In this part of the world we have a little cat-like animal, the skunk. Its main defense against intruders and enemies is the ejection of a most terrible smell which lingers for days. We have porcupines whose defense is the ejection of very sharp needle-like quills that stick deeply into nosey dogs and persons who get too close. Persons and most nations have defenses.
As we prepare for the Divine Intruder this week, we might pray with the various stinks and prickers with which we can keep others at a safe distance. We can pray as well with how we keep God and the calls of Jesus far from our doors marked “Private, Keep Out”. The great thing which is a comfort is that God is patient and waits for us to get tired of defensive spirituality.
Our First Reading comes from the book from the Hebrew Scriptures the title of which means “Preacher” or “Spokesman” or perhaps even the “voice of the assembly”. Qoheleth is a common noun, not a personal name. Ecclesiastes comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew, a word which gives us the English word for “church-things” ecclesiastical. This book fits into a larger group of writings called “Wisdom Literature”. These books deal with life’s problems, ponderings and practices.
Generally the theme of these books is stated in the verses we hear today. Vanity or illusion is all there really as in life. Knowing many things, having great possessions, actually being good avails humans of nothing. Time and life go on while we are here and after. Vanity is like smoke or wind - it all vanishes. Nothing is of much value or importance. One person can labor for a lifetime and when that person dies, the profits and accumulations might be given to one who did nothing to deserve it all.
The basic message is the old one of, “You can’t take it with you.” Instead of the meaning of the word “vanity” concerning superfluous clothes and cosmetics, I offer the word, “Fragile” or “symbolic”. Everything is sacramental, that is leading beyond itself. The theme here is that what is, is, and will not be, very soon. This text is not meant to be a bucket of cold water, but a reflection upon the shortness of life’s span and even more deeply, a pointing to the possibility of a life beyond the fragile.
There is an old saying, “You can’t take it with you, except the things you gave away.” Today’s Gospel needs very little explanation. We all might be looking for the loopholes, but there aren’t any. What did you not understand? Perhaps the last line of the reading would be cause for wondering just what does “matter to God.” Luke’s Gospel stresses the centrality of holding on to Jesus as we saw last week with Mary’s sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha was doing many other good things.
We all have things of great value, emotionally, materially, historically. My room here is full of little and large sacraments of being loved. I have a toy helicopter which a dying friend gave to me while saying, “When you hold this, do it in memory of me.” I do and it is precious. I have a container of sand from Normandy Beach brought to me by my brother who knows I love the history of D-Day. I have statues from Israel from someone who loved me enough to pay for them and carry them all the way back home. These and many others are my wealth. I know I cling to them as if they were of great monetary value. We all have possessions. The thing is not what we possess, but what possesses us. We know that it is so easy to receive the gifts and not the hand Who offers them. Reception is sacramental; to cling to them for our value and identity is sacrilegious.
The man of the parable today is quite self-satisfied, even though it was the land that gave him his abundant crop. He is preparing himself for a life of easy self reliance. Maybe his farming neighbors will think more highly of him, because of his bigger barn. He has lost contact with the fragility of his own life. Apparently he has not been sharing much and so he will take nothing with him. What seemed to matter to the man of the parable was himself and his personality establishment.
I have a Jesuit friend whose favorite idea is that “One must move beyond the illusion of self-containment.” He often is referring to me when invoking these words. It seems that any addiction is the consistent and insistent employing of something to avoid the experiencing of a truth or truths about one's self that one cannot stand facing. The accumulation of bigger crops for bigger barns may have assisted this fellow in avoiding his not being big enough in his eyes or those of others.
The parable does not say that he will not receive eternal life with God in heaven. The parable is meant to remind us all that life is short and fragile and what matters to God has to do with God’s becoming bigger within the human experience.
“You gave us bread from heaven, Lord; a sweet-tasting bread that was very good to eat.” Wis. 16, 20
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