Thursday of the Second Week of Lent: Letting Go of Passing Things

Today’s readings

I’m going to say something that is probably going to make you think I’m wrong. And that is that the great sin of the rich man was not the sin of neglecting poor Lazarus. Sure, that was certainly bad, but his greatest sin, I think, was that he trusted in himself instead of in God. That’s the deadly sin of pride, and the Fathers of the Church often tell us of the devastating effects of it. So for the rich man, well he had everything he thought he needed in life, and he trusted in himself and in his own means to get it. But he never had a relationship with God; he didn’t see that as something he needed. You don’t see him praying in the story or even giving thanks to God for his riches. All you see is him doing is enjoying what he has amassed, to the neglect of the poor.

So later on in the story, in death, he wants the good things God will provide for those who trust in him, people like Lazarus for example.   Lazarus has suffered much, and as the Old Testament Prophets proclaim, God is especially close to the poor and needy, so now he is exalted. But the rich man isn’t. He has already made his choice, and unfortunately now, trusting in himself doesn’t bring him anything good.

So the problem with this is that we are often the rich man and not so much Lazarus. We have a lot of stuff, we are blessed on earth more than most of the people in the world today. But sadly that often puts us at odds with the things of heaven. We can’t reach out for those when we’re holding on to the passing things of this world. We can’t take the hand of Jesus when we’re juggling the stuff life throws our way. That’s why fasting is so important during Lent, as well as almsgiving: both bid us let go of passing things so that we can have, like Lazarus, things eternal. Both bid us trust in God, not in ourselves and other human beings. Jeremiah says it plainly today: “Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD.” But, conversely, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD.”

So the question is, in whom do we trust? In ourselves? In other people? Or in God? “Blessed are they,” the Psalmist says today, “who hope in the Lord.”

Monday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time 

So the question today is, what is it that holds us back? The rich young man seemed to have it all together: he acknowledged Jesus as the good teacher, so he must have been familiar with what Jesus said and did. He says he kept all the commandments, so he certainly had a religious upbringing and was zealous to follow the law. But, with all that, he still knew that something was lacking. “What do I still lack?” he asks. When Jesus reveals that the next step in following the Gospel involves letting go of his worldly possessions, he finds that to be somewhere he can’t go. He had many possessions, and he wasn’t yet ready to give them up.

So back to my first question. What holds us back? Is it many possessions? Or is it our work, or status, or what the neighbors might think? It could be that we don’t want to get out of our comfort zone and follow Christ according to the way he is calling us. Whatever it is, it involves letting go – giving up what is not God and clinging to him alone. It’s not that Jesus didn’t want the rich young man to have money. He wanted him to have eternal life. And whenever we cling to what is not God, we are in grave danger of giving up eternal life. 

We have to be ready to let go of whatever holds us back from accepting the life that God wants for us. What he has is so much better than whatever it is we’re holding on to. So the question is, will we give up what is holding us back, or will we give up eternal life? We’re going to have to live with the answer to that question for a very, very long time. 

The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [C]

Today’s readings

This has been a rather busy pastoral week for me.  I’ve had a couple of funerals this week, and seem to have been called to the hospital a little more frequently than what I’d consider usual.  I’ve ministered to a couple whose baby was stillborn; I anointed a child and a woman in her 80s.  It all reminded me that, no matter what stage of life we’re at, we’re fragile.  Our human flesh is a frail thing.

And so, when I hear these readings on a week like this, it sends a little chill of recognition into my heart.  We here live in a very affluent society.  We are in one of the most well-to-do counties in the most prosperous nation on earth.  Sure, lots of us don’t have as much as others, but most of us have more than most people on the planet.  And yet we’re still frail, we could be called for judgment any time.  This night, perhaps, our very life will be demanded of us.  And all that we have, to whom will it belong?

Listen to the last line of the Gospel one more time: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”  So right away the parable is turned around and directed at all of us.  And it wouldn’t be so hard to put that parable in modern terms, would it?  Think of winning the lottery, only to know that the day you receive the check is the day you go home to the Lord.  Or think of spending your days and nights in the office, building wealth and prestige, only to be part of massive layoffs when the company is sold.  Or, even worse, spending your days and nights at the office, only to miss the growing of your family.  So, Jesus asks us, what treasures have we built up?  With what have we filled our barns?

Today’s first reading is from the book of Ecclesiastes, which in Hebrew is Qoheleth, who is the teacher in the book.  Among the Wisdom books in the Scriptures, Ecclesiastes can be the harshest to read because it is almost prophetic in content.  Qoheleth is considered wise among his contemporaries, much like many of the popular wisdom teachers of his day.  While we don’t know who Qoheleth was, the book is attributed to Solomon, the wise king.  Solomon often wrote of the prizes that lay in store for those who were successful.  But this book is a little different.  Here he questions if it is all worth it, and challenges the complacence and dishonesty that run rampant in that society.  If we didn’t know any better, he could well have been writing his words today, couldn’t he?  In the end, though, Qoheleth’s message is basically encouraging, and brings us back to the God who made us.  At the end of his book, which is not part of today’s reading, he says: “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.” (Ecc. 12:13-14)  Which is exactly what Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel.

St. Paul has a little bit of Qoheleth in him too, today.  In the letter to the Colossians, which we have been hearing these past few weeks, he is trying to get that community to lay aside earthly things and seek God.  “If you were raised with Christ,” he tells them, “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”  In other words, stop filling your barns with the stuff that you accumulate on this earth, and be rich in what matters to God.  Qoheleth, St. Paul, and Jesus are in complete concert today, and we must be careful to hear their message.

So, let’s get back to Jesus’ instruction at the end of today’s Gospel parable: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”  We have to ask ourselves, then, the very important question: “what is it that matters to God?”  I think we know what doesn’t qualify – St. Paul made that very clear to the Colossians and to us today.  I think the things that matter to God are those things we might count among our blessings: namely our family and friends.  Those things that matter to God might also be the things that make us disciples who are pure, compassionate and truthful.  So we might seek to be rich in prayer, rich in reaching out to the poor and needy, rich in standing up for truth and justice.

Today God is urging us to let go…  Let go of the stuff we think we can’t live without and instead grab hold of what matters most, what matters to God, what will bring us to life eternal.  So what are we stockpiling in our barns?  Maybe we need a look at our checkbooks, our calendars, and our to-do lists to see where our money, time and resources have gone.  Can we take any of that with us if we are called home to God tonight?  If those things are all we have, we could find ourselves in real poverty when we arrive at the pearly gates.  This week’s to-do list might find us letting go of some of what we thought was important, so that we can be rich in what matters to God.  These, brothers and sisters in Christ, are the riches that will not spoil and can never be taken away from us.

Thursday of the Twenty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

People look to great leaders to be an example to them.  In theory, anyway, that’s how it’s supposed to work.  So it comes as no surprise, really, that those enforcing the apostasy wanted Mattathias and his sons to enthusiastically sacrifice to the pagan gods, according to the order of the king.  Because if Mattathias gave in to the apostasy, others would find it easy to do so also.  Then, they told him, he would be known as one of the king’s friends.

But Mattathias remembered where his leadership came from.  He knew that it was a gift from God, and that he as a leader could only do God’s work.  So he refuses to give up and give in, to go along with the king’s order, even to make a pretense of it so that they would get off his back.  Instead, he is consumed with zeal, and on seeing one of his countrymen giving in, strikes him dead on the spot and leads the righteous in the nation in rebellion.

Mattathias knew which king he wanted as his friend.  He knew that God alone was worthy of worship, and his Kingship was greater than the rule of a mere mortal man.  A leader needs to keep his or her priorities in order, and needs to know the source of the gifts he or she possesses.  Keeping focused on the One who is the giver of those gifts helps us to lead rightly, to the honor and glory of God.