Sunday, August 05, 2007

Sunday word, 05 Aug 2007

18th Sunday of the Year (05 Aug 2007) Eccl 1. 2, 2.21-23; Ps 90; Col 3. 1-5, 9-11; Lk 12. 13-21
Homily of Fr. Paul Panaretos, S.J.

Freer To Put to Use God’s Gifts

You know the logic of the Sunday lectionary: the gospel reading completes or fulfills the first reading from the Old Testament. Today that logic holds in a way not readily grasped. The familiar phrase, vanity of vanities, and the accompanying verses set a context for hearing Jesus in the gospel and in our lives.

We settled on our word vanity to translate a Hebrew word. Vanity may suggest to us first of all excessive pride in one’s appearance or unduly high self-opinion. But vanity also implies what is worthless or futile. To appreciate what Qoheleth meant we have to banish the image of primping in front of a mirror or puffed up images of ourselves. The Hebrew word vanity translates has a range of meaning: futility, absurdity; meaninglessness; even vacuous vapor.

The first reading provides a context to help us appreciate better Jesus’ words and his parable of the rich man with a bountiful harvest. Jesus’ parable is not complicated; in fact, Jesus was straightforward, like many ancients who reflected on life and possessions. One’s life does not consist of possessions. The rich man, who lacked nothing in Jesus’ parable, embodied what an ancient philosopher asserted about greed, that vice which always seeks more possessions: “the vice which seeks more possessions never rests from acquiring more.” We heard St. Paul, writing to the Colossians, equated this vice of greed with idolatry.

Even we who do not embody greed, feel its sting from time to time. And who of us does not find greed’s sting distracting from what and who really count and left desiring not to be enslaved to values that are void and frustrating?

Feeling overwhelmed by possessions is to be in the grip of possessions. Yet one’s life does not consist of possessions. Jesus’ meaning is clear: life is a gift of God, and it is of greater and lasting value. Jesus wants us to notice the difference between unrestrained greed, which is vicious, and legitimate pleasure and the cheerfulness possessions engender.

If we would read last week’s gospel when Jesus taught about prayer, and then addressing the disciples on courage in the face of challenges to living as his friends and his church, then we would find stunningly irrelevant the person’s request of Jesus at the opening of today’s gospel selection: “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” The person had not been paying attention. Not only is the request to mediate a dispute over an inheritance far out in left field, that person was unaware that Jesus was much more than a legal accountant or an estate lawyer.

If Jesus’ taught his disciples in deed and word not to fear threats against their lives, how much less ought fear generate compulsive concern with possessions!/1/

I am not naive to try to tell you that doing both --being more confident in the face of threats to life and not being controlled by possessions--is effortless or without challenge. I want to echo Jesus’ conviction that God does control history, even when appearance and experience suggest otherwise. We are not pawns in a divine game of chance. Einstein often said, “God does not play dice!” How often we live as if God’s kingdom were a sham and chaos was our fated existence.

You may want to prepare your daily 15 minutes with Jesus this week by taking stock of your own attitudes toward God which do not increase your trust: God is a lawyer; or a puppeteer; one watching your every move and waiting to pounce, and the like. Then begin by letting go of them and resting in the loving embrace of the Trinity. Ask Mary or your patron saint or the crowd, who heard Jesus parable, to present you to Jesus. Speak to Jesus, asking him to grace your confidence and to free you more to put to use created things rather than be used by them. Resolve to exercise your greater confidence or freedom with possessions in a concrete way in the hours after your prayer. Close your prayer by saying slowly the Lord’s Prayer, which is Jesus’ pledge that we always stand in God’s loving care. Saying the Lord’s Prayer rescues us from folly and makes us more truly wise.
/1/ Scripture often illustrates how much more or greater is God or divine life and love than mortals or human life and love. I am indebted to my teacher of New Testament Interpretation, Luke Timothy Johnson, for alerting me Luke reversed the direction (greater to less) of this technique in this gospel selection. Greater confidence in the face of death also frees one to cling less to things.
Wiki-image of Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes is in the public domain. Wiki-image of grain silos is used under the GNU Free Documentation License. .

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