Monday, August 6, 2007

Year C, Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Eccles. 1,2. 2,21-23; Ps. 90,3-6. 12-14.17; Col. 3,1-5.9-11; Luke 12,13-21

Summed up in one word today’s readings are about detachment, detachment from things that do not matter. This is a challenge for us because we live a culture obsessed with things that truly do not matter. In a world in which wars are being fought on a massive scale, in which injustice breeds violence, in which people starve daily and preventable and treatable diseases kill tens of thousands, especially on the forgotten continent of Africa, a world in which human activity is having a deleterious effect on the planet’s environment, we remain concerned about the travails, the ups-and-downs of celebrities. Instead of concerning ourselves with the injustices in our society, our broken and practically non-existent immigration system, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the tens of millions who go without health care, in true escapist fashion we often allow ourselves to be distracted, we seek distractions, we look for anything to take our minds off what St. Paul calls “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 in the verse stands out even more because in its original language the verse consists of only eight words. The word literally means breath or vapor. Therefore, it refers to that which is transitory, lacks substance, or, put as bluntly as it is meant, that which is meaningless. 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 this once.

Among those things the teacher tells us are meaningless are things that are considered in the rest of Hebrew Wisdom literature to be 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" (Eccles. 2,21). For the teacher, however, this is precisely where the transitory nature of life is revealed. We die and another, perhaps less deserving person, reaps the rewards of our hard work! So, if these meritorious activities ultimately prove meaningless, how much more is this true about those things that not only do not ultimately matter, but do not even matter right now?

This is enough to almost 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 seeks 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. As a result of the first realization, we come to see that we must live a life that matters. What matters is not the measurable success of our endeavors, but that our endeavors have value in and of themselves, just as each person has inherent value. Therefore, this what that matters is transformed into a who. Other people are who matter, be they our spouse, our child, our parent, our sibling, our co-worker, our fellow parishioner, our friend, the stranger we encounter, and in a special and challenging way, the person in need, the poor and the oppressed. Possessing wisdom of heart means 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.

We see this in our second reading from St. Paul. When the apostle discusses "what is above," he is not talking about being distracted from the here and now. He is dealing with the reality that in baptism we died and rose to new life. It bears reminding that eternal life does not begin after mortal death, it begins at baptism. What dies is our old way of being. In the Our Father we pray week after week, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven" (Matt. 6,10). What the apostle is talking about is ushering in the Reign of God. This, my sisters and brothers, is nothing less than the mission of the Church, the mission entrusted to us by Christ, it is the reason we are gathered here right now.

From this 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 being other-centered and not self-centered, Paul tells us at the beginning of this passage that in baptism our "life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3,3). Then, to mop up any resistance, at the end of our reading we are told that Christ overcomes all that divides, be it wealth, social status, or ethnicity, in order that Christ might be "all and in all" (Col. 3,11).

God asks the man in Jesus’ parable from today’s Gospel, 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 us a 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). What matters to God are people, not things.

Today, dear friends, in our gathering, we have heard God’s voice, may we harden not our hearts and "May the favor of the Lord our God be ours" and may God "Prosper the work of our hands" (Ps. 90,17). As Qoheleth shows us, paradox is an inescapable reality of the spiritual life. The ultimate paradox, taught us by our Lord himself, is that only the person who loses his/her life for his sake will save it. The true master of death, the wise Albus Dumbledore says 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" (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pg. 721). The true master of death, Jesus Christ, shows us that it is only by dying to self that we live forever!


  1. Scott, Thank you for your inspirational homily. Once again you have zeroed in on what is relevant for me at the moment.

    Kathryn Brussard

  2. I am glad it struck a chord!

    God bless.


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