Commentary on the Readings
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 4, 2019 – Year C
To Accumulate Goods for Oneself is Madness
Three times in the Gospel of Luke Jesus was asked for indications about inheritance. “What shall I do to receive eternal life?”—they ask, first a doctor of the law (Lk 10:25), then a notable (Lk 18:18). Jesus responds to both explaining in detail what are the conditions for having a part in this legacy. In a dialogue with the disciples he introduces the eternal inheritance discourse: “As for those who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or property for my Name’s sake they will receive a hundredfold, and be given eternal life” (Mt 19:29).
The third request is what is reported in today’s Gospel. Two brothers are unable to reach an agreement. Note the curious fact: the inheritance should be divided, instead he is asked to share. The trap in which money drags those who are no longer circumspect is sneaky. It gets them where they don’t want, causes them to behave in a certain way, separates them from friends, divides their family, and makes them forget God. Above all, it misleads them because it ejects from their mind the thought of death.
In the past, death was shaking like a scarecrow. Today, we are witnessing the opposite phenomenon, but equally damaging. One tries to forget that in that very moment in which one starts to live, one also starts to die.
The senselessness, the dulling caused by money are easily detected in the fact that, in the presence of death (the division of inheritance takes place after a demise), greed does remove the thought of death. Jesus never despised the goods of this world, but he warned against the danger of becoming a slave.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Teach us, Lord, to number our days that we may gain wisdom of heart.”
Around 220 B.C. a wise man lives in Jerusalem. He is called Ecclesiastes (Qohelet), that is the one that brings together the assembly. His profile is well described in the epilogue of the book: “Besides being a wise man, Qohelet, taught the people; he listened, studied, and classified a great number of proverbs. Qohelet tried to write in a pleasant style and express frankly words of truth” (Ecl 12:9-10).
He lives in a time characterized by well-being and the flourishing of considerable economic activity. Wherever foreign traders meet; they trafficked slaves, cattle, gold, pearls, scented resins of the East, the bitter incense of Arabia. Many Jews let themselves be fascinated by the opportunity to get rich. They develop a passion for new trends, adhere to the new costumes. They think nothing but money, to the point of renouncing their faith and forgetting the religious practice. It is a collective delusion, a wild ride and mindless accumulation of assets.
Qohelet—wise that he is—observes with attention and detachment this agitated busying of themselves, reflects and wonders: is it worth it or is it all a “chasing after the wind” (Ecl 2:11)?
From the beginning of his book, he spells out the answer to this agonizing question: “All is vanity” (v. 2). He repeats this sad and bitter conclusion as a refrain for 25 times. Qohelet knows the historical events that took place a hundred years before, events that shook the world. Darius the king of Persia, powerful and immensely rich, was humiliated by Alexander. He, in turn, only thirty-three years old, died in Babylon and the funeral procession which accompanied him in the West brought the invincible conqueror reversely on the road he had walked triumphantly only a few years earlier. What remained of Alexander and of his kingdom?
People seek the most varied and refined pleasures; they crave for wealth and aspire to social consideration. They try to perpetuate their presence in the world through their children, fight and kill to achieve power. The conclusion is always the same: at the end, without distinction, they are stripped of everything.
Today’s Reading proposes the reflection of Qohelet on the accumulation of assets: “For here was a man who toiled in all wisdom, knowledge, and skill and he must leave all to someone who has not worked for it.” Is this not vanity and a great evil? (v. 21). Later he will resume the theme and will conclude: “Naked he came from his mother’s womb, he returns as he came–naked. Nothing of the fruit of his toil is he able to take with him. That, too, is a grievous evil. As he came, so he goes. So what did he gain from chasing the wind?” (Ecl 5:14-15).
So what to do? Stop working, not committing oneself any longer? Eating, drinking, having fun and not thinking about others?
Qohelet advises his disciples a healthy enjoyment of what life offers. However, he leaves suspended the fundamental questions about the meaning of life. The answer cannot be found in his book but in the Gospel. Jesus will be the one to throw open new horizons, to teach not to fret about vanity, not to chase the wind.
“Set your mind on things that are above, not on earthly things” (v. 2). It seems an invitation to despise this world and to be impervious to material problems in order to turn only to the sky.
To understand this exhortation we must keep in mind that Paul is speaking of baptism. Through this sacrament—he says—the Christian is dead to the old life, was raised with Christ and with him he started a whole new life (vv. 1-4). “To put to death what is earthly” means to do away not with the reality of this world but that part of man which belongs to the earth: “immorality, impurity, inordinate passions, wicked desires, and greed which is a way of worshipping idols” (v. 5).
Then he resumes the same thought with another image: that of the dress. The Christian has been stripped of the old self and put on the new (v. 10). Why then, even after baptism, do we experience so much misery and so many weaknesses? Paul continues: Because in us the new man “is being renewed in knowledge and the likeness of its creator” (v. 10). What a strange expression: the new man who is renewed! What does it mean?
In baptism, the Christian has, yes, put on the new man; he already carries in himself the image of the Creator. However, this similarity is not yet fully manifested. It is still covered by many impurities thus rendering the face of the Father less recognizable. Only when he will let himself be cleaned of his old life, his pagan customs, only then the new man will appear.
It is an invitation not to be discouraged. Paul addresses it to the Christian conscious of being still far from the similarity with the Father. He’s new, but “is still renewing himself.”
Despite some bickering between brothers, in general, they love each other. Until when? Until the day when they are not called to share the inheritance. In front of money and property, even the best of people, Christians too, often end up losing their heads and become blind and deaf: they see only their interest and are willing to override even the most sacred sentiments. At times, with the help of a wise friend, the parties are able to agree, at other times instead the hatred lasts for years and the brothers stop talking to each other.
One day Jesus was chosen as a mediator to solve one of these family contrasts (v. 13). In such cases, a suggestion, a good tip is not denied to anyone. Here was the surprising answer of the Master: “Who has appointed me as your judge or your attorney?” (v. 14). Probably we do not agree with him. Why does he hold back? Does he want to teach not to give value to the realities of this world? Does he invite us to shy away from the real problems of life? Does he recommend to tolerate the oppression of the arrogant? It cannot be. A similar choice would be contrary to the rest of the Gospel. Let us understand it better.
The situation presented to him has arisen because one has attempted to commit an injustice and the other is in danger of suffering it. What to do?
Various solutions can be taken: invent an excuse to escape the complicated issue, or rely upon the provisions in force that, in the time of Jesus, are those set forth in Deut 21:15-17 and 27:1 and in Num 27:1-11. It needs only to be applied to the specific case, after having filtered them, if necessary, through a little common sense. This would probably be the solution that we would have adopted. It seems the most logical and wiser, but has a serious drawback: it does not eliminate the cause from which all the discord, hatred, and injustice are derived.
Instead of solving the individual case, Jesus chooses to go to the root of the problem. “Be on your guard—he tells everyone—and avoid every kind of greed, for even though you have many possessions, it is not that which gives you life” (v. 15).
Here the cause of all evil is singled out: the greed of money, the desire to grab things. The disagreements arise always when one forgets a basic truth: the goods of this world do not belong to us but to God, who allocates them to all. Who hoards for oneself, who grabs more than he or she should, without thinking of others, distorts the Creator’s plan. The goods are no longer considered gifts of God, but man’s property, from precious objects they are transformed into idols to worship.
Here one notices not the contempt of Jesus for material goods, but his detachment from this world and the superiority of his projects and of his proposals. The inheritance to which he is interested is something else. He has in mind the Kingdom that will be “inherited” by the poor (Mt 5:5). He has in mind—as Peter will say to the newly baptized—the inheritance that does not corrupt nor goes bad nor passes away (1 Pt 1:4).
To clarify his thought he tells a parable (vv. 16-20), the central part of which consists of the long argument that the rich farmer does with himself.
This man I think proves himself likeable. He commits himself, is wise, obtains optimum results and is also fortunate and blessed by God. He does not say that he has enriched himself committing injustice and theft. There is the assumption that he is also honest. Having achieved well-being he decides to retire for a well-deserved rest: he does not plan revelry and debauchery, just a quiet, comfortable and blessed life. If in this story someone behaves incomprehensibly—I would almost say cruel—God seems to be the one. Where did the farmer go wrong? Why is he called foolish?
The characters in the parable are only three: God, the rich man and … the goods. Has this man—we wonder—no family, wife, children? No neighbors? No workers? Of course, he has them. He lives among the people, but he does not see them. He has no time, no energies to use, no thoughts, no words, and no feelings for the people. He is only interested in one who speaks of property and suggests how to increase them. He thinks of the crops, the stores, and the wheat. In his mind there is no room for anything else, certainly not for God. The assets are the idol that has created a vacuum around him and has dehumanized all. Even the farmer, in his heart, is no longer a man; he is a thing: he is a machine that produces and makes calculations, is a register of accounts.
We feel compassion for him because he is a poor, unfortunate, mad man, as Jesus said. Something in him is broken because he has no inner balance, has completely lost the orientation and the meaning of life. Consider his monologue: he uses fifty words, fourteen of them refer to “I” and “mine” … Everything is his; only he and his property exist. He’s foolish.
But suddenly the third character appears—God who, that very night, asks him an account of his life. Do not ask why the Lord acts in this way, why is he so “nasty” and “vindictive.. It is a story. God—mind you!—does not do these things. Jesus introduces him in the parable to show his audience what are the true values on which it is worthwhile to point in life, and what are those ephemeral and deceptive ones.
The judgment of God is heavy: who lives to accumulate assets is a fool! Is wealth thus bad? Absolutely not. Jesus has never condemned it; he never asked anyone to throw it away, but he warned against the serious dangers that it hides.
The ideal of a Christian is not a miserable life. At the end of the parable, the mistake made by the rich farmer is indicated. He is not condemned because it has produced many goods, worked hard, was committed, but because “he has amassed for himself” and “has not enriched himself in the sight of God” (v. 21).
Here are the two woes produced by being blinded with goods.
The first: to enrich oneself alone, accumulating wealth for oneself without thinking of others. Wealth must be increased, but for everyone, not just for some. Incompatible with the Gospel is “greed,” the “insatiable craving for possession,” the foolish feelings and thoughts of one who, like the farmer of the parable, obsessively repeats that wretched possessive pronoun “my.” When the energies of all people will be engaged to increase not the “mine” and the “yours,” but ours, then the causes of war, discord, and problems of inheritance will be eliminated.
The second woe: having excluded God from his own life, replacing him with an idol. This choice leads to “madness” and the most obvious symptom is the removal of the thought of death.
Who idolizes money becomes paranoid; he does not live in a real world, but in what he built for himself and imagines as eternal. He forgets “the measure of his life and how short life is”; he does not take into account that “each living person is only a breath, passes like a shadow. He is just a mere whiff of breath, rakes in wealth, not knowing who will take it next” (Ps 39:5-7).
Is one who owns no fields and has no bank account not affected by this parable? Jesus does not warn one who has great wealth, but whoever accumulates for oneself. One can have a little money and have the “heart of the rich.”
Everyone should be aware that the treasures of this world are treacherous, they do not accompany us to the other life.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.