The fellow in the Gospel today who asks Jesus to arbitrate in his claim for his brother to give him his share of the inheritance sounds a bit like the Prodigal Son in the parable we know so well. Both the man in today’s Gospel and the Prodigal Son seem to want to exercise their independence and to go their own way apart from their families
Probably in this case the two sons had inherited their father’s farm and instead of dividing it were working it together, at least until one was dissatisfied with his lot and wanted out so he could do his own thing. He probably thought that if his brother bought him out he could invest his money better elsewhere.
Jesus does not pronounce on the matter but instead goes to the root of this man’s motivation which is greed or avarice. Jesus points out that wealth does not bring security. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching has always been the idea that our true fulfilment can only be found in heaven, and that we must realise that this world is transitory and that while we are in it we should be doing all we can to secure our place in eternity.
Jesus underlines the point by telling the people a parable about a rich man who build huge barns to store all his wealth and then decided to take things easy and have a good time thinking to himself that he had made it in life, not knowing that his soul would be demanded by God that very night.
Again and again in the Gospels we see that it is attitude that Jesus is most concerned with. If the man in the parable had been thanking God for his wealth and had taken some steps to share his good fortune with those in need then it would have been a very different story. Instead this man focusses his energy on acquiring wealth and storing it up for himself in order that he will have security for the future so that he can then live a life of leisure. He gives no thought to God or to his less fortunate neighbour.
However, the purpose of our lives is to become rich in God’s sight. It is not to acquire wealth so that we can indulge ourselves and become independent of everyone else. And God’s values are completely different to the values of this world. He desires things like justice, peace, charity, love, patience, sharing, faith, hope and so on. These are quite contrary to the things that the world teaches are important such as independence, wealth, luxury, leisure, power, etc.
The Christian is someone who has made adjustments in his life. The Christian has realised that the values of this world are transitory and knows that they cannot bring true fulfilment. He places his trust in the things of God and understands well that true fulfilment consists in embracing the heavenly virtues such as truth, humility, honesty, patience, kindness and so on. The true Christian knows that it is only by cultivating these virtues that we will reach heaven.
Coming to this conclusion we are drawn back to the First Reading this Sunday from the Book of Ecclesiastes in which the Prophet declares that all is vanity. From the dictionary we define vanity as an excessive belief in one’s own beauty or personal ability; but it also means whatever is vain, empty, or valueless and it is this that the Prophet intends it to mean in the reading for today.
We are being told that we should not place value in anything material since ultimately all material things will pass away and therefore cannot bring us lasting security or peace. It is only the spiritual things which are eternal and therefore it is these in which we should place our trust.
Transitory material things can never be trusted to last. Only those things which find their origin in heaven can ever be truly lasting and so it is in these that we should place our trust.
Of course, there is a tremendous silver lining here because by adopting the virtues as our rule of life we become much better and more attractive people. We become people whom others look up to and admire. Other people feel they can trust us and find us friendly and open towards them.
Whatever the side benefits, the main point is that our goal should be acquiring the virtues and so aiming to become the kind of person that God wants us to be. By making ourselves acceptable in the sight of the Lord we will find that in due time the gates of heaven will swing open for us and we will find ourselves welcome citizens in the Kingdom of God.
Of course, we might feel that leaving material things behind will leave us vulnerable. Having a few pounds in the bank put aside for a rainy day makes us feel secure. Owning our own house would in a similar way make us feel safe. We might hesitate to live without these props because we feel we could risk disaster; we would feel that we were living life without being insured.
This is where the doctrine of Divine Providence comes in. The refrain of the saints was always this: God will provide. The bottom line of our faith should be complete trust in a God who will not let his little ones falter. If we take risks for our faith God will not pour money in our laps but he will ensure that we are safe. This is what we mean by Divine Providence, that God will give us our daily bread, that he will in fact provide for our needs.
The great saints understood this and made tremendous sacrifices knowing that God would keep them from harm. We are not all saints and we feel the weight of our responsibilities especially if we have children or other dependents to look after. But we should remember that our greatest gift to them should not simply be material security but rather the correct attitude to adopt in life.
Given the choice of bequeathing our children wealth and security or giving them the gift of faith, I know what I would choose and it would be faith. After all, wealth can distort our character and is easily squandered but the gift of faith lasts forever, it is the only thing that we take with us from this work into the Kingdom of God. Give them this gift for it is the only thing really worth having.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket