Some years ago, I read a joke about a wealthy widower in a small town who had died. Before his death, he had invited his family to pick out what things in his house they would like to have after his death. One of his sons had chosen several pieces of large heavy furniture, so when he arrived for the funeral, he brought along a U-Haul trailer to put it in. Since he planned to leave right after the funeral, he hitched the trailer to the back of his car, and then joined the funeral procession right behind the hearse. Two old-timers who had known the dead man were standing on the sidewalk as the procession passed through town on the way to the graveyard. When they saw the car with the U-Haul trailer, one turned to the other and said, “Well, I guess you really can take it with you.”
The first generation of Christians thought that the Lord was going to come again soon, perhaps even during their lifetime. This is clearly the impression St. Paul gives in his first letter to the Thessalonians, for example. As that first generation of Christians began to die, however, it became obvious that Christ was not going to come all that soon. As time passed, expectation turned into disappointment. And that created a problem for the early Church. How could Christ’s delay be explained? And what were Christians supposed to do in the meantime?
Today’s gospel gives us a picture of how St. Luke addressed the problem. He reminds his readers of the words of Jesus: “Do not be afraid, any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings, and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.”
These are words that fly in the face of our culture, and that creates a new problem. “It’s all well and good to sell what we have and give to the poor,” we say, “but if we do that, isn’t that all the more reason to be afraid? What are we to live on?” Sometimes our greatest fear is that we will be left with nothing.
In a society organized like ours, clearly we have to have money to live. But money can be seductive, because it appears to be the key to everything, including happiness. And yet money is nothing in itself. If we were to wake up one morning all by ourselves on a desert island, all the money in the world would not do us any good. Money never warns us that if we happen to be rich, we are still poor people who happen to have money.
Certainly there is nothing wrong with material things in themselves. It is our greed that makes them seductive. If our purses are always full, we will think only about getting bigger purses. (Remember the man in last Sunday’s gospel who tore down his old barns to build bigger ones to store his crops in.) If we are thinking only about bigger purses, then it will gradually fade from our awareness that half the world is hungry. It might be good to remember the words of St. Basil the Great in this regard. “If you have two loaves of bread,” he wrote, “and you fail to give one of them to the poor, then you have sinned. If you have two pairs of shoes, and you fail to give one pair to the poor, then you have sinned.” These are strong words, but they are certainly worth thinking about.
If we are thinking only about bigger purses, we may also fail to notice that we are hungry ourselves, because our hearts are empty. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” Jesus tells us. If money is our treasure, there will be nothing in our hearts except money. Worse yet, if all we think about is money, then we are probably not going to recognize God’s kingdom when it arrives. Signs of the kingdom are easy to miss if we are distracted by wealth, power, or social status.
We have to realize that everything is temporary. We really can’t take it with us. Christ’s second coming, however long it may be delayed, is still going to happen. Whether it be at the end of the world or at the end of our lives, it is still going to happen. At that point, everything changes. Our treasure will longer consist of wealth, power, and pleasure, but rather of love, service, and joy. If we haven’t built up such a treasure, then we are going to be in real trouble. Therefore we must live now, as Jesus commands us, so as to build up a treasure which lasts. How do we do that? The answer lies in taking what God has given us and using it in humble service of others. The person who thus lives a life of detachment from material things, and who cares for others (who helps to feed the hungry half of the world, for example) – such a person will be rich in God’s eyes, and will inherit the kingdom of God. All the money in the world cannot buy the happiness that will be ours in that kingdom.
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