Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
July 31, 2016
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 13C
Almost four years after my father’s death, I still receive very vivid reminders of one of the central truths of both the human condition and the Gospel of Jesus Christ: “You can’t take anything with you” or—as a beloved friend once said shortly before his death, “I have never seen a hearse with a U-Haul attached to it.” As my mother and I continue to sort through so many of my father’s things, all carefully labeled, stored, and left behind—many of them for a future that never came—we have had a very sobering reminder that our only real legacy is our character and the good deeds that we have done or failed to do in our short time here on this earth. Our spirit is all that follows us into the “life of the world to come” as we await the final consummation of all things mortal at the “resurrection of the dead”, when “Christ is all and in all,” according to St. Paul. Even Jesus didn’t manage to leave this world without first dying, and, in this world of uncertainty, there is one thing of which I am quite sure: none of us gathered here this morning will manage to do so either.
And yet, it doesn’t require the death of a beloved parent, sibling, spouse, or partner to remind us of this central truth about human existence. Proponents of the so-called prosperity gospel notwithstanding, all of us know in our heart of hearts that we are not defined by our material wealth, and that the old tropes about “the one with the most toys in the end wins” and “greed is good” are categorically false. Since the onset of the “Great Recession” in late 2007, we have all had an unforeseen taste of the radical and chronic uncertainty and fragility of our so-called market economy, along with the excesses and abuses of casino capitalism and unregulated globalization. All over the world, income inequality has never been so great, and two billion people—one-third of the world’s population, most of them women and children—struggle to survive in truly abject poverty on less than two-dollars a day. When our reading this morning from the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes analyzes in excruciating detail all “the unhappy business God has given a human being to be busy with under heaven,” commenting that “all is vanity and a chasing after wind,” we don’t need to look any farther than this city of Newton, or stretch our imaginations beyond the shores of the USA, for vivid and chilling illustrations of precisely what the Hebrew Bible’s anonymous wisdom teacher means today when he declares that all things are empty and useless.
And who among us—and I include myself here—cannot find herself or himself, at one time or another at least, in the unhappy catalogue of follies, empty pleasures, sterile undertakings, unworthy goals, and illusory symbols of security, affection, and power enumerated in this morning’s readings from Ecclesiastes and Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians? Who cannot empathize with the anonymous Teacher’s rhetorical question:
“What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is a vanity.”
During the Middle Ages, it was common for Christian monks to keep before them on their reading desk a “memento mori,” a “remembrance of death” in the form of a skull. You often see this in paintings from the period, together with appointments containing the skeletal “grim reaper” around the tombs of nobles and kings from that era. They were a reminder to both the pious and the powerful that they too would someday go “the way of all flesh.” These monks did this in a Europe full of famine and disease because they knew—as any of us who have struggled with our own mortality, or who have watched a loved one die before our eyes knows—that death has a very sobering way of ordering our priorities and jolting us free from the innumerable “issues,” the little melodramas and squabbles of daily life, and the empty symbols of security, affection, and power—all tokens of the “false self”—with which we surround ourselves. I’ve modified this discipline of the memento mori somewhat. Because my name and birth-date are already inscribed on the headstone of the grave in which I will be buried some day, I keep a photograph of that marker at hand in my bedroom. It reminds me of where my very mortal body will rest one day, with only its hope in the love and the power of God, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, to “make it live again” at the last. It has often caused me to pause, at least, before I invest myself too seriously in the symbols of security, esteem, and authority proffered by our culture, or before I plunge headlong into the numerous pleasures and vanities of this passing life and the corrupted currents of this world.
Clearly, Jesus has these same themes about human mortality and the vanity of “everything under heaven” in mind in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Because the outraged brother in the exchange with Jesus is likely upset over the Torah’s requirement that the eldest son must receive a “double portion” of a father’s estate, he, the other son, is hoping that the distinguished rabbi from Nazareth will use his reputation and authority as a teacher of Torah and a mediator to broker a different outcome in the matter—a method of conflict resolution still very much in use in the Middle East today. In fact, it was just such a reputation for such skillful arbitration that catapulted Muhammad to leadership of the aggrieved and warring tribes of Medina.
Jesus, however, absolutely refuses to wade into this family quarrel, upholding the Torah’s clear requirements and warning the disgruntled brother to “Take care!” [and] Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” He then follows this admonition with his parable of the foolish landowner, who is clearly very smug and self-satisfied over his ingenuity and his accumulation of wealth and fortune. (And, I should note now during the current election cycle that any comparison between the parable’s landowner and the presidential candidates is purely coincidental, I’m sure.) Yet, just as the parable’s first-century real-estate mogul is about to wallow in the warm glow of self-satisfaction and his many possessions, together with all of his other symbols of security, esteem, and power, God takes him from this world with the words, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” And so, once more, Jesus aligns himself with Torah piety and the Jewish wisdom tradition encountered in this morning’s reading from Ecclesiastes.
But Jesus is not, as some modern New Testament scholars would have us believe, just another itinerant rabbi or a cynic philosopher or even a wisdom teacher of the first-century CE with a jaundiced and sardonic view of this world’s vanity and our familiar symbols of happiness and security. For Christians, Jesus is the Messiah—the Word and the Wisdom and the Power of God incarnate—whose “words of life” possess the freedom and truth to make us “have life and to have it more abundantly.” And, according to Jesus, this abundant life consists in what he describes this morning as being “rich toward God.” For Jesus, this means following his Way of poverty, humility, love, forgiveness, mercy, and solidarity with the suffering and the poor: his “anawim,” his “little ones.” To be “rich toward God” is the very opposite of greed and the effort to gain happiness and security through the paths of money, pleasure, and possessions. No, “richness toward God” is obedience to what Saint John Paul II called the “law of the gift”: the disposition of human persons fully considered to give and to share everything that they are and that they have with another. Jesus knows that genuine human existence is always co-existence—with God and with the other. We become our true self and fulfill our human vocation to be fully human persons through self-giving, not through self-assertion.
As I prayed these propers this week, I found myself both fascinated and challenged by this notion of being “rich toward God.” And as I struggled to hear God’s personal summons to me through these words, I realized that the greed and possessions of which our readings speak today are not only restricted to those ordinary and usual symbols of happiness and security in our society: a status car; a trophy house or a trophy spouse; money in the bank and a decent retirement “nest egg”; stocks and bonds; a good career; healthy and successful children; a vacation home or a cruise down the Amazon—in short, “la dolce vita.” No, greed and possessions may consist of one thin dime—in fact, it could even be our last dime—if it comes between us and total surrender to the majesty and the will of God. Greed and possessions may also take the form of an unhealthy behavior or pattern of life: an abusive, co-dependent marriage or relationship; an addiction; an unaddressed depression; a secure job that wastes our talents; unhealthy grief that refuses the present good for a past happiness; and even spiritual consolations and gifts. In short, greed and possessions, both material and spiritual—what Saint Paul characterizes this morning as an egregious form of “idolatry”—consist in any manifestation of the “false self” with its doomed programs for safety and security; affection and esteem; power and control. They are anything outside God and God alone; any source of false transcendence.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is summoning us to extravagant and prodigal spending, not saving: the spending of all that we are and all that we have—material or spiritual—for God and for the sake of God’s “kingdom.” And Jesus shows us just how to be “rich toward God” through his own life of mercy and forgiveness, radical obedience, self-emptying love, and complete surrender to the will of his “Abba,” his “Father,” even to giving himself over to death on the Cross as an expression of God’s solidarity, compassion, and suffering love for us. So, it is now up to each one of us, who claim to be the disciples of this “suffering servant”; this “good shepherd”; this “good Samaritan,” to examine our own life and our own values and our own priorities in the struggle to discern God’s unique and personal summons to our individual path of “richness toward God” through a life of radical and costly discipleship.
Let us pray, then, today for the grace—together with the rigor and the honesty—to “seek and to search out by wisdom” where our real treasures and, therefore, where our hearts truly abide. Let us keep a very sharp eye out for all of those sources and symbols of false transcendence and ephemeral security all around us—together with all of the doomed programs for emotional happiness cooked up by the “false self”—through which we are so easily seduced and confused. And, most importantly, let us pray for the grace and the help to follow the “more perfect way” of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ through a life of “richness toward God” mindful, as Saint Theresa of Avila tell us in the Interior Castle “that we possess absolutely nothing that we have not been given”—and that includes our very life.