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"Vanity of Vanities"

18TH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME C (2016)

VANITY OF VANITIES (ECCLES 1:2)

Introduction

The accent in today's first reading falls on a theme at least sometimes familiar to most people- the futility of life. Anyone who has lived normally will have felt at some time or other that life has no point at all. During the twenties and thirties of the last century there was a whole literature on this subject, called existential literature. The French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus suggested that one question only was worth asking: should one commit suicide? A fellow philosopher Jean Paul Sartre believed that nobody should have children; life in this world is too painful to bring them into it. Long before these authors, who had experienced the horrors of War, there was an Ancient Greek adage that life is just ‘ to do and to suffer’. And some ancient Roman stoics, caught up in impossible situations, would fall on their sword. We have recently experienced at the hands of fundamentalist Islamists cruelty and indifference on such a savage scale that they want the total destruction of human hope- and that looks like insanity to ordinary people. They seem not to fear destroying themselves as well. It is therefore interesting and helpful to recall that in the Old Testament the author called The Preacher, whom we hear in today's first reading at Mass, had found life extremely hard to understand. He was a well to do man, well educated, and widely experienced. Yet the burden of life weighed heavily on him. He believed in God, but seemingly without a developed idea of an after-life –the after-life was little accentuated in the Old Testament. The Preacher found his purpose for living through enjoying the wife he loves all the days of his life (9:9). Despite so much activity which he describes as vanity and striving after the wind, he was paradoxically lyrical about certain things. At 2:24-25 we read: There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil…This.. is from the hand of God. For to the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy.

Colossians

Today's second reading, from Colossians, is an exhortation not to worship false gods, like indulging oneself in so many different ways. The author offers a magnificent prospect of a world of love, without class divisions and social distinctions- since the Son of God made man lived out his personal history perfectly. Christians are to be like him. All people are equally important in God's eyes. This is hard to remember when we live in a world of refugees, and shifting populations, and constant alienations, and terrorism. I recall being told in confidence that among the Asians in our own hall of residence in Rome there was still the caste system observed by them. My Holy Land guiding experience bore out that Hutus and Tutsies could not talk to each other even when on pilgrimage together. The same was true of other ethnic groups who had suffered so much in their own contexts. And we are talking about Sisters, Priests and Brothers.

Today’s Gospel.The Parable. Lk 12:13-21

Our Lord's parable gives us another angle on this perennial human problem. As always with his parables it is near the bone. A man does all he can to amass as much as he can and then retires to enjoy it. The unfortunate man suddenly dies and all his effects are shared out among people who did nothing to merit them. This theme is all too familiar. Self-indulgent greed makes headlines every day in our media. There is fascination with money, and the Jet Set, and the status that economic success assures.

But in practice what are we ordinary folk supposed to do in our own sphere? Much will depend on our experience. Jesus was not saying that money was not important. It was. And he needed it too. What he was saying was that life is not about making money. Seemingly Jesus too could sometimes condone the paradoxical. The woman who anointed him with oil used enough perfume to have kept a working man in wages for a whole year! Judas found the gesture frightfully extravagant. So it is not just a question of being affluent. It is about the meaning of life. What do we really basically stand for? What would we like people to be if we could make it so? Most of us live our lives in a very small compass. Where your treasure is there is your heart. There are many people who are financially secure and are still looking for the meaning of life. Basically is not this what we are all about? We want our lives to have meaning and focus. Surely we want what is recognizably good for ourselves and good for others?

This used to come home to me powerfully in the late vocation Beda College in Rome. Many of the students for the priesthood there had already made a successful career. They could have retired and done what so many folk do- they could have put their feet up, bought a villa in sunshine climates and cruised eternally. Instead many had waited until their children were grown up and then gave the rest of their lives in priestly ministry. Some had cared for aged parents. Some were converts; a conscience call had brought them to full communion in the Catholic household of the faith. They were not exceptional. We all know many people who in different walks of life are doing marvellous things with a generous heart – and they find their happiness in living with and for others. Our dispositions can change the world just a little bit- that is the way of Our Lord.

Christians above all should be able to say that life is worth living- because it is about love- and to love is to give oneself away for others - the alternative may well seem unthinkable – and enough examples in history are available to assure us that such an unthinkable alternative has been pursued- and often with disastrous effects.

Can we assure ourselves that we are happy and grateful now for the way life has taken us? If we can then we can help other people to flourish. How grateful we must be, and should be, to those who have helped us on our way. They cared for us, loved us, encouraged us, and made the journey with us. Each one of us in his or her heart knows the names of these people. Because of them we are grateful that our living with our family and community, has not been in vain. And at Mass their names doubtless come back to us- and we pray for them. And go on hoping. Amen.

 

 

Rev Richard J. Taylor

Spiritual Advisor, MaterCare International

Boarbank, Cumbria, UK