04 August 2013

The Worldly Christian

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 4 August 2013

Readings: Ecc 1:2, 2:21-23; Ps 90:3-4,5-6,12-13,14,17; Col 3:1-5.9-11; Lk12:13-21

The Gospel reading this Sunday opens with a man from the crowd asking Jesus to mediate between him and his brother on the sharing of family property. It was customary for rabbis to be called upon to mediate disputes, but Jesus used the request to drive home a lesson on dealing with worldly riches.  It is also the theme of the other two readings this Sunday. I would like to sum up their message in three points:

1. We should not make riches our master.

This seems straightforward and sensible enough. St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises speaks of a choice we need to make: whether to follow the standard of Christ or the standard of Satan. And he cautions against taking the lure of Satan lightly for that is what makes him all the more effective. After all, the word Satan means the “deceiver”.

A few weeks ago, Pope Francis said that it saddens him to see priests and religious use expensive cars and the latest gadgets, when the money could have been used for better purposes such as helping the poor. Many people – within and without the Church – resonated with the Pope’s call to simplicity, and prompted a good amount of discernment on many of us priests.

Worse, when we let ourselves be deceived, we cause harm to others. Cardinal Chito Tagle, in his speech during the International Congress on the Eucharist in Quebec, Canada, in 2008, says that people who have exchanged the true God for idols like profit, prestige, pleasure, and control, also dedicate their lives to them – and sacrifice others to sustain the worship of their false gods. He asks: “How many factory workers are being denied the right wages for the god of profit? How many women are being sacrificed to the god of domination? How many children are being sacrificed to the god of lust? How many trees, rivers, hills are being sacrificed to the god of ‘progress’? How many poor people are being sacrificed to the god of greed? How many defenseless people are being sacrificed to the god of national security?”

Qoheleth the wise (in the First Reading) says: “Vanity of vanities!” All our toil is pointless. When our lives are mainly centered on working or gaining profit, ironically our toil is reduced to pointless vanity. This is not how God meant us to live.

2. We do not view riches as inherently evil either.

The readings this Sunday don’t say that it is wrong to acquire material possessions or dream of improving our lot. But haven’t we heard it said many times that money is the root of all evil? The text comes from 1 Tim 6,10, which actually says: “The love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.”

It is not riches in themselves that bring people to ruin. It is the inordinate attachment to them. How do we make the distinction between a healthy regard for riches and an inordinate attachment to them? St. Ignatius has a helpful phrase we can remember: “tantum quantum”. A simple translation would be “whatever helps”. He says our purpose in life is to worship and serve God and by doing so find our salvation. All other things in the world are created and made available to us in order to achieve this purpose. Thus, concerning material wealth and such other things as knowledge or good health, for as long as they bring us closer to God, we use them. If they don’t, then their usage becomes obstacles to achieving our true purpose.

3. Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.

The point comes from Christ’s reminder in Mt. 6,19: "store up treasures in heavens, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal".  The message is related to this Sunday’s parable about the rich man who thinks he can simply hoard all his harvest in a bigger barn and live the life he wanted (eat, drink, and be merry), and why Jesus calls him a fool.

The Fathers of the Church have generally interpreted this parable to mean our social obligation not to abandon the poor and the needy. Their position is well summed up by Venerable Bede: “The reason the Lord reproved the man who tore down his barns in order to build bigger ones was not that he cultivated the earth and collected its fruits into his barns, but that he did not divide with the poor what went beyond his needs–in which case he wouldn’t need larger barns–but instead built larger barns in which to keep them for himself.”

And don’t think the message is only for the materially rich. One can be poor and be inordinately attached to money. Another extreme that a Christian needs to avoid is romanticizing poverty. Renowned lay preacher Bo Sanchez narrates his conversion from this particular point of view in his book “8 Secrets of the Truly Rich”. He said an incident has become chiseled in his memory, and he was never the same again after it happened.

After one prayer meeting, a woman with her small daughter approached him and asked, “Bo, can you pray over me?” “Of course”, he smiled, “what can I pray for?” “Tomorrow is the last day for my daughter’s enrollment and I have no money…” She quietly sobbed, clutching her daughter to her waist. She explained that she’s been praying to God but it seems as though nothing was happening. “Bo, please pray over me that God will increase my faith.”

He became curious. “How much money do you need exactly?”, he asked. “P700”, she said. “P700? P700 only?” He couldn’t believe his ears. “It’s a monthly instalment thing”, she explained. At that precise moment, he wanted to pull out his wallet and give her the 700 bucks. He wanted to say, “Look sister, I don’t have to pray over you. Here’s the money and go home!” But he couldn’t. No matter how much he wanted to. Because as he stood there in front of her, he knew that he only had P20 in his wallet. P20!

So what did he do? He prayed over her. After he laid his hands over her, she thanked him and bid farewell. He said: “Believe me, I’ve done a lot of difficult things in my life. But one of the most difficult was watching this lady and her daughter walk out of the room empty-handed.”

When they disappeared through the door, he sat down on a chair and felt a deep pain inside. A prayer formed in his heart: “Lord I don’t want his to ever happen again. Oh, to have money to help others! Help me help them.”

Fast forward a few years later. Bo Sanchez now earns enough to send a few children to school. And he says the feeling is incredible. 

Material wealth, physical beauty, good health – all these things pass away, some even before we reach the grave. The beauty about storing treasures in heaven is that it doesn’t just prepare us for the life hereafter, it also paves the way for a meaningfully happy way of life even now.

Adapted from my homily on the same theme and readings three years ago.

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