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The 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 4, 2019

     The noted 19th- and early 20th-century Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, was a highly influential figure in the development of modern drama. His plays often deal with the moral conflicts that can accompany poverty and financial strife. No surprise there: when Ibsen was a young boy, his comfortably well-fixed family was reduced to poverty when their fortunes took a steep dive.  Ever after, Ibsen was very wary of wealth and began to look at money with a jaundiced eye. “Money,” he once wrote, “may be the husk of many things but it’s not the kernel. Money brings you food but not appetite; medicine but not health; acquaintances but not friends; servants but not loyalty; enjoyment but not peace or happiness.”

     Ibsen’s words read like a commentary on the words of the philosopher, Qoheleth, in today’s reading from Ecclesiastes.

     Qoheleth had come to a point in his life where a certain cynicism had begun to set in. He was weary of things: utterly convinced of the futility of a life devoted to amassing more and more things. ‘What does it all amount to?’ he found himself asking, and the answer he came up with was ‘Nothing. It amounts to nothing.’  In the end, earthly goods are as permanent as vapor. “Vanity of vanities, he exclaimed, “all is vanity!”

     To drive home his point, Qoheleth pointed to people who work all their lives to carve out a place for themselves in this world. No matter how hard they work, in the end, someone else will live in their homes, eat the fruit of their fields, and enjoy the shade of the trees they planted.  “Vanity of vanities,” indeed. “All is vanity!”  Sobering words for a summer day.  Sobering words for any day!

     And don’t they seem at odds with the values we Americans tend to hold dear: values like hard work, responsibility, personal initiative, individual achievement?  Perhaps, but that would be a misreading.  Qoheleth was not disparaging hard work or human effort. He was simply decrying the tendency to judge a person’s worth or dignity on the basis of his or her possessions.  Possessions are fleeting, transitory, and this much is certain: they won’t accompany us across the threshold of death. Qoheleth was the poet and the prophet of “You can’t take it with you.”  I suspect he would have liked our contemporary little sayings like, “shrouds have no pockets,” and “you never see a U-Haul truck behind a hearse!” 

     Jesus takes up a similar theme in today’s gospel. Someone asks him to arbitrate in a family dispute over an inheritance, but Jesus refuses because he sees that the dispute is not about justice but about greed.  So he seizes the moment to encourage his listeners to develop a right attitude toward things. “Avoid greed in all its forms,” he says.  “A person may be wealthy but his possessions do not guarantee him life.”  In other words, ‘if you want to become rich, become rich in what matters.’

     To illustrate his point Jesus told a little parable about a rich man who had it made: he had everything in life - more than everything.  But was it enough?  No, it wasn’t.  All he could think about was getting more!  Jesus had harsh words for him. Very harsh. He called him a fool.

     All this puts me in mind of some memorable words of St. Augustine. “Poverty is the burden of some,” he said, “and wealth is the burden of others – perhaps the greater burden of the two, because wealth is so heavy that it may weigh a person down to perdition. And so,” Augustine says, “bear the burden of your neighbor’s poverty and allow your neighbor to share the burden of your wealth. Your load will be lightened by lightening his.”

     Sage advice, if somewhat surprising, because we don’t usually think of wealth as a burden, do we?  But a burden it can be, as well as an opportunity.

     There is, however, a theology that is quite at odds with St. Augustine’s - a strikingly different view of wealth that is popular in some parts of the Christian family.  It’s commonly referred to as Prosperity Theology or the Gospel of Success, and it advances the notion that if you follow Jesus you can expect to enjoy wealth and prosperity. In fact, your very wealth and prosperity will be signs of God’s favor.  Make sense to you?  I’m guessing not – I’m hoping not - because how do you square that kind of thinking with the gospel Jesus preached, the gospel of “Blessed are the poor,” the gospel of “the last shall be first,” the gospel that praises the God who “lifts up the poor and sends the rich away empty”?  

     My friends, following Jesus does not guarantee material prosperity, and it’s certainly not a shield from need or hunger or hard times. Following Jesus can, in fact, sometimes involve those very things as you well know. But those of us who are blessed with wealth great or small will do well not just to feather our nests with it like the complacent “fool” in today’s gospel. Better to view wealth as St. Augustine did – as a burden greater even than poverty, but not if we use it to lighten the burden of the poor.

     My friends, the One we follow was born poor, and lived poor, and had nowhere to rest his head. In the end, it is he whom we are to learn from and to lean on, and not on any possessions we may have. For when we choose to follow Jesus, our life is not about possessions – unless, of course, that possession is Jesus himself. We meet him now at his Holy Table!

Father Michael G. Ryan




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