Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Readings: Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23; Ps 90:3-6, 12-17; Col 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21
Here today and gone tomorrow!
"Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!" At first glance, this well-known saying from the Book of Ecclesiastes sounds very pessimistic. Some might say that the rest of that biblical book gets even worse. However, such an evaluation is a misreading of a very sobering yet genuine perspective on life's pursuits, but not on life itself. This phrase from the ancient sage, the responsorial psalm for today, and the story in the gospel underscore what we all know so well from experience, namely, that everything and everyone is 'here today and gone tomorrow.' Because of this fact, the author of Ecclesiastes insists that the meaning of life cannot be found in possessions that do not last.
This is a hard saying in a world such as ours where our personal value is often measured by the extent and quality of our possessions. Those who are admired are the people who have money; those who have power are the people who have money; those who set so many of the standards of society are the people who have money. Qoheleth, the teacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes, says that this is all vanity, emptiness, futility. The Hebrew word for 'vanity' might be better translated 'lacking in substance.' According to Qoheleth, the admiration of others, the power, and the influence all 'lack substance,' they are 'here today and gone tomorrow.'
Today's gospel reading contains a similar message. In it, Jesus tells a parable of a rich man who thought about nothing but enlarging his barns for the overflowing harvests he was expecting. There is no indication that this man gained his wealth dishonestly. Nor does the parable say that he manipulated or oppressed his workers. The point being made addresses the question of values. According to Jesus, this man was a fool because he invested all of himself in a treasure with would be of little use to him when he died. There is an implication here that he was "not rich in what matters to God." The parable was used by Jesus to underscore the vanity or folly of greed.
Paul directs our attention to the treasures that really endure. In the passage from the Letter to the Colossians, he admonishes us to seek what is above, not what is of the earth and will not endure. What does this really mean to us in the everyday events of life? Actually, Paul's exhortation to put to death "immorality, impurity, passion, evil desires, and the greed that is idolatry," and to "stop lying to one another" hits home as if he had our world in mind when he first spoke these words. Our world caters to our desire for immediate gratification of every kind. It encourages us to amass as many possessions as possible. In so many ways this point of view thrives on deceit. Neither Qoheleth nor Jesus nor Paul would say that life on earth is meaningless. Rather, they all insist that one cannot find life's real meaning in possessions. To think that way is foolish.
Paul reminds us that, through our Baptism, we have been brought into the power of Jesus' death and resurrection. In this way we died to a life "lacking in substance," and we were raised with him to a new life, a life with substance. We "have put on a new self, which is being renewed...in the image of its creator." Power and influence and possessions come and go, but this new self will endure because it is grounded in the power of the Risen Lord. We are now expected to live moral and upright lives in a world that fosters immorality of every kind; we are now called to be generous with our possessions, our time, and ourselves in a world that applauds greed and selfishness; we are now required to be honest in our dealings with each other in a world devoured by every form of deceit.
So many of the pursuits of life today are vain, empty, lacking in substance. Our culture idolizes youth, money, pleasure, and a carefree style of living. Yet we all know that such pursuits are very tenuous. Youth certainly does not last long for anyone. Financial stability is out of the reach of many, and those who are able to enjoy it know that it does not take much for such stability to be threatened, even turned upside down. Pleasure itself is like a ravenous beast that is seldom satisfied; and people who can afford to enjoy a carefree style of living tell us that they often tire of it or grow out of it. If we look deep into ourselves, we will have to admit that the human heart longs for something more permanent, more lasting. We will soon come to see that we have been made for "what is above;" that the desires of the human heart cannot be satisfied by what is 'here today and gone tomorrow.'
Dianne Bergant, CSA
Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies
This reflection first appeared in America magazine and can now be found in The Word for Every Season: Reflections on the Lectionary Readings (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2010)
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