August 1, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Eighteenth Sunday 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)
In the second reading today, Saint Paul says to the Colossians, You were raised with Christ, therefore you are to seek what is above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Now we compare this to the other two readings. In the first reading from Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth sounds very negative saying, Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! and he talks all about how somebody labors under the sun and then dies and has to leave all the fruit of their labor to someone else. He says, This is vanity, and he sounds so negative because he recognizes that he cannot take it with him. We have to understand that the time Ecclesiastes was written was a time when there was not a clear concept of eternal life among the Jewish people, so there was no understanding that they were going to be able to go to heaven to be with God. Therefore, when Qoheleth is saying, This is vanity, he has all his wealth and riches and all these wonderful things stored up, and yet he is going to go down to the netherworld and there will be nothing. And so he is saying, This is vanity, because he has no hope for what is to come. We see, then, in the Gospel reading this man coming and saying, “Tell my brother to give me my share of the inheritance,” and Our Lord goes on to tell this parable of the rich man who stores up all these things, builds new barns, puts everything into the barns, and then dies that very night. All the things that he had stored up, the Lord says, to whom will it go? And He says that this is the way it will be with those who do not store up what is really the treasure of God, what matters to God, but rather stores up that which is earthly.
Now the problem is that we know the riches by themselves are not necessarily the problem, but, as Saint James says, it is the love of money that is the root of all evil. It is not just the material things themselves that cause the problem, but rather if we get attached to the things of the earth, we start looking to other things. That is, if we start getting overly attached to material things and it begins to take over our lives, then all the other things that Saint Paul speaks of in this reading that are earthly and that he tells us we have to put to death within us – immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, the greed that is idolatry, the lies that we have to stop telling – all of these things will follow from our desires that are not proper. So while it is perfectly fine, of course, to have a home and provide for your children, to take care of things and to have a reasonable lifestyle, at the same time, we do not want that to get out of hand. If it becomes too much, if we become too attached to things, if we start focusing too much on material things, then we start falling into these other problems. We start falling into all the gossip and all the lying and all the cheating and all these things. It becomes very selfish. It becomes focused on pleasure, it becomes focused on materialism, it becomes a matter of who has got more stuff, and we compare ourselves to others. All these different things will follow from it just simply because we find ourselves getting too selfish and too wrapped up in the things of the world. This is why Saint Paul is telling us that we have to set our sights on the things of heaven.
We recognize that God, in His goodness and His mercy, has given us all the things of this world in order to use, but they are all passing. They are there to take care of our needs, to provide for what it is that we need, but they are not necessarily there just because it would be a nice thing to have. That is the problem for a lot of people in our society. “This is pretty; I want it. This looks nice; this would be good in my home.” Pretty soon our home starts looking like a department store. You have got stuff hanging everywhere; you have things all over the place. We have got more stuff in the back room in storage than we have out in the middle, and it is just that the things are everywhere. It is a problem because we are so caught up in either keeping up with the neighbors or trying to impress people or just trying to have the latest and the greatest. For what?
It is a wonderful thing sometimes to go into the home of an older person. All of their stuff is sixty years old, it works just fine, and they are not trying to impress anybody. The most wonderful part beyond the simplicity is that it is beautiful. They do not need to have the newest, latest fashion of all things, the right colors, and all the different stuff. They do not run out and by all kinds of new stuff. They are just content with the stuff that they have had for years and years, and their homes are beautiful even though they are not up to date. Anybody who would walk in there would look around, recognize immediately that this stuff is all very old, and yet recognize that there is a certain beauty to it. And nobody thinks twice about it. Yet why is it that we get caught up in the idea that if we do not have the latest and if we are not up with everybody that they are going to think badly of us? Even if they do, who cares? We are not there to try to impress the neighbors. We are not there to try to keep up with everybody else. The task of our lives is to keep our focus on Jesus Christ and on where Christ reigns with God, where He is seated at the right hand of the Father, as Saint Paul said to the Colossians. That is who we are trying to impress, not impress in the earthly sense, but rather the only way we are going to impress the Lord is to do what He told us to do, and that is to love.
So He tells us to avoid greed in all its forms. That is what we can look at. Especially as Americans living in a very wealthy society, where do we fall into greed? It can be in anything. We think of greed as being all about wanting more money, but not necessarily. We can have greed because we are coveting somebody else’s clothing, because we are coveting somebody else’s car, because we are more impressed with somebody else’s stereo, with all their stuff, whatever it might be. There are many forms of greed that we fall prey to, and that is what we have to watch out for because we are not taking any of it with us. Thanks be to God, because all of this stuff is passing. The most beautiful things that there are on earth are as nothing compared to what we are going to have in heaven. Unlike Qoheleth, who would look at it and say, “You labor for all this stuff and then leave it to somebody else, vanity of vanities! This is all vanity!” we would look at it and say, “Anyone who’s storing all of this stuff up, that’s the vanity! Not the fact that you’re going to leave it behind, but the fact that you’re spending all of your time and effort trying to get more stuff.” That is vanity because you are going to leave it behind and it is not the end-all and be-all. All of this stuff is merely there for us to use while we are in this world, but our task is not to see if we can accumulate the most stuff. Our task is not to see if we can have the most. There is a tragic little thing that you see in a variety of different ways. You know, “She who has the most of whatever when she dies wins” or “He who has accumulated the most of this when he dies wins.” There is no competition. What did you win? If your focus was solely on the things of earth, you are not going to go to heaven because that is not where you wanted to be, that is not where your focus was.
Saint Paul tells us that in this world we are sojourners. We are strangers. We are passing through this world, and therefore we are not to have our focus set on this world. Our goal is in heaven. If you are on a journey and now you have turned back and you are coming home, you can look around at all the beautiful scenery as you pass from state to state, but your focus is on home. You keep driving; you do not get caught up in the state that you are in and say, “Oh, this is so beautiful; I’m just not going home anymore,” but rather your focus is to get home. All of us know what that is like when we go on vacations. It is wonderful to leave, but all you want to do is get back home at a certain point. And as beautiful as all the things along the way might be, all you want is home. Well, what about us? Our home is in heaven. Saint Paul says that is where our citizenship is. We have to keep ourselves focused there because we are members of Christ, and Christ is in heaven, He is already seated at God’s right hand, therefore we are already seated at God’s right hand with Him because we are members of Christ. That is where our focus has to be.
If we are looking down, that is, if we are looking at the earth all the time, we are looking the wrong direction. When Saint Martin of Tours was dying, his brothers, out of charity, wanted to roll him over because he had been lying on his back a long time. He chastised them and said, “Why would I want to look down? I want to look up. I want to look at heaven. Don’t face me the wrong direction; I don’t want to go that way!” And so they turned him on his back so he was looking at heaven. What about us? If we are looking at the earth all the time, or worse, if we are looking down all the time, what direction are we going? Where are we headed? We are headed down! We want to look up. We want heaven. We want to make sure that we are looking at the goal, that we have our sights focused where it belongs – and that is heaven, where Jesus is already seated at God’s right hand. He has gone forth, He has told us, to prepare a place for us. If wealth and riches are what you want, what did He say? There are many mansions in my Father’s house. He has a mansion prepared for you, fully furnished! Forget all of this! Look forward to what is to come. That is where we have to be, and that is where we want to look.
If we get too focused on the materialism, if we get too focused on earth, we are going to be stuck. Remember that the devil has been given some authority over all things material. If we get caught up in material things, ultimately we are going to get caught up in the devil because he will use the things against us. The devil always double-crosses his dupes, and if we are going to give into his wiles and give into all the desires of our own self and all the worldliness, if we are going to be worldly (he is, after all, the prince of this world; Our Lord Himself told us that), we are focusing in the wrong direction; we are putting our focus on hell rather than on heaven. So we need to look up. We need to look forward. We need to get the focus off of ourselves and onto Jesus, off of the earth and onto heaven, off of this world and onto eternity because this world is passing away.
We have now just the opposite. Qoheleth had no hope for the future because he did not understand what eternal life was. He just thought it was the abode of the dead, the netherworld where all the people went. We know better. We know that Jesus has opened the gates of heaven for us. What is true vanity are the things of this world. Vanity of vanity, all things are vanity! This too is an evil, he says. All we can say about that is someone who focuses solely on this life, they have missed the boat, they have lost what they were created for, their focus is in the wrong direction – and that is the direction they are going to go for eternity. That is vanity. That is evil. What we want is the good, the very best, and that is heaven. So we set our focus on heaven where Jesus is already seated at God’s right hand and we, as members of Christ, are already there with Him.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.