People tell me they come to church each week so they can return to their lives and their livelihoods refreshed and renewed. And for some time, I’ve been saying I don’t think that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. Instead, I think we’re supposed to leave with an itch—not the kind that needs scratching, but some intellectual or spiritual yearning that drives us to uncover truth and beauty and meaning and purpose. So we are just a little more awake and alert. And we begin living just a little more intentionally and purposefully, like we’re actually trying to arrive someplace specific, and not just be cruising aimlessly along until we accidentally bump or crash into something good.
As in all our travels, we are sure to encounter all kinds of things—like sunshine, friendly faces, pleasant conversation, barking dogs, stray cats, the occasional horsefly, breezes, sunsets, hunger, thirst, boredom, fatigue, bugs—the kind that sting as well as the kind that just annoy, joint pain, blisters, bunions, scrapes, and scratches. And those are just eventualities we can somewhat expect to encounter knowing the physical limitations and conditions we’re working with. Not so much if, but when.
Then there are those things we just might face but hope we don’t, like needing tissues, an umbrella, sunscreen, a dry pair of socks, power bars and breath mints, a band-aid, eye drops, an epi pen, matches, a flashlight, photo ID, dental records.
And then we hear about people getting lost at sea or in the wilderness for days and weeks. You never know what you’ll need before you get into a pickle, so you also hope you have the patience, courage, resourcefulness, and just over-all smarts to handle whatever. At least they won’t be taking up precious room in your pocket or backpack.
Clearly it’s helpful to know what’s up ahead, literally and figuratively. As with everyday living, the Boy Scout motto is a practical way to approach life in general—be prepared. But we can only be as prepared as we know how, meaning, experience can help us gain much needed wisdom. But it’s no guarantee. Sometimes even experience needs to slap us upside the head a couple dozen times before anything sinks in. And for some reason, other people seem to catch those important lessons before we do.
One of the great mysteries of life, which is the subject of much of the book of Ecclesiastes from which we read today, is—What is it all about? Life. Existence. Why are we here? Are we headed somewhere? Is there some significance to all of this? What is my part in all of this? Basically, questions we ask when we hit puberty, which, if you’re not there yet, brace yourself. If you’re in the middle of it, good luck. And if you’re well past it, either you’ve found your answers or you’ve given up asking. Or you’re still asking, and perhaps even enjoying the ride, along with the waiting and not knowing.
“All things are vanity!” we read in today’s first reading. Vanity is defined as excessive pride in one’s own appearance, abilities, achievements, or potential. I suppose a modest and sensible pride is acceptable. You want to be decent and presentable but not pretentious. When people compliment you and admire your handiwork, you smile and say thank you. If they want to know more, they’ll ask. Otherwise, move on along.
I suppose “excessive” is when that pride is judgmental and obnoxious. We want to make a reasonably good impression, but we certainly don’t need to put anyone else down to feel good about ourselves, or to succeed in life. If other people are envious and snippy and suspicious and resentful, that’s not anything we can fix. But if people we love and respect start to notice and tell us that our popularity or affluence is making us behave differently, maybe they’re on to something. It’s a “come to Jesus” moment.
Civil law acknowledges that every person has the right to own property and enjoy its use. John Adams says this principle is as sacred as the law of God. Calvin Coolidge says property rights are the same as personal rights. It makes absolute sense. And to top it off, our free market system imposes no legal limits on the amount of property any one person may own—homes, cars, land, cats, corgis, bling. But it is still incumbent on one’s own sense of modesty and decency to not stick out or attract undue notice. Excess is too much of something as viewed in the context of its surroundings. If you look out in the church parking lot and there’s a limousine, either there’s a wedding going on, or someone is desperately trying to be noticed. People who are not actual royalty at an official state function do not ordinarily wear headgear studded with precious stones and metals. And if you’re walking around church or screaming or talking loudly during the readings or the homily or the consecration, there’s a good chance other people will notice.
In the parable about the rich man who cared more about his earthly possessions than about being rich in what matters to God, Jesus was not expressing disapproval for his being successful or wealthy. His warning earlier in the passage was that we guard against all greed because our life is ultimately not about the things we possess. Greed is one of those excesses, an inordinate, insatiable, and selfish yearning for material things. There’s nothing wrong with saying you like a car or a phone or a house you see. Something is wrong when you start behaving like your life is incomplete until you own it. Jesus says elsewhere in the gospels that it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Perhaps that’s because it’s easier to desire more of something if it’s in the realm of possibility to obtain it to begin with. But greed is not about possessing something, as it is about excessively desiring it, to the point that one’s thinking or behavior or sense of right and wrong is altered, and things become more important than people.
When Jesus gave us the commandment of love, he reminded us that there is no other commandment that surpasses it, because the whole law and the prophets depend on it. And nowhere in the commandment does he mention a love for wealth or prestige or popularity, nothing that surpasses love for God and love for neighbor. He recognizes that a person must love themselves, but he places love of one’s neighbor above it. So if we are to concern ourselves with being rich in what matters to God, no earthly thing, nothing that can be owned or bought or sold or stored or destroyed in this life will be of primary importance. Ever. Secondary importance? Knock yourselves out.
St. Paul reminds us, “If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above. … Put to death the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry. Stop lying to one another.” As I was hearing that reading this morning, I thought of “the greed that is idolatry.” Idolatry is the worship of false gods. Greed is the worship of the false god that is oneself. Earthly riches may assist us in our pursuit of heavenly riches. And perhaps that right there is what it’s really all about.
Rolo B Castillo © 2019