The readings for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are warnings about the illusions that beset us, the sounds of the sirens that lure us. The anxiety and toil of Ecclesiastes (1st Reading), the idolatry and obsessions mentioned in Colossians (2nd Reading), the voracious greed portrayed in the Gospel parable, all clamor for our attention.
The word “vanity” has come to mean “excessive belief in your own abilities or your attractiveness to others.” But the original meaning of the word, the one that makes sense of the First Reading, was “empty or valueless.” “In vain” comes closer to the meaning. So in the First Reading, when Qoheleth says, “vanity of vanities! All things are vanity,” he means that everything we do is in vain.
“What profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun? All his days sorrow and grief is his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest. This also is vanity.”
In the Gospel Jesus is asked to settle an inheritance case. Ultimately, he says that our life should not consist of first and foremostly, accumulating possessions. He tells a parable about a very rich man who produces a huge harvest and is busy tearing down his barns to build still larger ones in order to hoard more.
This particular rich man gets a nasty surprise when he goes about eating, drinking and being merry after, he believes, he has secured his future. God says to him,
“You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”
All the rich man’s ambitious planning was in vain because that same night he was to die.
The rich farmer is a fool not because he is wealthy or because he saved for the future, but because he appears to have lived only for himself, and because he believed that he could secure his life with his abundant possessions.
The rich man is living for this world and this life only. He is thinking only of himself, with no awareness of the needs of others, despite his own abundance. One thing he does not possess is a sense of gratitude to God for his good fortune and, again, there is no mention of the larger community; it is a matter of “my grain and my goods.” The fact that this man is pursuing an interior monologue in a vacuum of selfishness is revealed by the humorous words: “I shall say to myself, ‘Self, … ‘”
The rich man has a ‘me, me, me’ complex. He does not come across as wicked or evil but as selfish, greedy, and preoccupied with himself to the exclusion of others. He is caught up in the unholy trinity of Me, Myself and I.
The rich man learns what we all know to be true, quite simply, “you can’t take it with you”.
We also know that riches do not make us happy. Interestingly, researchers have found that the thing that does make us happy is giving to others—for their good—not for self aggrandizement.
In our Western society, we are driven to acquire more wealth, more possessions, more status. In Sunday’s Gospel Jesus reminds us that, at the end of our lives, when we must leave all those things behind, we will be asked what spiritual riches we have accumulated.
If death were on its way to us this very night, would we be found “rich in what matters to God”?