age and was the wisest mortal to have ever lived upon the earth. And having had it all, he arrives at the deep understanding that the entire world in all of its fullness ultimately fails to satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart.
The message of Qoheleth can be very challenging. He speaks of the futility of our labors in this life, because none of our possessions go with us when we die: “Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and yet to another who has not labored over it, he must leave property. This is also vanity and a great misfortune".
In short, death is the great equalizer, for rich and poor alike. For both the wise and the foolish, nothing “under the sun” is capable of giving meaning to life; and everyone, whether rich or poor, die and leave their possessions behind them.
But this isn’t to say that Qoheleth is a despairing existentialist, as if existence is futile, simply because man’s deepest ambitions can never be fully realized in this life. Rather, Qoheleth’s understanding that the world's wealth is vane invites the listener to turn his heart away from the finite world, and towards the infinite God.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, because they’ve come to recognize the world is vain and fails to satisfy. The poor in spirit have learned that man’s aspirations soar far above anything this world has to offer. I'm reminded of that beautiful phrase from Saint Augustine's Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord; and our heart is restless, until it rests in you." It is possible to find the fullness of peace in this life, but only after we've become detached from worldly vanity and become attuned to the one who transcends the world.
Saint Paul, in our excerpt from his letter to the Colossians, encourages this. He writes: “Seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” ... “For you have died,” he writes, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God… Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry… You have taken off the old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.”
In other words, death brings an end to all worldly vanity. And so, we should embrace that death even now and live for the only reality that survives the threshold of death.
In our gospel passage, we see vanity played out and condemned. Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” Now, in the past, we’ve seen Jesus honor many requests for healing or the casting out of demons; but this particular request focused on personal wealth.
Jesus never preached a gospel of worldly prosperity; he preached the Cross. And so, Jesus admonishes the man: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
In our own day, I dare say that all of us are very wealthy, extraordinarily so, when we compare our situation not with each other, but rather with every human being that has ever existed. We truly are among the one percent of the most privileged human beings to have ever lived (in a worldly sense).
I remember chatting with Kevin our seminarian a few years ago about this while we were eating ice cream. Some of you may remember him. I said, “Kevin, listen to me. We’re living like kings—greater than kings. Not even Solomon, in all of his wealth and glory, enjoyed what you and I are enjoying right now. He was the wisest man in the world; a renowned leader to whom the Queen of Sheba herself paid homage. And yet, in all of his glory, he enjoyed not a single scoop of ice cream. This is a true modern day luxury—not afforded to even the great kings of the past.”
That applies to other things, as well: air conditioning, sewage disposal, refrigeration, potable water from our sinks, modern travel, etc. We enjoy relative safety, as well. I generally don’t go to sleep afraid that our nation’s enemies could attack us at night. My cares are much more trivial.
We are all kings and queens relative to all of humanity throughout all of history. And yet, with all of that wealth, are we happy?
Our readings invite us to reflect on our attitude with regard to our possessions and ambitions; and to ask ourselves the question of: am I wealthy in what matters to God?
In this Mass, let us ask our Lord for greater perspective of what occupies our attention and concern, and inspire us with the courage to re-align all things according to God’s will.
Raphael's, Disputation of the Sacrament. 1509-1510. Fresco. Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.