Death and Our True Treasure, 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), August 5, 2001

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
18th Sunday of OT, Year C
August 5, 2001
Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23; Col 3:1-5,9-11; Lk 12:13-21

1) Almost everything in this world is vanity: Money, fame, property, solely earthly relationships and friendships, etc. Vanity. Everything is in vain and will disappear. Almost no one, in 200 years, will even know that we existed. Think about it. How many people have you ever heard about were alive in the year 2000. You might say President John Adams, if you’re really good in history. You might add Napoleon. But few of us would be able, even with time to think about it, to name 10 people who were alive 200 years ago. And there were tens of millions of people alive then. It will be the same thing for us in 200 years. Who here on earth will ever remember that we were here. Even if we win the lottery. Even if we earned millions on our own. Even if we are a famous athlete or a well-known pop singer. If we put our treasure in any of these things, it won’t last. Everything worldly, as Ecclesiastes tells us in the first reading, is vanity.

2) We see this truth illustrated in the episode from the Gospel. There was a greedy brother trying to get his half of the inheritance. Jesus clearly saw this avarice for material goods and said, “Friend, take care! Watch out for all kinds of greed. One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told the parable of the man who accumulated so many goods that he needed to build another barn just to store them. He thought this would provide him with security for many years, so that he could “relax, eat, drink and be merry.” But Jesus called this person very clearly stupid. “You fool!,” he said, tonight your very life will end and none of these things will make an ounce of difference.

3) If these truths applied in Jesus’ own day, how much more they apply today. People put their treasures in all types of things that are fleeting, and as a result, don’t put their treasure in the only things, the only One, that will really last. People make all types of excuses rather than come to Mass — I’ve got to work, I’ve got to play soccer or take my kids to play, it’s my only day to sleep, I’ve got so many errands to do — but very, very few of them ever really have a good excuse, except serious sickness or old age, why they cannot make one Mass on Saturday afternoon or Sunday. These people, even though many of them don’t know it yet, have put their treasure is having some extra cash, in keeping a better-paying job even though it prevents them from fulfilling their religious duties, in trying to get their kids to win a scholarship to college rather than trying to get them into heaven, in trying to tidy up their homes rather than tidy up their souls. To all of them — and we could add many more examples — Jesus, the eternal Son of God, says, “You fools!”

4) If we’re honest, probably everyone of us hear should be trembling with a little fear that Jesus is calling us these fools, because very likely every single one of us has been guilty in some way of blowing off God, of blowing off the fact that we are going to meet him face-to-face one day, of putting our treasure in so manythings which in the final analysis are all, basically, worthless in themselves. All of us are going to meet God one day and have to give a strict account of how we’ve invested the great gift of our life. Then all the money in the world will be nothing more than monopoly money, to pay taxes on our life. All the human fame in the world will mean nothing as we stand face to face with the One who will ask us how we used that gift of fame — and the one with greater fame will have more to answer for. All the good looks, makeup, cut physique or beautiful figure will mean nothing once it is put in the casket to decompose and our soul leaves to meet God. All that we tried to do for our kids, to give them a “better life” will mean nothing unless we tried to help them become holier than we are. Then we will see just how supremely stupid and careless would have been any sin we committed, like those St. Paul lists today — fornication, impurity, evil desire, greed, idolatry, lying, hatred— or any others.

5) There are two facts that we cannot escape, no matter how hard we try to avoid thinking about them. The first is that we will die. Everyone of us is born under a death sentence. But this death isn’t the end. The second fact is that every one of us, the moment we die, will meet God face-to-face: God who is infinitely merciful and who loved us so much that he traded his own Son’s life on the Cross for ours; but God is also infinitely Just, a God who will know everything, a God whom we will not be able to deceive, to smooth talk our way past, a God who won’t buy our lame excuses if we chose to blow him off during our lives, to put him second, or third, or worse in our list of priorities. It will then be as obvious to us as it is to him where our treasure has been. It will be pain-stakingly clear what barns we’ve erected to store that treasure. And the most striking thing of all is we have no idea when this encounter will take place. We may die even tonight, if not sooner. No matter how old or how young we are, no matter how sick or how healthy, death will come to us all, and it will come to us like, as Jesus says, a “thief in the night.” And that burglary might take place in a matter of minutes.

6) Then what are we to do? Faced with this reality, how can we move from fear to faith? If so many of the things in life are vain, what truly lasts? Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel, quite starkly, not to store up treasures for ourselves, but to be rich toward God. Rich toward God. How do we become “rich toward God?” Jesus told us in the Gospel, but most of us try to ignore this Gospel, because it runs straight in the face of what the world tells us to seek. A young man came up to Jesus one day and asked him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded to him to keep the commandments. The Rich Young Man said that he had done this since his youth, but he himself knew that there had to be something more. He asked, “What more do I lack?” Jesus responded, “If you wish to be perfect,” do three things, telling him that if he did these three things he would have a great treasure in heaven.

7) The first thing: “Go, sell your possessions.” It was obvious that this man was rich and that his riches were competing with God. There’s nothing wrong inherently with money. It’s not evil, but so often wealth can do great damage to the soul. Wealth often breeds a false sense of security and self-sufficiency. It can poison us into thinking we can get by without God. It can infect us with a feeling of entitlement by which we believe that we have the right to special treatment — to be exempted, dispensed and upgraded over others who have less. People in love with their money often exude a suffocating air of disdain and condenscension. Privilege, superiority and elitism become their blessed trinity. No wonder why Jesus says later that it’s so hard for a rich man to get into heaven. The wealthy become accustomed to getting things their own way. Yet, heaven refuses to yield to the tirades of the rich. Heaven is God’s way. Heaven is where they have to admit that God cannot be bought, that there are in the final analysis only two realities, that God exists and that I am not God. That’s why it’s so important to detach oneself from one’s possessions and, indeed, from everything that is not of God. Jesus could have told the parable about the handsome young man, who is in love with his good looks and makes sex his god, using his natural attractiveness to do great damage to himself or to others. It could have been about a intelligent young woman, who makes her brain her god, puts her treasure in the esteem of the academic world and her colleagues, and proudly thinks she knows more than God and the Church he founded to lead us into all truth. Whatever the example, the first thing we have to do is to detach ourselves from the worship we give to anything that is not God.

8) The second thing Jesus said to the Rich Young Man, was “give the money to the poor.” It wasn’t enough to be detached. Go wants us to use the blessings he gave us to do good to others in his name, to love others. Riches, again, are not evil, and we should use them to love others. To take what is needed to support one’s family and then give the rest to those who need it more than we do. It’s the same thing with brains. God wants us first to detach ourselves from idolatry of our intelligence, but then to use it to serve, love and help others. It’s the same thing with any talent we have. We cannot allow our soccer skills, or music skills, to take us away from God. We need to be willing even to get rid of them all. As Jesus says, if your hand is your problem, cut it off and throw it away. Better to enter into heaven with one hand than to enter Hell with both. But after detaching ourselves from them, God calls us to use them for others. He gave us these gifts for a reason. After preventing that our gifts become our curse, he calls us to use them for others. With doing this, he told the Rich young man, you will have treasure in heaven.

9) The third thing, he says, is then “Come, follow me!” If we really want to enter into heaven, to have a real treasure there, it involves following the Lord, not just when we feel like it, not just doing a “lap” with him one hour a week, but throughout the week. Jesus is the WAY, who came down from heaven to show us the way back to heaven. His is the only way that leads there. And, like in his own life, he will lead us through the Cross, through the Red Sea of death, on our way to heaven. We need to trust him enough to live for him all the time. St. Paul says that only three things last, faith, hope and love. The only things we can take with us through death to the next life are these three things. Faith in God. Hope in his promises. And love. All our deeds of love for God and for everyone else. All of us need to increase our wallets with these currencies!

10) Someone may be tempted to respond to me, “Get realistic, Father!” “Don’t ask us to do more than we can!” I am trying to get us to be very realistic. God is the most real “thing” that exists. All the things of this world are passing except faith, hope and love, so we need to say to anyone who might tell us to get realistic that they need to get realistic. And I’m not asking you to do something that’s impossible. It might be impossible for us, but with God’s help, all things are possible. God promised us that it was. If we pray, and try to correspond to his graces, he’ll give us the help we need to convert our currency from the fleeting monopoly money of the world, to the everlasting gold-standard of a life of faith, hope and particularly love.

11) The very practical way to do this, to put God first at all times, to detach ourselves from all these other things to which our heart gravitates, is to die to ourselves, completely every day. This is what the great saints have advised. Wake up every morning and live that day as if it really is your last day. Wake up and think, “I will die today.” Live every hour of the day as if it is the last hour. Live every event as if it’s the last thing you’ll ever do. You’d be shocked at how much of a difference it will make. It’s made a huge difference in my own life. When I’m having a conversation with someone who really tries my patience, I say to myself, “Roger, be charitable and patient. This might be the last conversation you ever have. Treasure it.” If I’m tempted to rush my prayers, I say to myself, “Roger, you may die within the hour. Pray for all the things you would if you knew this were your last hour.” If we knew today was our last day and that we might indeed die today — for we know not the day or the hour and today is just as likely as five years from now — it would change everything. What would you do if you knew you were going to die today? Would you go to confession? If so, then go. Don’t be stupid and give into the devil’s greatest lie, that there’s always time. Would you give into the very bad habit of leaving Mass early? What could be so important that you’d have to leave so quickly? Would you call up someone and tell that person that you loved them? Would you call up someone you’ve hurt and say you’re sorry? If even the most attractive person you’ve ever met asked you to sin with them, but you knew you were going to die today, would you risk your eternal salvation for one fleeting moment? That would be so dumb.

12) Dying to ourselves every day allows us to truly experience the great joy of living in union with God in this life. The only way to go throughout life without genuine fear is to be at peace with God at every moment. We would have no fear of death and the judgment if we make our peace with God every day. Moreover, we would never lose our peace over the small things that so often rob our peace. If one of our kids breaks a window, but we knew we were going to die today, would we change the way we addressed the situation? Of course we would. The best commentary I heard about the almost simultaneous deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana almost four years ago was that Princess Di died in September 1997; Mother Teresa had died a long time before that. If Princess Di had known that that day would be her last, and that she would meet God face-to-face in a matter of hours, do you think she would have spent the day cavorting with someone who was not her husband? Mother Teresa spent her last day praying for three hours (as she did every day), caring for the sick in one of her shelters, and preparing herself for the death that inevitably would come and allow her to see the God who was her sole treasure face-to-face. Di had a lot of fame in this world. Whatever the outcome of her particular judgment, and we can entrust her soul to God’s mercy, we can be sure that Mother Teresa will have a lot more fame in the next, which is the one in which there is no vanity at all. We need to make a choice about whether we want to strive to be like Mother Teresa or like Princess Di.

13) Christ asked, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit their soul?” This may be the last Mass we ever attend. This Holy Communion may be our viaticum. It was for two people last Sunday, whom I buried this week, both surprises. Let’s receive Holy Communion, begging God for the grace to put him first in our lives, making him our sole treasure, so that we will receive Him as our treasure eternally.