Sunday, July 31, 2016

Year C Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ecc 1:2; 2:21-23; Ps 90:3-6. 12-14.17; Col 3:1-5.9-11; Lk 12:13-21

Summed up in one word, today’s readings are about detachment, detaching ourselves from things that do not matter. This is a challenge because we live in a culture obsessed with things that do not matter. In a world in which wars are being fought, in which injustice breeds violence, in which people starve daily and preventable diseases kill tens of thousands, a world in which human activity is having a deleterious effect on earth, our common home, we remain content to concern ourselves with the ups-and-downs in the lives of celebrities and so many other meaningless things. While we must be careful not to let our awareness of vexing realities render us hopeless and take care not to assume an undue burden, even if it is only an emotional or psychological one, we must also avoid the constant distraction of pointless diversions. Very often we remain content, to paraphrase the title of Neil Postman’s 1985 book, to amuse ourselves to death. Even our presidential election is marred by our insatiable desire to be entertained instead of informed. We look for anything to take our minds off what St. Paul directs us to, namely “what is above” (Col. 3:1).

In the first verse of our first reading from Ecclesiastes the word for vanity is used five times. In Hebrew this frequent usage stands out more boldly because the verse consists of only eight words, as opposed to the twelve words in our English translation. The Hebrew word translated as vanity, hebel, is a noun meaning literally breath or vapor. Therefore, it refers to that which is transitory, lacks substance, or, to put it as bluntly as it is meant by the inspired author, that which is meaningless, or even absurd. In our three-year lectionary cycle we read from the Book of Ecclesiastes, or, to use its Hebrew designation, Qoheleth, meaning one who teaches and preaches to the assembly, only once.

Among those things the preacher tells us are meaningless are some things that we usually consider meaningful, like working hard and enjoying the fruits of our labor. The man in the example used by Qoheleth “labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill” (Eccl 2:21). For the preacher, however, this is precisely where the transitory nature of life is found, which understanding in echoed by Jesus in our Gospel. We die and another, perhaps less deserving person, reaps the rewards of our hard work! So, if these seemingly meritorious activities ultimately prove meaningless, how much more is this true of those things that not only don't matter ultimately, but do not even matter right now?

Such thoughts might be enough to drive us to despair. Paradoxically, nothing could be further from the truth or the intent of this observation. Our psalm today summarizes well the point Qoheleth sought to make: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90:12). In order to gain wisdom of heart we must realize two things. First, we must acknowledge the reality from which we most seek to distract ourselves: that we will die. This realization enables us to understand the second thing- how to better discern how to live a life that matters; what matters is not the measurable success of our endeavors. When it comes to what matters, we need to transform what into who. In other words, people matter, be they our spouse, our child, our parent, our sibling, our co-worker, our fellow parishioner, our friend, or, as Jesus taught in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which we heard just a few weeks ago, the stranger we encounter who needs our help. Wisdom of heart consists in devoting ourselves to others without worrying about achieving pre-determined outcomes, or, put more traditionally, serving others without counting the cost or calculating the return. Satisfaction is to be found in the labor itself, not in the rewards of our labor.

This past week we witnessed the martyrdom in France of Fr. Jacques Hamel. He was brutally murdered while saying daily Mass in a Church under the patronage of the first Christian martyr, the deacon St. Stephen. Fr. Hamel, who was 85, could have retired 10 years ago, but chose to continue serving. In the wake of his murder, a fellow priest shared the following about Fr. Hamel: “Despite his advanced age he was still invested in the life of the parish. I often told him, jokingly, ‘Jacques, you are getting on a bit, it's time to take your pension.’ To which he replied, laughing, ‘Have you ever seen a retired pastor? I will work until my last breath’” (BBC News, "Father Jacques Hamel: Tributes paid to priest who dedicated life to church" 26 July 2016). Because his work was serving others, it wasn’t the work, it was the people.

We see this in our second reading from St. Paul. When the apostle discusses “what is above,” contrary to some opinions, he is not saying that seeking what is above distracts us from our everyday lives. We seek what is above precisely in and through the circumstances in which we find ourselves all day every day. Specifically, he is talking about the necessity of living the life we received in baptism, which life is restored in the Sacrament of Penance and nourished by the Eucharist. In baptism we died, were buried, and rose with Christ to eternal life. In the Our Father we pray together week after week, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.” What Paul is talking about is not remaining content to conceive of the reign of God as a future dream, but striving to make it a present reality.

From Paul’s letter to the Colossians we glean very practical advice about how to live for others by dying to self. We bring about God’s will by forsaking lust, greed (which Paul equates with idolatry), dishonesty, indeed, all evil desires. Just in case there is any doubt that what matters in life is not centered on ourselves, Paul tells us that in baptism our “life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3).

In today’s Gospel, taken again from Luke’s Journey Narrative, God asks the man in Jesus’ parable, who worked so hard to store up treasure on earth, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” (Luke 12:20) After this parable our Lord gives anyone who would claim to be his follower a stern warning: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God” (Luke 12:21).

My friends in Christ, today we have heard God’s voice, do not harden your hearts. As Qoheleth shows us, paradox is an inescapable reality of the well-lived life. The ultimate paradox, taught us by our Lord himself who, a few chapters earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel taught: “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?” (Luke 9:24-25).

The true master of death, the wise Albus Dumbledore said to Harry Potter, “does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying” (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 721). Writing about the martyrdom of Jacques Hamel, Fr. Giles Fraser, an Anglican priest, noted that Christ’s sacrifice on “the cross is the non-violent absorption of human violence.” He went on to observe that Christ’s death is “the offer of love in return for hate, even to the point of death.” As Jesus’ disciples we must recognize that “This is the horrendous price that peace is sometimes asked to pay.” I quite agreed with Fraser when he noted, that offering love in return for hate is “what makes the eucharistic sacrifice life-giving and not some historical death cult” (The Guardian, “Father Jacques Hamel died as a priest, doing what priests do” 28 July 2016).

The true master of death is the one who defeated death, Jesus Christ. He doesn’t just tell us; he shows us what it means that it is only by dying that we live forever. How do you avoid living a vain life? By living a life that proclaims Christ’s death and professes his resurrection until he comes again, that is, a selfless life lived in service of others out of love.

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