This Sunday we have readings with important allusion to riches. Especially with the parable of the Rich fool, there’s a risk of associating, indiscriminately, foolishness and being rich as if living in material misery was a guarantee for wisdom. But, then, we shall have to answer the question: are riches ungodly and poverty godly?
Bible readings Ecclesiastes 1: 2; 2: 21–23 Psalm 90: 3–17 Colossians 3: 1–5, 9–11 Luke 12: 13–21
All is vanity, is it?
From Qoheleth we have a popular phrase: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” He wonders, for what use should humans toil, even without rest, to obtain knowledge or materials if at the end they must leave everything behind? That’s why Qoheleth considers all that as mere chaff which has no weight, it’s only to be blown by wind. Of course, he doesn’t doubt the usefulness of material goods or knowledge, but he calls for vigilance against banking our hope on something which is volatile. It’s a call to discernment where we give each thing its rightful place. In this sense we can understand better the allusion to rich fool.
Riches are not foolishness
From the beatitude: “Happy are the poor” or the woes “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will hunger” (Lk 6:24-25); some people would be suspicious of material wellbeing as something ungodly, to the point of even justifying material misery as something godly. It’s a mentality that we can find a bit from certain tendencies of Christian spiritualities. You don’t become a fool by becoming rich out of hard work; it depends on what you do with it. The rich man in the Gospel is described as a fool not simply because he’s rich but because of poor judgement. Such deficiency of discernment can be seen equally among those living in material poverty.
Certainly, this man has worked hard; and beyond expectation, his fields give abundant yields surpassing the space that he has for storing his harvest. Looking at the abundance of this fortune, the man thinks he has it all; it’s like with such material abundance he has enough to guarantee him a quiet, secure future.
Besides, it’s all about “I”. In his material abundance he never thinks of anyone else, not a neighbour, and not even God. That’s what Goheleth calls vanity, that is, something that is as weightless as chaff. Indeed, once life is taken away from him, the rich man can’t enjoy his wealth.
Vertical and horizontal dimensions
We just can’t ignore the vertical and horizontal dimensions of our life. By vertical dimension, we acknowledge that who we are and all that we have, we owe them to God, hence, the need to care for our relationship with him. But we didn’t receive life or material goods directly from heaven, but by intermediation of our fellow humans. We are relational beings, and a well-balanced life ought to take into account these two dimensions regardless of the success we accumulate.
And so, the strong language that we find at times used against the rich should not be interpreted as against hard work and earning a decent life but rather against certain ways of dealing with what we have. This is should be understood also in terms of the particular sensitivity of Luke to the little ones of society who are often victims of the those wield power or by the rich.
The Gospel for the Poor
The mission of Jesus, which Luke announces in chapter 4, it’s a mission of liberation of the oppressed, the little ones of society. We find situations where some people gain profits on the backs of the weak ones, tendencies from ancient times which, unfortunately, persist even today. The Gospel awakes the human spirit to learn to make priorities in life. If I want to build my life solely on material goods to the point of even turning my fellow humans into instruments of profit, then, I fall in this foolishness evoked in the Gospel.
But I can also use the goods of this earth as means of acknowledging God who is the source and use them to help others. In so doing, I accumulate wealth in heaven. I live in the world, with all I possess but my mind and heart are oriented to heaven as Paul calls us, in the 2nd Reading: “Since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
Certainly, we can’t glorify material misery in which many people wallow. It’s an evil against which we should all join hands to fight. And yet, whatever material wealth we accumulate, should never make us forget about God and our neighbour. The material goods are there for human use; they are not the end but only means. They become a problem once they become the end of life to the point of cutting us off from God and from our fellow humans.
Vanity of Vanity
It’s not vanity to work and earn a living and be able to live in dignity; it’s not vanity to make use of the resources God has given us in order to live decently. It becomes vanity if accumulating material wealth becomes the fundamental goal to orient our life. In such case, instead of using them we become their slaves. That would be unwise.
Be rich and wise
We can become wisely rich when we make our own the prayer of the Psalmist: “make us know the shortness of our life so that we may gain the wisdom of heart” (Ps 90:12).
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