Nothing is more certain than that life is short, and that all of us will have to die. You don’t really need divine revelation to tell you that: it’s been a favourite theme of poets and philosophers throughout the ages. The Wisdom writers of the Old Testament, who were both poets and philosophers, loved to dwell on it. The New Testament writers quite frequently reflect on the same theme in the light of Christ.
Our first reading today was from Qoheleth, or Ecclesiastes, one of the Old Testament Wisdom writers. His reflections on death and the passing away of all things filled him with sadness. What is the point? he seems to say. All is vanity, all is futile, and a chasing after wind. Nothing lasts, so why bother? His view of life can seem cynical and despairing. Some people who agree with his conclusions determine to snatch as much pleasure out of life as they can while there is yet time. Let us eat and drink, they say, for tomorrow we die (1 Cor 15:32).
But this is folly. It is also despicable. It’s alright for animals to live for immediate gratification of their instincts: they don’t reflect about these things. But it isn’t alright for people. We know there is more to our life than that. And when people do try to live for pleasure alone, it never stops at innocent eating and drinking. Very soon mere self indulgence degenerates into behaviour unworthy of our human dignity. And this is vanity, and futile, as the Preacher says.
It seems from today’s Gospel that Our Lord simply takes up and repeats this conventional wisdom. He does do that: but in his mouth it becomes completely transformed. For He came precisely to save our life from futility. Those who are in Christ are not like those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13). We are going somewhere: not just into the abyss of nothingness, but towards the fullness of life, divine life, in Christ Jesus our Lord. So we can rightly value the good things of this world with thanksgiving, for they are gifts from the hand of God. But we are not to seek our fulfilment and happiness in them, for we are made for something much better. Sometimes even we can be better off without them, in order to focus exclusively on the One Thing Necessary for us (Lk 10:42).
Jesus seems to be quite hard on the man from the crowd, and on the Rich Fool of the parable. There is nothing in the Gospel to suggest that either of them was wickedly avaricious. But the point is not really their avarice. What Jesus want to rebuke sharply is their blindness. Here he is, offering the gift of eternal life: offering us the inheritance of the sons of God. In St. Luke’s Gospel he had just been speaking to the crowds about how God holds our whole life in His loving care: how we are not to be bothered by fear of persecution or death. We are already rich in possession of the Son and the Spirit: nobody can take them from us. And along comes this man asking Jesus to intervene in a family property dispute. Our Lord has been offering something infinitely precious, but his man wasn’t listening, because he was completely preoccupied with these limited and passing things. This is vanity, and great folly, and worthy of sharp rebuke.
The rebuke Jesus gives, typically, takes the form of a little story. The story asks: how would you behave if you knew you were going to die tonight? For the godless, it is a matter of horror and despair. For the Saints, whose lives are truly directed towards God, death is our entrance to glory, to the fullness of life, to our final and definitive meeting with Jesus in joy.
In just over a month’s time now we’ll be blessed to welcome here for a few hours the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She was certainly one who was - and is - rich before God: rich in virtue, rich in love, rich in grace, rich in holiness, rich in her unimpeded union with Christ. She’s an outstanding example of someone who spent her life laying up a great hoard of spiritual riches. By her religious vows she renounced the possession of all earthly goods whatever. By her child-like trust in God she became free from all earthly cares. By her willing acceptance of suffering and death she became conformed to Jesus Christ in his passion, and so transformed in holiness. Now in heaven Thérèse dispenses some of these riches she has stored up, by God’s super-abundant grace: interceding for us with generosity and with power.
It seems to me the parable of rich fool can well be applied to our society. Our society is so rich in material things, and so desperately poor in the sight of God. People in our culture live for pleasure, comfort, health, possessions, success; open to various crazy and inhuman ideologies, but closed to the message of Christ. As for us Christians: we are so used to being on the defensive that we almost come to accept the secularist mentality as a natural default position. Maybe though we should have the courage, on occasion, to counter-attack, and name it as it is: Folly! If you pay no attention to the warnings and the gifts and graces of God; if you ignore the reality of death; if you live without prayer or penance, or without active Christian virtue: you’re a fool! Whereas to live like St. Thérèse for God alone: this is true wisdom!
In a few minutes bread and wine will be brought up to the Altar. They are little symbols of all we have and are: gifts of God, which we offer back to God. Through the invocation of the Holy Spirit, these insignificant tokens will become in reality wealth “beyond the dreams of avarice”: the very body and precious blood of Jesus Christ: God’s total gift of Himself to us. We who are radically poor then approach the Lord of Heaven and earth and ask Him to enrich our poverty, clothe our nakedness, enlighten our blindness, heal our sickness. Then strengthened with this heavenly food, we return to our daily lives, but with our gaze, our hope, our desire, fixed on the heavenly life that is ours in eternity.