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Reflections for the XVIII Sunday

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the eighteenth Sunday in ordinary time. He says that the meaning of life cannot be found in selfishly hoarding wealth and possessions, but only in sharing these with the needy.

Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23; Col 3:1-5, 9-11; Lk 12:13-21

Introduction: The common theme of today’s readings is that the greedy acquisition of wealth and power is futile, because everything and everyone is “here today and gone tomorrow.” So, the meaning of life cannot be found in selfishly hoarding wealth and possessions, but only in sharing these with the needy.

Homily starter anecdote: Candle in the Wind:  The wedding of Princess Diana (Diana Spencer), in 1981, was watched by 750 million people. He died in an accident at 36 on August 31, 1997. Her funeral in 1997 was viewed by 2.5 billion people. At her funeral, singer Elton John brought tears to the eyes of hundreds of mourners in Westminster Abbey when he sang: “Candle in the Wind.” Interestingly, this song – with the line “Goodbye, Norma Rose” – was originally written for an equally glamorous woman, Norma Jeanne, who assumed the stage name ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and died at 36 on August 5, 1962, due to an overdose of sleeping pills. Diana and Marilyn share many things in common – both were beautiful and wealthy, photographed by paparazzi worldwide, yet, unhappy in marriage or relationships, and both died tragically in August at a young age – young icons snuffed out like candles in the wind. Ecclesiastes gives bad news for those who base their hopes on the perishable wealth and goods of this world, echoing a stark message: vanity of vanities, all is vanity! All of human life is ultimately meaningless if viewed in itself, apart from God. Five days after Princes Diana died there was another “going home” for Mother Teresa (who died on Oct 4, 1997 at 86) who was a “wise woman” to spend her whole life sharing Christ’s selfless, caring agape love with the downtrodden in the streets of Calcutta.  God blessed her sharing love by increasing her 12 member Missionaries of Charity congregation to 3000 serving the poor and the discarded in 100 countries. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/).

Scripture lessons summarized:  The first reading, taken from Ecclesiastes, reminds us that the greedy acquisition and the selfish hoarding of goods are useless because when the hoarder dies, he goes to eternity empty-handed, and his heir gains, and perhaps squanders, his riches. In the Responsorial Psalm (Ps 90), the Psalmist challenges us to listen to God and allow Him to soften our hearts that we may share our blessings with others. The Psalm Response urges, “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 95: 8). In the second reading, Paul directs our attention to lasting Heavenly treasures and warns that greed for wealth and influence is idolatry.  He advises the Colossians, “Put to death, your parts that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry” (Colossians 3: 5). In today’s Gospel, Jesus, telling the parable of the foolish rich man, warns the disputing brothers, and us, against all types of greed, because greed takes our life’s focus away from God and away from serving and loving Him in other people. Jesus says God called the greedy rich man a fool because the man thought he would not die soon and that he was not accountable for his riches. He forgot that his wealth was lent to him by God for sharing with the needy. Jesus also warns us that our eternal life does not consist of earthly possessions (Luke 12: 15), and so we should share our possessions to gain eternal life.   

First reading: Ecclesiastes 1: 2; 2: 21-23 explained:  The book of Ecclesiastes (also called Qoheleth), is the most pessimistic and cynical book in the whole Bible. The author claims that he has “seen all things that are done under the sun” and found them to be “a chase after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14).  He expresses a ruthlessly honest pessimism about the prospects for finding true happiness in the greedy acquisition of earthly goods, because the greedy hoarder leaves everything behind at his death, and his heir may squander his hard-earned wealth. Even while he is alive, wealth and power give man worry and sleeplessness. "All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest” (Ecclesiastes 2: 23).  Hence, greed and selfishness are not worth the effort.  Thus, the statement, "Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity!" (Ecclesiastes 1: 2), is a blunt summation of Qoheleth’s disturbingly candid skepticism, underscoring the transitory and fleeting character of life. According to an old legend, Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), commanded that when he died and was carried forth to his grave, his hands should not be wrapped in the burial clothes, as was the custom, but should be left outside so that all might see them, and might see also, that they were empty. In the brief span of his thirty-three years, Alexander had conquered and possessed the riches of an empire that extended from Greece to India. Yet, in death, his hands were empty; none of his wealth could survive the passage through death.

Second reading: Colossians 3: 1-5, 9-11 explained:  We are living in a culture that caters to our desire for immediate gratification. It encourages us to amass possessions, and in many ways, it thrives on deceit. Hence, Paul directs our attention to those treasures that endure, warning that greed for wealth and influence is idolatry and that the faith-life of a believer requires Christ as its first priority. Baptism is our participation in the death and Resurrection of Jesus.  Paul reminds us that, since we have been raised with Christ through Baptism and are going in a Heavenly direction, we have to “put to death immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and the greed that is idolatry” (Colossians 3: 5). The desires of the human heart cannot be satisfied by what is here today and gone tomorrow because we have been made for “what is above” (Colossians 3: 1). For Paul, the whole process of joining Christ in glory revolves around “taking off our old self with its practices and putting on the new self, which is being renewed..., in the image of its Creator" (Colossians 3: 9-10).  Although power, influence and possessions come and go, our new self will endure because it is grounded in the power of the risen Lord.

Gospel exegesis:  The greed behind a property dispute:  The Jewish rabbis were often asked to settle disputes among their countrymen. They judged cases using the Mosaic Law as given in the Torah - the Jewish book of civil, religious and liturgical laws.   In matters concerning the distribution of property in a family with two children, the Torah (Deut. 21; 15-17, Numbers 27: 1-11, 36: 7-9), granted two thirds of the wealth to the elder son and one third to the younger. If there were several sons, the first-born would receive double the inheritance of his younger brothers and would serve as the patriarch of the family and executor of his father's estate.  In the case related in today's Gospel, either the older brother had delayed the partition of property or else the younger brother was greedy. Jesus refused to be an arbitrator in this property dispute between two brothers because he had come to bring people to God by preaching the Good News of God’s forgiving and sharing love.  But he used the occasion as a "teachable moment,” instructing the audience on the folly of greed and selfishness, while contradicting the Epicurean motto: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

 Why did Jesus say God called the rich man a fool? Traditional Jewish good works included prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Blessed with an excellent harvest, the rich landowner in Jesus’ parable did the opposite of giving alms. Instead of thanking God and sharing with the hungry, he planned to give himself over to a pagan orgy - "eat, drink and be merry." Jesus called him a fool because: 1) “He never saw beyond himself.” He was focused on himself and was selfish to the core. He liberally used the “aggressively possessive” pronouns “I” (six times) and “my” (five times). He was possessed by his possessions, instead of possessing them. In the process, he evicted God from his heart and never thought to thank God for having blessed him with a rich harvest. As God had been ousted from his heart, that heart became narrow and constricted with no space left for others in it.  Hence, the rich man gave no thought to the poor workers who had labored in his field, nor to his poor relatives, nor to the poor people in his community. In doing this, he turned his back on his Jewish heritage, for the Torah demands that gleanings from a harvest be left for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the immigrant (Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Dt. 24:21). The rich man in the parable did not care about others who were suffering. He did not show any regard for the hurting and needy. He did not voice any concern for keeping the community of which he was a part safe from unexpected droughts, famines, or plagues. The richer the man grew, the greedier he became, as suggested by the Roman proverb: “Money is like sea water; the more a man drinks the thirstier he becomes.” The rich man was called fool because he did not consider sharing the wealth. In other words, he left other people out of his possessions.

2) The foolish rich mannever saw beyond this world.”   He forgot that he was going to die, sooner or later. He also forgot that God had given him everything he had – the land, the good growing season and the excellent – not for himself alone but for all those around him who were in need. It was  as he was planning to build new barns and warehouses to store his wealth, that he heard the words all creatures will hear one day from their creator: "This night your life will be demanded of you!"  He left his soul out of his thoughts and, hence, left eternity out of his plans. This, as Jesus warns us in the parable, is folly.

 3) He failed to become “rich in what matters to God.” He left God out of his gratitude. He was not thankful to God for His blessings; instead, he considered them as solely the fruit of his own labor.  He also failed in his stewardship duties – the returning to God of His portion in paying his tithe.  Third, he did not recognize his possessions as on loan from God, given to him to share with others.  Fourth, he was taken up with worries or anxieties about his wealth.  He was starving to death spiritually in the midst of God’s abundance.   Yet, though he may have prayed the beautiful prayer in the book of Proverbs: "Give me neither poverty nor riches but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God." (Proverbs 30: 8-9), he did not change.

Life messages: 1) We are invited to share our blessings with others. The parable of the rich fool gives us a warning as well as an invitation. It reminds us that our possessions are merely lent to us by God, and that we are accountable for their use.  We must be generous in sharing our time, our treasure, and our talents, the three elements of Christian stewardship.  Every one of us is rich in one thing or another.  The parable instructs us to share these gifts. Even if we are poor financially, we may be blessed with intelligence, good will, a sense of humor or the ability to encourage, inspire and support others. God expects us to give our thanks to Him for all these blessings by sharing them with others for His glory. Giving God the first fruits of our labors, not the meager leftovers, is a traditional way of becoming “rich in what matters to God.” The Old Testament Scriptures are clear about tithing – 10% -- and that’s the top 10%, not the last 10%. God never allows tithers to regret their generosity.  Not only are tithers better off economically but also, they feel a sense of personal satisfaction.

2) Let us control our greed.  Our greed takes different shapes and forms. For some it may be the desire for the approval and praise of others.  For others it is the uncontrolled desire for power, control or fame.  For a few others it takes the form of desire for excessive and sinful indulgence in eating, drinking, gambling, drugs or sexual activities.  Greed also turns our life away from God, away from serving and loving other people. As greed directs all our energy and attention to fulfilling the self, its objects become our false gods, and they will consume us unless we become rich in the sight of God. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)

01 August 2019, 10:53