Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
August 04, 2019 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs, CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Ecclesiastes 1:2;2:22-23 | Psalm 90:3-6;12-17;17
Colossians 3:1-5;9-11 | Luke 12:13-21
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
On our recent train trip home from New Orleans to Los Angeles, Deacon Sharon and I were almost eight hours late because our passenger train had to wait for freight trains to pass. The owner of the train tracks, Union Pacific Railroad, placed a higher priority on the substantial revenue generated by their freight trains over the comparatively slim revenue realized from hosting Amtrak passenger trains. Today’s readings are aimed with surgical precision at the cold-hearted people who run Union Pacific, who favor the inanimate freight and the money it generates over human persons riding passenger trains. Union Pacific showed us what true evil looks like, that is, profit above people, a way of thinking which is truly evil.
Union Pacific, however, is not the only villain. Union Pacific is emblematic of the entire American culture. In the movie, “Wall Street,” the main character, stockbroker Gordon Gecko, gives a speech about greed. “Greed is good,” he proclaims. He goes on to say,
“Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, and knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will save that malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”
It’s very obvious that Mr. Gecko never read today’s lectionary readings, or if he did, would probably classify them as rubbish. And no, Mr. Gecko, greed is not our salvation, but will drive us to perdition.
What, exactly, is greed? Greed, or avarice, is one of the traditional Seven Deadly Sins. (In case you’ve forgotten, the others are pride, lust, wrath, gluttony, envy and sloth) Greed is an inappropriate and insatiable longing for material gain, an irrational desire to acquire or possess more than one needs to sustain one’s life.
Today’s readings do not attack those who earn money to survive. Nor are the readings aimed at those who wisely save enough for a reserve to buy a home, a car, or to cover unexpected expenses, and nor is Jesus addressing entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, who has given a substantial portion of his wealth to a foundation that works assiduously to improve the human condition by eradicating disease, poverty, and illiteracy. Rather, Jesus has something to say to those people like Jeff Bezos, who has accumulated more money than he will ever need in his entire lifetime and continues to hang on to it while others live on the very edge of life due to ill-health, hunger, and homelessness. Jesus is also talking to billionaire dynasties like the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame, who sit fat and happy in Arkansas while paying workers woefully inadequate wages and skimp benefits, forcing many to seek public benefits like foodstamps and Medi-Cal just to survive at a bare subsistence level. If you want to do some serious person-to-person ministry right here in Palm Springs, be a listening ear for the workers at Wal-Mart about their personal finances. You will be shocked about how miserable their lives are. I know it first-hand from my days as an attorney when I represented those workers in their work-injury and sexual harassment claims against the company.
Today, Jesus addresses those who glorify wealth over and above the spiritual part of human existence, those who in the words of today’s second reading do not seek just a comfortable living, but those who amass wealth for wealth’s sake…those who hoard. The person whose identity is tied up with his or her possessions, status, and/or achievements — and is driven by acquiring them — can so easily end up unaware of the call of God and the need of the neighbor. Those who build a bigger barn to store a bigger harvest think only of themselves. In the time of Jesus, years of plenty were followed by years of famine. The hoarders stored the produce from their land to sell it at inflated prices to those who could not afford to save grain for themselves, like those in today’s economy who live check to check. Jesus warned them that like a thief in the night, their barns will be torn down and they will lose everything, kind of like those who put all their money into the stock market and made grandiose plans for a luxurious life, only to have the market crash and burn their paper profits.
In the United States, wealth is distributed in a highly unequal fashion, with the wealthiest one percent of families in the United States holding about forty percent of all wealth and the bottom ninety percent of families holding less than one-quarter of all wealth. Notably, twenty-five percent of American families have less than ten-thousand dollars in wealth. Wealth disparities have widened over time. In nineteen-eighty-nine, the bottom ninety percent of the U.S. population held thirty-three percent of all wealth. By twenty-sixteen, the bottom ninety percent of the population held only twenty percent of the total nation wealth. The wealth share of the top one percent increased from about thirty percent to about forty percent over the same period. The most visible indicator of wealth inequality in America today may be the Forbes magazine list of the nation’s four hundred richest. In twenty-eighteen, the three men at the top of that list —Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett — a held combined fortune worth more than the total wealth of the poorest half of Americans. The problem is even worse for Black and Latino families, as they on the average have a very small fraction of the wealth of White families, and in fact, many Black and Latino families have a negative net worth: they owe more to creditors than they have in money and property.
But isn’t the so-called American Dream to somehow get as much money as possible for oneself? So, why is this a problem?
First, and most important, is the issue of control. Wealth gives rich people control over the lives of poor people. If wealth is very unevenly distributed in a society, wealthy people often end up in control of many aspects of the lives of poorer citizens: over where and how they can work, what they can buy, and in general what their lives will be like. The more money you have, the more personal autonomy you have, greater are the range of choices available to you, and the more control you are in a position to exert over others, sometimes against their will. The freedom money buys is often effectuated by controlling others, often in contravention of their personal dignity, such as the control employers exert over employees living check-to-check on mere survival wages. The message is pretty much, “do as I say or you starve.”
Secondly, if those who hold political offices must depend on large contributions for their campaigns, they will be more responsive to the interests and demands of wealthy contributors, and those who are not rich will not be fairly represented. That is why, unlike every other industrialized country, health care in the United States is a vehicle for profit, not a human right. Health care providers, drug companies, and insurance carriers buy influence from politicians to keep in place a system which is profitable to them, the public be damned.
Third, economic inequality means that some children will enter the workforce much better prepared than others. Wealthy families can afford better educational experiences for their children. People with few assets find it harder to access the first small steps to larger opportunities, such as a loan to start a business or pay for an advanced degree. Inequality perpetuates inequality as shown by the fact that real wages for most U-S workers have increased little, if at all, since the early nineteen-seventies, but wages for the top one percent of earners have risen one-hundred-sixty-five percent, and wages for the top one tenth of one percent have risen three-hundred-sixty-two percent.
Today’s first reading is from Ecclesiastes, one of the so-called wisdom books of the Bible. A “wisdom” book is one which gives practical advice. Ecclesiastes is addressed to wealthy people. While our congregation is not wealthy when measured against other churches, nevertheless, in comparison to the vast poverty of most of the rest of the world, most of us are \”well off.\” In today’s reading, the author, believed to be King Solomon, tells us nothing can survive death: neither success, reputation, gain nor profit will last beyond a person’s lifetime. The reading describes very well the plight of today’s worker in the bottom tier of the worldwide economy: labor from sun up to sun down with nothing to show for it at the end of the day beyond the cost of survival. As this reading says, one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, but must leave it to another who has not labored over it. So all that the worker does is for naught. The end product is not for the benefit of those who did the work, but for the benefit of those who employ the worker and own the means of production on which the worker works. Those at the top of the heap utilize the human survival instinct to motivate those at the top so that they can remain on the top.
Ask yourself, are these results morally right? Are these results fair? I don’t think so! It is not what Jesus taught. Today’s readings address the desirability of accumulating wealth for one’s own sole benefit, or solely for the sake of becoming as wealthy as possible.
Our first reading shocks us into sobriety, lest we have been intoxicated and distracted by a reliance on what we have achieved on our own. If we worship the American cultural idol of materialism, basing our merit and sense of self-worth on what the world values and grasps, the message from Ecclesiastes is, \”Wake up you dreamers, what you treasure is a mere illusion, not something permanent.”
The theme continues in today’s gospel, where Jesus reminds us of the fragility of life. All those plans we have for all the money we want to make can come crashing down in an instant. All the grain stored up in our ever larger barns could be lost overnight.
In today’s second reading, Saint Paul implores us to, “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” Put another way, there is more to life than just money and the things of our earthly life. Saint Paul wants us to reflect on what the true purpose of our life is and to think beyond material things and beyond ourselves.
The purpose of our lives is to become rich in God’s sight. It is not to acquire wealth so that we can indulge ourselves. God’s values are completely different to the values of this world. God wants us to pursue justice, peace, charity, love, patience, sharing, faith, hope and so on. These values are quite contrary to the things that the world teaches are important such as wealth, luxury, leisure, and last but not least, power.
We become truly rich in God’s sight when the purpose of our lives is to improve the lives of others. One of the greatest fallacies of our popular culture is another idol called self-sufficiency, the idea that we are complete unto ourselves and do not need other people. The cultural message sounds something like, “Make it on your own, pull yourself up by your bootstraps” as much as possible with your own resources and efforts and as little as possible reliance on other people. But if we all work to improve the lives of others, rather than each person working to improve only her or his life, we end up with many people improving the lives of lives of many people, rather than one person improving the lives of just that person alone.
Hand in hand with the “each person for themselves” idea is setting each person against the other in competition for survival. That is what leads to greed, when each person sees each other person as a threat rather than an asset to survival, the very thing Saint Paul cautions us against when he tells us today, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.” When Christ “is all and in all”, we are freed from the idolatry of envy, the feeling of wanting more, more and more for ourselves and to heck with the next person.
We worship a God who looks not at our balance sheet, but what’s in our hearts. Our outward deeds reflect what’s inside of us. Look at your financial records and see where you spend your money. Look at your calendar and see where you spend your time. Consider who your companions are in relation to the time you are with them. What have your activities been? In what places have you been? Why should you care about those things?
Today’s readings tell us why. The values of this world are transitory. Our money, our cars, our computers, and our clothes, will not follow us to heaven if our life on this earth ends, nor will those things bring true joy in the here and now. Jesus calls us to store up treasure with God by embracing true joy, placing our trust in the things of God in the way we live, through living the heavenly virtues such as truth, humility, honesty, patience, and kindness. By adopting those virtues as our way of life, we will find a happiness that the idols of the material world cannot give us. You cannot hug a dollar, a car, a computer, or clothes. Yes, you can put your arms around them, but they are not soft and cuddly beings who will respond to your like a person or a pet.
Humanity was not created and blessed by God to hoard wealth. We are blessed to be a blessing in the lives of others, and we are blessed to build the kingdom of God in the world immediately around us and in the larger world. The health, happiness and satisfaction with life of our family and friends are always infinitely more important than money.
Money can be gone in a flash, but love lasts forever. Wealth cannot guarantee our future with God or other people. God gives us unconditional love, whether we are poor or wealthy, and so do the people who genuinely love us. God’s love for us is an example of the love we should have for others, particularly those close to us, like our spouses. Out of love God created humanity. In loving others, we are following God’s plan for us. God designed and built us for love, not to chase after material things.
Many people think that money equals happiness It does not. Yes, money is important, because you can\’t live without it, but money cannot replace our relationships with God and our neighbors. An irrational love of money and things risks damage to those relationships.
Yes, it’s OK to become wealthy, so long as you don’t obsess over money and things and remember the plight of your neighbor. As to who your neighbor is, we need look no further than the parable of the Good Samaritan which was in the readings a few weeks ago. Our neighbor is anyone who may be suffering misfortune. The Samaritan who took care of him was a rich person who exemplified the appropriate use of personal wealth.
As you leave here today, think about what is precious in your life, what will always endure regardless of your material circumstances. Jesus did not command us to become wealthy, but did command us to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. As with everything else, all that Jesus taught us regarding our relationships with other people is encapsulated into those two commandments, loving God and loving our neighbor, so simple to state, yet so hard to do. AMEN.