Alone on the Shore, Pixabay
[Jesus said] “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Luke 12:15
It is often said that Christianity is counter-cultural. Today’s readings certainly support that idea. Jesus tells the tale of a man who works hard to build up his fortune, his belongings, only to have God call him from this life before he can enjoy it all. Pitch that against an average night’s ads on TV. They all state quite clearly that we are what we own, because “I’m so beautiful” or because “I’m worth it”. In its way, maybe today’s gospel message is all about the 10th Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods”. Put in a more positive light, God instructs us to be happy for our neighbor’s success, not resentful or envious. The one is positive, the other destructively negative.
When I was teaching, I would give my students an exercise each year to bring all this to light. They were instructed to ask their parents, and their parents’ friends a simple question: “Are you happy in your work?” If the answer was in the affirmative, they were to ask why. If in the negative, they were told that they should be most careful with their questions, because they were dealing with someone in pain. But they were to ask as discretely as possible why they were unhappy. Over the years, I heard that the overwhelming majority of people were, indeed, happy. And the overwhelming reason was very simple, because they were helping people. One negative response I clearly remember to this day fits, I think, perfectly into today’s message. This student interviewed her uncle. He was the wealthiest member of the family. He was a merchant banker on Wall Street. He had the biggest and best house in the family. His children had all the latest gadgets, and so on and on. She asked him was he happy in his work? Answer: No. She was astonished, and had no idea that this was the case. He stated clearly that he did not want to get out of bed each Monday morning to go to work. She delicately asked him the reason why. He stated clearly that he had always wanted to be a chef! The offer of a Wall Street job came along unexpectedly, and everyone in and out of the family told him to take it, that it was the opportunity of a lifetime, he would be an idiot not to take it, and so on. So he did, and regretted it ever after. And now he was trapped; a chef would never make as much money as a Wall Street banker, and his family would suffer if he changed. And I’ll never forget her final sentence, that she now understood why, at family cookouts, she would see him in his chef’s hat, creating and serving their food with the broadest smile on his face. It was heartbreaking. No doubt he was helping others in his Wall Street job, but that was not the way he (and I might add, possibly God) wanted it. The objective of this school exercise was to bring home to my students that one’s life work was not to earn as much money as possible, but to find a job providing as much personal satisfaction as possible, and this always seems to mean helping others; to be, in fact, the servant of others, just as Jesus described himself. In that way, happiness is to be found, and God’s will for us, obeyed. Monetary reward must always be secondary. It is certainly important, but should not be predominant. In another passage Jesus summed this up concisely. Matthew 16:26 says this: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” This has also been taken as the touchstone in the trial of Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s superb drama Man for All Seasons. Sir Richard Rich perjures himself in the treason trial of More and effectively condemns him to death. As Rich walks out of the court, More notices he is wearing a Red Dragon chain of office (the red dragon is a symbol of the Principality of Wales). He asks, and is told the Rich has been made Attorney General for Wales, clearly the price for his perjury. More says in the play, “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales?”
The other readings today echo this thought. Today’s reading from Ecclesiastes says, “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” Meaning to labor for a lifetime we still have to leave it all after death. Colossians tells us to “Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.” It seems that all this is an appeal to basics. Is life to be acquisitive, reaching always for more, getting richer and richer as the goal? Some would say this is the reigning ideal today, that young people look and hope only for the best paying job, no matter what. Jesus’ teachings and my own little bit of research suggest strongly that this is not the way to personal satisfaction and happiness. A life of service, based of God’s gifts, and talents, which might or might not lead to riches, should be the goal, as it will bring the happiness and fulfillment which comes from obeying the Lord instead of our own desires.
Man for All Seasons, Highland Films 1966, 7 BAFTAs, 6 Oscars.
The Red Dragon of Wales.