18th Sunday of ordinary time. Today’s readings: Qoheleth 1,2; 2,21-23; Colossians 3,1-5.9-11; Luke 12,13-21
It must be by sheer coincidence that it happens to be my turn to offer this reflection on the Sunday liturgy. It so happens that last week my family purchased a grave that someday will be used for yours truly. It was an opportunity for me to think long and hard about the meaning of life. Then I read today’s words “vanity of vanities; all is vanity… generations come and generations go… they must leave all they own to another” (Qoh 1,2.4; 2,21), words that rang true more than usual.
Let us pause for a while and analyse the Master’s parables. In today’s teaching, he points to the foolishness of one who, seemingly tactfully, built bigger barns to store his large harvest. He had found a way of investing his belongings to secure a happy future for himself.
But the Lord had also recounted a parable about individuals who were rewarded precisely for multiplying the talents with which they had been entrusted! The ones who had generated most talents were deemed good and faithful servants. Clearly, the Lord was critical, not of hard-working, enterprising people, but rather of those whose only concern is material wealth. Elsewhere, he likened the deceitfulness of wealth with a thorny bush that wraps around individuals, suffocating even God’s word within them.
Interestingly, even as far back as in biblical times, Hebrew never had the verb “to have”. To express the verb “I have”, Hebrew uses the construction “it is to me” – a stark reminder of the fact that I can never fully possess something. Today, something “is to me”, tomorrow it will be “to someone else”. It is not by a fluke that the very first piece of property that God’s people had in the Promised Land was a burial place, bought by Abraham for his wife Sarah. Before the Israelites even took possession of the land, this transaction must have signalled the ephemeral nature of human life on earth.
Though not the main storyline of the film, greed features in The Best Offer (2013), starring Geoffrey Rush, who played the part of an expert auctioneer who seemingly used underhanded means for obtaining more and more paintings. The avid art collector, who had a fixation with female portraits, ended up losing all his belongings and spiralling into a depressive state, having also been betrayed by his friends who turned out to be even greedier than him. Qoheleth, a sage who had lived long enough to better understand the complexity of life’s mysteries, alerted his readers to how volatile everything is.
Apart from the gravitational pull of planet Earth, various phenomena influencing our ego often exert centripetal forces that facilitate an unhealthy attachment to the fleeting realities of this world. Jesus uses very strong terms to warn us about this fact: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed…”. Such admonitions are usually used in cases of extreme danger, which shows how fatally entangled human beings can become with earthly possessions. The one who claimed to be life itself continued thus: “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Lk 12,15).
How fatally entangled human beings can become with earthly possessions
There is indeed a way of becoming truly wealthy that the Lord commends: love God with all your strength, this including one’s financial muscle. A Father of the Church said that the wealthy man in the Gospel parable did not need to build barns for his abundant produce because the mouths of the poor were the barns he needed to fill. Those gaping mouths can only be noticed when one’s gaze is on the Lord: “Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honour at God’s right hand” (Col 3,1).