Just a Thought
Into the framework of Christ’s ‘journey to Jerusalem’, Luke has incorporated certain teachings of Jesus that function as steps in Christian catechesis. It would be pointless to try to divide this mélange into strict chapters that would, in an orderly fashion, deal with well-defined subjects; it was not according to such criteria that Luke did ‘write [the received teachings] down in an orderly sequence.’ (Luke 1:3) The modern mind tends to be put off by this. But one must recognise that the evangelists style has a certain advantage, in that his ‘sequence’ becomes as a result more lifelike and natural. Given on the occasion of random encounters and situations, these teachings bear a striking resemblance our own meanderings, our ‘journeys.’ Our companions say different, even unconnected, things to us from day to day. There is nothing systematic or artificial in their words. On the contrary, things that are said by chance, often seemingly disconnected, can have a profound impact on us, indelibly written in our memories and hearts. These remarks and teachings may appear to be disjointed and illogical, but they are not.
In the lectionary’s four excerpts from chapters twelve to thirteen of Luke’s Gospel which we shall see over the next few weeks, Jesus’ teachings are seen from the perspective of the ‘End’ of all things — eternity, the Master’s return, judgement, entry into the kingdom. The happy end to human life does not depend on wealth, and it is foolish to hoard it when what is needed is to grow rich ‘in matters of God’. The Christian must therefore dedicate him/herself to gathering a never failing treasure, behaving as a ‘faithful and prudent steward’. Such conduct and behaviour contrast sharply with the world’s ways of acting, often leading us to conflict with those who do not appreciate all things in the light of this ‘End.’ Yet entry into the kingdom requires these choices, as we shall see over the next few weeks.
This is what Jesus says in today’s Gospel in a very concrete manner in response to a question of inheritance, with the help of a parable. Preaching absolute detachment from the riches of the world, and never missing a chance to insist on the privilege and beatitude of the poor, Luke is just as ready to recount the teachings of Jesus on the proper use of possessions.
‘In the crowd,’ someone asks Jesus to intervene so that his elder brother will give him his rightful share of an inheritance. ‘Master, tell my brother to give me a share of our inheritance’ This man hopes that Jesus’ moral authority will make his brother listen to reason; he is only asking for what he is justly entitled to by law. But Jesus’ response must surprise him.
It is not a question of deciding a complicated dispute, the younger brother’s right is clear. Jesus could not have misunderstood or been uninterested, even worse, made himself, by his silence, an accomplice to a flagrant injustice. Besides which, he explains: ‘Who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?’ The response seems rather abrupt. But it is not really addressed to the one who asked for Jesus’ intervention. It is not therefore a cold refusal of his request, but a teaching of general significance given by the Master in light of what had been said to him. The situation has parallels in the Gospels. Thus, for example, when a woman in the crowd cried: ‘Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed!’ Jesus replied, ‘Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.’ (Luke 11:27-28) On another occasion he declared: ‘My Mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it .’ (Luke 8:21). Clearly, by speaking in this way Jesus does not contest the ‘Beatitude’ of his mother and does not set her in opposition to those who listen to the word of God, keep it, and put it into practice.
It is the crowd he is speaking to. Simple remarks having occasioned a chance to present a teaching of general importance that is worthwhile for all. Here it has to do with earthly goods: ‘Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.’ The parable that follows illustrates Jesus’ point very well. To give the parable more impact, some features are forced, and others are used for dramatic effect. Thus the rich man in this scene is presented as a man of exceptional material success: his new harvest is so large that it is imperative that he build more and bigger barns to hoard all the grain he owns. This man who believes that he ‘has it all’ and says to his soul ‘My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time,’ dies suddenly the very night after he had made these great plans. What a mockery, as the first reading tells us: ‘Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. For so it is that a man who has laboured wisely must leave what is his own to someone who has not toiled for it at all.’ What a striking illustration of the teaching: ‘though one might be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.’ He has grown rich for himself; he must suddenly abandon it all. What he has put aside will go to others. To whom is not important, for his heirs will find themselves in the same situation unless they recall the parable in time and devote themselves to growing rich in ‘What matters to God.’
To whatever problem we find ourselves confronted with, Jesus, who has not been appointed as our judge in these matters, will make the same response he did to the man who accosted him on the road to Jerusalem. But what does it mean to grow rich ‘in what matters to God’? The Gospel does not enter into a detailed examination of specific cases, which, after all, could not form an exhaustive list. But it enunciates a principle: Consider always and in everything what will remain of it after our death. We will be stripped of all material goods, though they be acquired completely legitimately. This is a universal fact. Consequently, each of us must act with respect to what will remain after our death, which can only be the quality of our work and the use we will have made of our goods, whether we owned much or little, whether we dwelt in opulence or squalor. All other behaviour is ‘foolish’, even if our death will not come upon us ‘this very night.’ It is obvious that ‘a man’s life’ — the life which is followed by death — is not guaranteed by his possessions. This recollection is completed by the warning ‘Take care to guard against all greed,’ that is to say, all avidity, cupidity, and lawless seeking after material gain.
We must recognise, that in our immensely wealthy consumer society, we fight an uphill struggle in order not to succumb to that lust for gain, that appears under so many false names. When we hear the Gospels proclaim that we should be on our guard against greed, its’s easy to say that it applies not to us but to others ‘out there’ that they are stricken with an evil that will leave us unscathed. Not so my friends. None of us is wholly free from ‘the old self’. On this earth we will never entirely put on ‘the new self’ or make ourselves ‘sowers of justice.’ And we will always be at risk of falling. So pray not to be put to the test as the Lord taught us: ‘And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.’
So what good is it to toil, ‘to labour under the sun,’ to live, since sooner or later death will come? It seems impossible to avoid such a question. This is in fact to ask about the meaning of life, a quest of every human, the way one should live, objectives to be pursued and their priorities, the value of earthly realities. Even when one really tries to discern all this, or tries to persuade oneself about the truth of the matter, how can we be sure? The believer has no problem with this, for he is told in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘Man is restless and is searching for the meaning of his life, and he cannot rest until his soul rests in God’ And so ‘The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.’ (CCC. 27)
And only then will he store treasure in heaven!