Sunday August 5, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23) Reading II (Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11)
Gospel (St. Luke 12:13-21)
"Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!" Those words sound like a person with a pretty bad disposition. If we heard that coming from somebody's mouth today, we would say, "You need to change your attitude. You need to get things squared away a little bit." But I think we need to really stop and think about these words of Qoheleth: "Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!"
You have to ask yourself some of the questions that were posed in the readings today. "All of these things that you have stored up, who are they going to go to?" That is what Our Lord asked. Or, when Qoheleth said, "A man has toiled with knowledge and wisdom and has obtained many things - and then they go to somebody else who has not toiled with knowledge and wisdom." He says, "This is a vanity." We need to look at what the goal of our life is.
Unfortunately, the moving force in America is to make materialism the goal of our lives. And it is not just America; it has been a problem throughout history. People like to compare themselves with one another. People like to show off their wealth and they like to make sure that other people know that they have more than the next one, or whatever it might be. That is a sin.
What is more, we need to really look at it and say, "If I put even half the effort into my spiritual life as I do into my material life, think where I would be able to be. If I were able to spend the time in prayer than the effort I put into gaining more stuff, think where my spiritual life would be right now."
You see, it is difficult for Americans when they take up the spiritual life because one of the things that God will automatically begin to do is to work on detachment. Detachment means we have to let go of some things. And with a lot of the material things, it means we have to get rid of them. We need to be detached from all things earthly. That does not mean we have to get rid of them all, it just means that in the heart we have to be detached. But some things are such problems for us that we literally need to cut them off, we need to get rid of them.
So, when most people take up the spiritual life and they come up to that first roadblock and God says, "I want you to give this up," the first thing people do is to quit praying because they like their material things more than they like God. The junk of our lives means more to us than our relationship with the Lord. And having more here, or having a higher place in people's minds means more to us than having a higher place in Heaven. This is vanity, as Qoheleth would say.
More than that, Saint Paul puts it out very clearly: He says that greed is idolatry. It is the worship of something that is not God. It is making something more important than God. What good does any of it do? That is the point that Qoheleth is making. It is the point that Jesus makes in the Gospel. We are all going to die. None of us is going to be spared death, thanks be to God. It gets us out of here and it gets us to Heaven. That is what the goal of this life is all about. A Christian should look forward to death. But for most of us, all we look forward to is the next paycheck so that we can get more stuff. And for what?
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, right at the very beginning of his Spiritual Exercises, requires that every single retreatant must meditate on death. That is not because he is some morbid guy who is depressed and thinks that he wants to commit suicide. It is to make people recognize what is important. We are all going to die and all the things we have accumulated are going to be left to someone else.
Now we could look at that and say, "Well, I want to accumulate more junk because that way when I die and everybody else gets the stuff, they will think of how wonderful a person I was because I accumulated all this stuff for them." You have to think about their spiritual life. If it is in our way of getting to God, don't you think it will be in the way of the next generation getting to God? It is not that there is a problem with passing on an inheritance to our children; that, certainly, is a reasonable thing. But it has to do with where our priorities lie.
Saint Paul, again, makes the dichotomy very clear and he tells us that we belong to Christ. Our life is hidden now with Christ, we have died. He says, "Put away the old man and put on the new." Get rid of all the things of earth and set your sights on Heaven. Stop and think about what is really important. What good is it going to do if you have a huge house and a fancy car and lots of stuff filling your house, if your soul is going to be in hell for eternity? Now it is not automatic; it is not because you have those things that that is where you are going to go; that is not it at all. I am just simply saying that if you put all your effort into all these material things and all the worldly things and wind up in hell, what good is it going to do?
Do you think you are going to brag to Satan about how big your house was? About how fancy a car you had? About how much money you left in the bank when you died? Satan will just look at you and say, "So what? You're here now! And you're not going anywhere for the rest of eternity." And we all know God is not going to be impressed with the size of our house or our car or our material things.
Once again, we need to ask ourselves, "What is really important in my life? The Lord says, "Get rid of greed in all forms." Get rid of all greed. This competition and the judging of one another and somehow thinking that one is better than the other because they have more things or more money or whatever it is, that is nothing. The reason why we need to have a job and have money is to provide for our families: to be able to feed our children, put clothes on them and shoes on their feet, to be able to have shelter over their heads, and so on. That is all that is necessary.
I would challenge you to go home today and look around your house, then ask yourself, "Of everything that I own, what is necessary?" Not what is nice, not what is beautiful; but, what is necessary? I think that if you really, honestly went through your house and did an inventory of what is necessary, you might be a little bit embarrassed.
Of course, what we consider necessary these days is a little off-kilter, too. We have gotten so accustomed to things that we now think they are a necessity. Even though the thing may not even have been invented until just about 20 years ago, somehow they have become a necessity for American life. They are not necessary. They are nice to have, and it is not that it is even a sin to have it; but it is a question of where we are putting our priorities.
There was a person who decided to do a photographic study. This man went from culture to culture in every country of the world. He asked people to take all of the belongings in their house and put it out on the front lawn. Then he took a picture. Now, he went to mansions out in California and I suppose it would need to be a mansion to have enough room on your front lawn to get everything in your house out on your front lawn. Then he went to homes in places like India, Africa, Vietnam, and places like that and he had the people take the things out of their homes. Here, the Americans had oodles of stuff on their lawns and these others had a few belongings. It puts things in perspective for us. It really makes us stop and ask, "What is really necessary?" These people get along just fine.
In fact, the most amazing thing to me (coming from America) when I went to India last fall was to see the absolute poverty of the people. People living in thatched huts and that was a little bit high class. There were people living in tents that they made out of shirts they sewed together or pieces of plastic they found on the street. The worst that I saw were families that were living in abandoned sewer pipes - and they were joyful beyond belief. They were smiling constantly. They were happy, joyful people. And they had nothing.
I said to Father Anthony: "I want to be able to see how the people live." And so he showed me the different homes. I walked into an upper-middle class home, which consisted of one main room, which would maybe be the size of a small living room in America. They had a kitchen out in the back because they still use wood to cook with; so, the kitchen is like a three-season porch on the back. Then they had a couple of bedrooms that were very small, just enough room to get a bed in. In the main room (the family room, living room, or whatever you might want to call it), there was nothing. Nothing. They sit on the floor. There was not a table in the middle of the room, there was no furniture around it - it was an empty room. And that was an upper middle class home.
Most Americans would look at that and think, "Where are the necessities of life?" But again, it just showed me that there are lots of things that are kind of nice to have, but are not really necessary. When I look at most Americans, I have to be honest and say that I do not find happy people. But when I looked at these people, who were living in absolute abject poverty, I found joy and happiness that I have never, ever seen in America. Ever. It puts things in perspective for us.
So we need to look at that and ask ourselves once again, "What really is important?" Money? Position? Power? Materialism? Or God? The spiritual life? Heaven? Living in this life so we will make it to the next? We do need to remember that our soul is immortal; it will live forever. And there are only two possibilities of where it is going to live forever: in Heaven or in hell. We make the choice in this life. So I challenge you to really think seriously about that choice. The choice that we make every single day. The choice regarding our priorities. The choice of what is really, truly important to us.
Look at your day and ask yourself: On a weekly basis, how much time are you spending with the Lord? How much time are you putting into your spiritual life? How much time and effort do you spend in trying to grow in holiness? And then how much time do you spend with all the other things? For young families, I would even challenge you to ask: How much time are you spending with your spouse and your children? Today in America, that has become almost nothing. That is the state in life. That is the means to holiness. For those who have to go to work: What is your attitude toward work? Has work become the end in itself? Is it just striving for something more? Or is work seen as the means of providing for your family and that you are there as a service for your spouse and your children?
And how much do we really need? Do we need to have two people out working full-time, with the kids at daycare someplace, so we can have more stuff in the house? So the kids can have fancier things for the few hours that they actually spend in the house? Or is it more important for the kids to have a mom at home with them and to have less stuff, but more people? What is really important?
In America we have decided that making sure we do not have very many children so we can have more material things is what is important. It is not. The material things, at best, will stay here after we die. Most of them are going to break or rot out and we are going to throw them away, even in our own lifetime. The souls of your children are eternal; they will live forever. More material stuff will not get us to Heaven. More souls to praise God for eternity is a great blessing; it may, indeed, mean that there will be less material stuff, but I suspect that there will be far greater happiness in this life and in the next.
What really is most important? Avoid greed in all its forms; greed, which, Saint Paul says, is idolatry. Look at all the things that we put our effort into. Look at all the material stuff. Separate what is necessary from what is not. Then look at that huge pile of what is not and at the words of Qoheleth, and repeat them often: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!"
Note: Father Altier does not write his homilies in advance, but relies solely upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.