Several years ago I was attending a Forty Hours celebration and the priest preaching opened his homily: “What do you remember about a loved one after they pass away?” He paused to give us time to think about it then he continued: “Do you think of how much money they made? Or their successes at work? Or how many cars they had or how well their homes are appointed?”
“What is it you remember?” he asked the people assembled. The replies came quickly: “how much he/she loved me;” “their kindness;” “their joy;” “their charity;” “their sense of humor” and “their friendship.” These were some of the remembrances people noted. The homilist then asked: “What will people remember about you?”
The words came back to me while reflecting on the Gospel for this Sunday’s liturgy. The world we live in seems to place a lot of emphasis on earning, accumulating and being “successful” in worldly terms.
One example that comes to mind is from a conversation a parent had with me several years ago. The parent said, “I’m spending so much time at work to provide for my children and family that I’m hardly spending any time with them. I make sure they have the latest things they ask for but I’m wondering if that’s the best way to go.” In today’s world it is almost expected that we “buy into” this aspect of the culture.
Jesus asks us to take a different course. In fact he gives us a warning about the senseless accumulation of excess wealth. He tells us: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
Life is so much more than what we possess. Many people, when they reflect on their possessions, come to the quick conclusion that while they may be good and enjoyable they don’t have any lasting value. Jesus would certainly concur with that thought for he continues with a parable.
“There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’”
It seems that Jesus might be giving a commentary on the opening lines of Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes): “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says Qoheleth, ‘vanity of vanities, all things are vanity.’” The old saying “you can’t take it with you” sums up this part of Jesus’ teaching, but only part. Jesus is giving us this instruction not just to help us to hold things in proper value and perspective, but to lead us to hold on close to the things that have lasting value, permanent value, heavenly value.
So what are these things? Jesus teaches us this throughout his life and in his teachings. Love is preeminent. Giving of ourselves in love is the greatest of all “values,” or perhaps the term “virtues” would be better.
Faith and hope are virtues for us while living in this world with our eyes fixed on the next world, where faith will give way to sight and hope will be realized. Mercy, joy, patience, fortitude, justice, support, encouragement are some of the heavenly values that Jesus urges us to pursue. All these help build up the relationships that are central to being human: our relationship with God and with each other.
St. Paul, in the Letter to the Colossians, speaks of avoiding the things that pull us away from the “other worldly.” These activities, mindsets or dispositions rather than leading us to life lead to destruction and harm, even if they might sometimes seem attractive or desirable.
“Put to death, then,” he writes, “the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry. Stop lying to one another, since you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.”
The introduction to this teaching is more concise: “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”
Jesus exhorts us to life. He shows us how to live in this world with our eyes firmly fixed on the next. Living in this world by loving God and neighbor is surely the foundation on which to build a life worth remembering, a life worth celebrating, a life that will endure forever.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.