Ferocious Idolatry and True Wealth, 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), August 4, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Eighteenth Sunday in OT, Year C
August 4, 2013
Eccl 1:2;2:21-23; Col3:1-5,9-11; Lk 12:13-21

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click the link immediately below: 

8.4.13 Homily

Pope Francis on the Ferocious Idolatry of Money

Last Saturday, as he was preparing for the end of an incredible World Youth Day in Brazil, Pope Francis gave a tremendous half-hour one-on-one interview with Brazilian television. During it, he said that one of the biggest problems facing both society and the Church is a “ferocious idolatry of money” that separates us from God and from others. “The world we’re living in,” he said in Spanish, “has fallen into a ferocious idolatry of money. The world political system is being dominated by the promotion of money. Money is what’s in charge. … When this savage worship of money reigns, it focuses on those in the center [workers and consumers] and forgets those on the extremes, who are neglected and discarded. We see how the elderly are being thrown away because they don’t produce. The same thing is happening with the very young, who likewise aren’t yet producing.”

Trying to help us convert from the idolatry of money has been one of Pope Francis’ main messages since he was elected almost four months ago. In May, he gave an extended presentation on this to various ambassadors to the Holy See, saying, “Our human family is presently experiencing something of a turning point in its own history. … The financial crisis that we are experiencing makes us forget that its ultimate origin is to be found in a profound human crisis: in the denial of the primacy of human beings! We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old (cf. Ex 32:15-34) has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy that is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal. The worldwide financial and economic crisis seems to highlight their distortions and above all the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption. Worse yet, human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods that can be used and thrown away. We have started a throw-away culture. This tendency is seen on the level of individuals and whole societies; and it is being promoted” as a good rather than confronted as a problem.

He concluded by getting to the roots of the phemonemon: “Concealed behind this attitude is a rejection of ethics, a rejection of God.” There’s no longer right or wrong but just needs and instincts that need to be satisfied. There’s no longer a relationship with the real God, because the ferocious idolatry of money has extinguished him.

So many of our modern financial problems have come about, Pope Francis is saying, because many have been treating the economy, the market, and money as a god and been sacrificing themselves and others to serve that idol. He’s by no means saying that the economy, the markets, and money are in themselves bad, but noting that what they become ends in themselves or means to evil ends, they become corrupt. In order for them to remain good, they must be put at the true service of other human beings. They must serve rather than rule us.

Pope Francis is Just Echoing Jesus’ teaching

Many in the secular press have been treating these strong papal messages as something new. But as we see in the readings today and particularly in the Gospel, this type of idolatry is as old as revelation. Jesus in today’s Gospel says that many live for money, rather than for God. He exposed that making money an idol is, to quote today’s first reading, a “vanity of vanities,” or in other words, an ultimate waste of time.

Jesus made his point by means of the image of the rich farmer who just continued to build larger silos to store his crops, totally unaware that his life was soon going to be over and then none of it would matter. Here in Fall River, few of us are farmers and few of us would therefore seek to build larger barns for produce, but many of us worry and some are even obsessed about increasing the size of our retirement accounts, pensions, bank statements and homes. Probably the most fitting equivalent of our grain bins would be the explosion of storage unites everywhere. When we no longer need something for our day-to-day life, we just hoard it; we put it in a closet until we have no more room; then we move it to the cellar or attic, and when those prove inadequate, we just get big storage lockers. What we should be doing when we no longer need something for regular use is to give it away to someone who does. But even when we’re not using something, we still think we need it. Our possessions have come to own us, rather than the other way around.

Jesus’ warning about greed

Over the course of my priesthood I have been shocked at how many times I’ve had been asked to get involved in familial situations like the one Jesus was requested to resolve in today’s Gospel, when a man came up to him asking him to settle an inheritance dispute. This man obviously thought that his brother was wronging him and wanted Jesus, the just one, to intervene. I don’t hesitate to add that this man’s brother probably WAS wronging him. But underneath this appeal for justice, Jesus saw two things at play. First, the petitioner at a practical level was thinking that gaining the inheritance was more important than maintaining a good relationship with his brother. How many people today still think and act in these terms, allowing money or other vanities to separate them and keep them separated for years, decades or even to the grave! Second, Jesus saw that, despite what was likely a just request, the motivation underneath it was not justice but primarily GREED disguised as justice. That’s why Jesus told not only the petitioner but the whole crowd: “Beware of all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions!”

The problem for many of us and for so many of our fellow citizens is that we think that life does consist in the abundance of possessions. We idolize the rich and famous. We watch programs and buy magazines about them, whatever can give us a window into their life. We put in long hours of work to try to secure a little bit of it. While few of us spend much time setting our hearts on Newport mansions, Rolls Royces, butlers and chauffeurs, we do spend our time dreaming about and working for much larger homes, new cars, housekeepers and the like. We may pretend that because we’re not rich, we’re not greedy, while many of us are obsessed about money. We think about money and material concerns more than we think about God. We spend far more time dedicating ourselves to growing our wallets than we do our souls. But because most people around us are greedily addicted to material things, too, we don’t notice it.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul emphasizes that greed is “idolatry.” It’s a false god. It’s a ferocious idolatry, as Pope Francis has been saying, one that attacks us savagely at our core and changes us. Yet how many in our culture worship this false god, working for hours on end at the cost of their health, their marriages, their families and sometimes their lives, just to make more money? Why are they working so hard? Some times it’s for their own survival, sometimes it’s for their good of their families, but many times it’s just for vanities, for material possessions that we cannot take with us as we die. As the saying goes, you never see a U-Haul behind a hearse, because we can’t take our possessions with us as we go. The only thing we can take with us to the grave and beyond, the only thing that can fit through the eye of the needle that is the gate to heaven, is what we give away, are our deeds of love for others.

The clearest indication that many of us are idol worshippers

The surest sign that so many of us and our contemporaries worship money would be the reaction I’d get if I mentioned that a billionaire like Carlos Slim, Bill Gates or John Henry would be here giving one million dollars to everyone who comes to Mass next Sunday. If that were true, this Church would be a mob scene next weekend. Even if there were just going to be a lottery for one person to receive a million dollars, the Church would still be packed. They’d come for money. They’d rearrange their schedule to be here early if it would give them a better chance. They’d be thinking about it all week and preparing themselves. They might even be praying in anticipation of coming to Church. When, however, it’s a question about receiving “only” the eternal Son of God, of hearing his words, receiving his own body and blood within us, and progressing on the path to heaven, many find excuses about other things they “have to” do, and don’t come. They’ll come for the money, but they won’t come for God. That’s what Jesus and Pope Francis are both talking about.

When I meet with couples to prepare them for marriage or for the baptism of a beautiful baby, many of them haven’t been practicing the faith each Sunday. When I ask them politely why they haven’t been coming to Mass, in the vast majority of circumstances the answer I get from one or both is that they “have to” work. In some cases, they are in professions like nursing where they often do have to work on Sundays, but in many circumstances their jobs don’t require working on Sunday but they’re hardworking young people who want to work in order to make extra money to pay off their debt, or pay for a wedding reception, to purchase a new home. But what’s basically involved is putting mammon above god, placing their faith, hope and love in material possessions than trusting in God’s providence.

To help them see the point, I often illustrate it by a series of questions. I say, “I know that money is important, especially for a young couple, but what I would like to know is: Is money so important that, for example, if someone offered you a year’s salary to kill somebody, would you take it?” They always say, forcefully and fast, some version of “absolutely not.” When I ask them why, they generally say the obvious answer that killing people is wrong. “So you wouldn’t do it no matter how much money was being offered?” No, they reply.

“How about would either of you want the other to become a gigolo or a brothel worker if you could supplement your income? No, they reply again, a little sickened by the thought.

“Would you rob a bank or hold up a convenience store for the money?” No again. “Why not?” “Well, stealing is wrong.”

“Would you take the stand and lie, saying a innocent man committed a crime, if someone were willing to pay you ten grand to perjure yourself?” No again. “Why not?” “Well, lying is wrong.”

Then I summarize. “I’m very happy with your answers and I think God is very happy with your answers. But I want to ask you one last question. If you wouldn’t break the fifth commandment and kill someone for the money because killings is wrong; if you wouldn’t break the sixth commandment and cheat on each other for the money because adultery is wrong; if you wouldn’t break the seventh commandment and steal for the money because stealing is wrong; if you wouldn’t break the eighth commandment and lie for the money because lying is wrong; why would you break the third commandment for the money and sacrifice your relationship with God by putting earning money above worshipping and coming to thank the Lord who has given us everything including sending his son to die for us and to nourish us?”

It leads to some very beautiful conversations. In most cases, people have not even thought about it, because in our culture so many put money above the worship of God that often they don’t even realize the magnitude of what they’re doing by putting work over worship on the Lord’s day, by serving a golden calf on Sundays rather than the one true God.

Jesus said elsewhere in the Gospel in absolute terms that we cannot serve both God and money. We have to make a choice. Every single one of us has to make a choice, because none of us can serve both. We’re either going to serve God and that’s going to change totally the way we relate to money or we’re going to serve money and that ferocious idolatry is going to change the way we relate to God.

This choice between God and mammon was the one offered to the Rich Young Man in the Gospel. The Rich Young Man knew that something was missing from his life even though he was keeping the commandments and he came to ask Jesus what he needed to do to find fulfillment. Jesus told him that if he wanted to come to perfected, he needed to sell all his goods, give the money to the poor, becoming rich in heaven, and then come follow him. But when faced with the choice between Jesus and his stuff, between God and mammon, he chose his stuff, and went away from Jesus sad. Today Jesus meets all of us, like the Rich Young Man, and tells us that we need to make the same choice. Out of the same love with which he died on the Cross for us, he tells us to beware of all types of greed, of idolizing money, or serving mammon. He encourages us, challenges us, calls us and wants to help us to choose not the path of vanity, the complete waste of our time on earth, but to seek heaven and place our heart, and our treasure, in what we can take with us when we die: the riches to pertain to God.

And so the big questions we need to confront are: What are we living for? What are we working for? Are we working for the things of this world or what we working for God? If given a choice between becoming a billionaire in this world but remaining poor or bankrupt in faith or becoming a spiritual billionaire but remaining materially poor, which would we choose?

How to become rich in what matters to God

If we wish to become rich in what pertains to God, St. Paul tells us how in today’s second reading. He begins by reminding us that we have been raised by Christ. Eternal life with God is not just possible but will happen provided that we do not squander this incredible gift and inheritance through a life of vanity. Becoming rich toward God means, he says, that we “seek the things that are above” and “set our minds on the things that are above, not on the things that are on earth.” Are our hearts and our minds set on the things of God or do we obsess about the things of earth?

Pope Benedict wrote six years ago that one of the worst illnesses plaguing even good and moral people today is that we seek only after “lesser hopes,” or this-worldly goals, many of which are good and fine, but limited: we hope for good grades, a good college, a good job, a good husband or wife, good kids, good friends, a good home and what the world thinks is a good life. None of these is bad, but even all of them together are insufficient. Our life should be marked above all, Pope Benedict wrote, by the “great hope,” which he says is the hope for an eternal life of love with God in heaven. And if that is our hope, if that is the goal of our life, then we must choose the path here on earth that will lead us there.

Once in the Gospel, Jesus said that we children of the light need to be just as savvy in storing up for ourselves the things of heaven as so many others today are in securing worldly fortunes. Just as a money-hungry woman needs to study, to work long hours, to persevere, to sacrifice various things she would like to do, in order to get ahead in New York, Boston, Chicago or LA, so the Christian needs to work just as hard and just as concretely to get ahead in the New and eternal Jerusalem. Just as a businessman needs to put away teenage habits, clothes, vocabulary, immaturity and irresponsibility, and especially vices like dishonesty and laziness, so the Christian, seeking an eternal treasure, must put away whatever will prevent our achieving the goal. We need to make the choices to grow rich in the things of God.

And so I ask you to think seriously and concretely about what choices would be consistent with acquiring these heavenly riches, with becoming fabulously wealthy in the spiritual life.

This week we are beginning an eight-day summer Bible camp, with identical sessions in the morning and evening in the hope that most parishioners can attend one or the other on most days. This is an investment seminar for the riches that can’t be taxed. But are we wise enough to come to learn some means by which to grow in our knowledge of God’s word so that we might one day become a spiritual billionaire? I suspect that if Donald Trump were coming here to offer a free eight-day seminar entitled, “The open secret how to become truly rich in this world?,” it would be sold out. But if people — let’s make it even more concrete, if you — would come for “The Donald” but not come for the Holy Spirit who himself has told us in Sacred Scripture the map to the treasure of heaven, then it shows very clearly what you worship.

Likewise, every morning we have a daily 35-minute Mass offered here. I know that not everyone can attend daily Mass, but during the summer, many are off from work and also many parishioners are retired. There’s no better way to become rich in the things of God than to allow Jesus to fill us with the riches of his word and his own body and blood.

Third, the way we store up for ourselves a treasure in heaven is by giving ourselves and our things away to others in love. The more we concrete serve others the richer we are. We should all by making the time to grow this portfolio of charity.

The fourth and last thing I’ll mention is about prayer, how we spend our time at home. Do you believe that if Jesus were living in your home, that he would sit in a recliner with a channel changer and watch the shopping channel, or soap operas, talk shows or re-runs? These are all vanities, we have to have to have the Christian clarity to see that. If we wish to become rich in what pertains to God, we need to learn to turn off the television, the music, the computer, and other gadgets for a while to pray, to seek the things that are above, to set our heart on the true treasure, to focus on reading the lives of the saints, who are the spiritually rich and famous, far more than we focus on earthly celebrities who are often living lives that are the consummate vanity of vanities.

The way we store up for ourselves treasure in heaven is by beginning to treasure what God treasures. That’s our vocation, that’s our task, in all parts of our life. And the true success of our life, in this world and in the next, depends on it.

How Jesus helps us to seek what is above

Sunday Mass is one of God’s greatest gifts of God to help us to seek the things that are above. In a few minutes, I will say, “Lift up your hearts!” and you will respond, “We have lifted them up to the Lord!” That’s the chief message Jesus, Pope Francis and I are trying to communicate, but not just during the liturgy but in the whole life. We’re saying, “Lift up your hearts” from the idols we make so easily of material things, praying that you will say with all the choices you make, “We have lifted our lives up to the Lord!” In the Mass, we receive the greatest treasure in the world, Jesus himself, the pearl of great price, worth selling everything we have to obtain, and he seeks to unite our whole life to what he desires, to what is truly good for us and others, to what will lead us to riches that moths can’t destroy or rust corrode. This is the path that made Bernadette Soubirous, John Vianney and all the saints tremendously rich in the only wealth that really matters. As we prepare to receive Jesus today, we ask him, we beg him, to help us to cut our ties from the ferocious idolatry of mammon and material things, so that we might leave behind what is vanity and grasp onto him who is the real treasure, now and forever!