This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 12:13–21:
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” He replied to him, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” Then he said to the crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
Then he told them a parable. “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’ But God said 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.”
Over the past few years, my wife and I have been blessed with the opportunities and the means to do some international travel to places we always wanted to experience together. We went to Rome for the beatification of now-Saint John Paul the Great in 2011, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2013 (and added a few days in Istanbul at the end), and went to Italy on a pilgrimage last year. These travels not only allowed us to enjoy ourselves and appreciate other cultures and people, but also to grow a little closer to each other and to Christ as well.
This year, though, in a presidential election cycle, taking a couple of weeks off for autumn travel isn’t practical. Instead, we’re working on the house after 18 years, adding on and making improvements. Some of this is for our enjoyment, and some of it is long-overdue work to address wear and tear on a thirty-year-old house. It’ll set us back some, but we’ll get much more out of it than we’ll put into it over the next several years.
Today’s Gospel and readings put me in mind of the fact that, though I own this house in the present, I am but a steward of this property. You can’t take it with you, as the saying goes, and no matter how long I decide to live here, someone else will eventually live in this house and have the advantage of whatever I invest in it. Our first reading from Ecclesiastes 1:2 reminds us of this fact. albeit in the sense of inheritance: “Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and yet to another who has not labored over it, he must leave property.”
In truth, my son labors over his property far more than I do; the handyman characteristic skipped a generation in my family. My father can fix anything and my son is pretty close to the same ability, but I’m 88 thumbs at most tasks. “Laboring” in my case means earning the money to have someone else do it correctly, and on occasion to have them fix what I broke when I fooled myself into thinking I could do it myself. (The time I decided to repaint the interior of our previous home is still legendary within the family.) When the time comes to pass along whatever I have left, my son will make a better steward than me.
But he, too, will be just that in the long run — a steward, not a perpetual owner, and will have no more real control over what happens to “his” property after the Lord calls him home than I will. These “belong” to us in the context of space, time, and legal and political constructs necessary for the common good. I can buy and sell, but what I can’t do is claim eternal ownership. Therefore, while I can do what I want with my property, it’s still a stewardship — and it behooves me to care for it and enjoy it while remembering it’s entirely temporary in eternal terms. You can’t take it with you.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us of the nature of our lives in this world and warns against believing in material salvation. We do not take our material wealth with us, and it does not matter one iota when we leave it behind. We can plan for our retirements, and there isn’t anything wrong with that, but that does not guarantee a life of leisure, or life in this world or the next at all.
Building bigger barns or houses to store wealth that we acquire without need may make us feel secure, as Jesus explains in this parable, but it is a false sense of security. Our lives may be demanded at any moment, rendering all that wealth useless to us. You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? They will belong to heirs, to tax collectors, to creditors; material wealth will pass to other stewards, who eventually will pass them to other stewards, and so on. They will belong, as Ecclesiastes instructs, “to another who has not labored over it.”
Possessions are not eternal; the present physical life, with all its temptations and snares, is not eternal either. Caritas is eternal, within the Trinitarian life. We do not need bigger barns or houses to store up that treasure; we need to open our hearts wider to the Holy Spirit to prepare for our eternal life with the Lord. As Paul writes to the Colossians in our second reading, “Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.”
That does not mean that one has to renounce all worldly possessions, although a number of saints found that path to the Lord. It does mean we need to keep them in proper perspective. We may own them in the legal and philosophical sense, but in the eternal sense we are not masters of them but only stewards. The same is true for our physical natures in this world; we own our bodies as a gift from God, but they are in the end transitory, and the Lord expects us to be good stewards of His gift. By understanding that, we prevent all of these from mastering us rather than the other way around, and it puts us in position to follow Paul’s command. The Lord is the only Master; we are His servants and stewards in this life.
I’ll keep working on the house this year, and try to keep from breaking more than I fix. I’ll take some time to enjoy the reworked parts while trying not to think of the issues that will need addressing next year. I hope to have a good long run of years to do all those things, but that’s not up to me, and I’ll take what comes. But mostly, I pray that I can succeed in keeping all of this in its proper perspective, and thereby resist the illusions of being a master rather than a steward. That, hopefully, I will take with me.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.