Commentary to the 18th Sunday in ordinary time – Year C
TO ACCUMULATE GOODS FOR ONESELF IS MADNESS
Three times in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was asked for indications about inheritance. "What shall I do to receive eternal life?"—they ask, first a doctor of the law (Lk 10:25), then a rich ruler (Lk 18:18). Jesus responds to both, explaining in detail the conditions for having a part in this legacy. In a dialogue with the disciples, he introduces the eternal inheritance discourse: "As for those who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or property for my Name’s sake they will receive a hundredfold, and be given eternal life" (Mt 19:29).
The third question is the one referred to in today's Gospel. Two brothers cannot agree on the inheritance. Note the curious fact: the inheritance was to be divided; however, 'this one' divides. Money drags the unnoticed into a stealthy trap. It takes him wherever it wants, it programs his life, it separates him from his friends, it divides his family, it makes him forget even God. But, above all, it deceives him because it removes from his mind the thought of death.
In the past, the thought of death would shake an individual like a scarecrow. Today we are witnessing the opposite phenomenon, but equally harmful. Every possible attempt is made to make us forget that we also begin to die from the moment we begin to live. The foolishness, the mental obfuscation caused by money, is evident in the fact that greed makes the thought of death disappear precisely in the presence of death (the division of inheritance takes place after a death). Jesus did not despise the goods of this world, but he warned us against the danger of becoming its slaves.
To internalize the message, we repeat: "Teach us, Lord, to number our days that we may gain wisdom of heart."
First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
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. This also is vanity and a great misfortune. For what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun? All his days sorrow and grief is hisoccupation; even at night his mind is not at rest. This also is vanity. —The Word of the Lord.
Around 220 B.C., a wise man lives in Jerusalem. He is called Ecclesiastes (Qohelet), the one that brings together the assembly. His profile is well described in the epilogue of the book: "Besides being a wise man, Qohelet taught the people; he listened, studied, and classified a great number of proverbs. Qohelet tried to write in a pleasant style and express honestly the words of truth" (Ecl 12:9-10).
He lives in a time characterized by well-being and the flourishing of considerable economic activity. Wherever foreign traders met, they trafficked slaves, cattle, gold, pearls, scented resins of the East, and the bitter incense of Arabia. Many Jews were fascinated by the opportunity to get rich. They develop a passion for new trends and adhere to new costumes. They think about nothing but money, to the point of renouncing their faith and forgetting the religious practice. It is a collective delusion, a wild ride, and a mindless accumulation of assets. Qohelet—wise as he is—observes with attention and detachment this agitated busying of themselves, reflects and wonders: is it worth it or is it all a "chasing after the wind" (Ecl 2:11)?
From the beginning of his book, he spells out the answer to this agonizing question: "All is vanity" (v. 2). He repeats this sad and bitter conclusion as a refrain 25 times. Qohelet knows the historical events that took place a hundred years before, events that shook the world. Darius, the king of Persia, powerful and immensely rich, was humiliated by Alexander. He, in turn, was only thirty-three years old and died in Babylon. The funeral procession that accompanied him in the West brought the invincible conqueror reversely on the road he had walked triumphantly only a few years earlier. What remained of Alexander and his kingdom?
People seek the most varied and refined pleasures; they crave wealth and aspire to social consideration. They try to perpetuate their presence in the world through their children, fighting and killing to achieve power. The conclusion is always the same: in the end, without distinction, they are stripped of everything.
Today’s Reading proposes the reflection of Qohelet on the accumulation of assets: "For here was a man who toiled in all wisdom, knowledge, and skill and he must leave all to someone who has not worked for it." Is this not vanity and great evil? (v. 21). Later, he will resume the theme and conclude: "Naked he came from his mother’s womb, he returns as he came–naked. Nothing of the fruit of his toil is he able to take with him. That, too, is a grievous evil. As he came, so he goes. So what did he gain from chasing the wind?" (Ecl 5:14-15).
So, what should be done? Should we stop working, committing ourselves, and begin eating, drinking, having fun, and not thinking about others? Qohelet advises his disciples a healthy enjoyment of what life offers. However, he leaves the fundamental questions about the meaning of life unanswered. The answer cannot be found in his book but the Gospel. Jesus will be the one to throw open the new horizons, to teach not to fret about vanity, not to chase the wind.
Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-5.9-11
Brothers and sisters: If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.
Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry. Stop lying to one another, since you havetaken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew,circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all. —The Word of the Lord.
"Set your mind on things that are above, not on earthly things" (v. 2). It seems an invitation to despise this world and be impervious to material problems to turn only to the sky. To understand this exhortation, we must keep in mind that Paul is speaking of baptism. Through this sacrament—he says—a Christian is dead to the old life, is raised with Christ, and with him, he starts a whole new life (vv. 1-4). "To put to death what is earthly”means to do away not with the reality of this world but the part of man which belongs to the earth: "immorality, impurity, inordinate passions, wicked desires, and greed which is a way of worshipping idols" (v. 5).
Then he resumes the same thought with another image: that of the dress. A Christian is stripped of the old self and puts on the new (v. 10). Why then, even after baptism, do we experience so much misery and so many weaknesses? Paul continues: Because in us the new man "is being renewed in knowledge and the likeness of its creator" (v. 10). What a strange expression: the new man who is renewed! What does it mean?
In baptism, a Christian put on the new man; he already carries in himself the Creator's image. However, this similarity is not yet fully manifested. It is still covered by many impurities, thus rendering the face of the Father less recognizable. The new man will appear only when he lets himself be cleaned of his old life and his pagan customs; the new man will appear. It is an exhortation to be not discouraged. Paul addresses it to the Christian who is conscious of being still far from conformity with the Father. He is new but ‘is still renewing himself.’
Gospel: 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 storemy 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 tomyself, “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 bedemanded 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 mattersto God.” —The Gospel of the Lord.
Despite some bickering, in general, brothers love each other. Until when? Until the day they are called to share the inheritance. On money and property matters, even the best of people, Christians too, often end up losing their heads and become blind and deaf: they see only their interest and are willing to override even the most sacred sentiments. At times, with the help of a wise friend, the parties can agree; at other times, the hatred lasts for years, and the brothers stop talking to each other.
One day Jesus was chosen as a mediator to solve one of these family conflicts (v. 13). In such cases, rabbis do not deny a suggestion, an excellent tip to anyone. Here was the surprising answer of the Master: "Who has appointed me as your judge or your attorney?" (v. 14). Probably we disagree with him. Why does he hold back? Does he want to teach not to give value to the realities of this world? Does he invite us to shy away from the real problems of life? Does he recommend tolerating the oppression of the arrogant? It cannot be. That would be contrary to the rest of the Gospel. Let us understand it better.
The situation presented to him has arisen because one has attempted to commit injustice, and the other is in danger of suffering from it. What can be done? Various solutions are possible: invent an excuse to escape the complicated issue or rely upon the provisions in force at the time, such as Deuteronomy 21:15-17 and 27:1 and Numbers 27:1-11. These need only be applied to the specific case after having filtered them, if necessary, through some common sense. This would probably be the solution that we would have adopted. It seems the most logical and wise but has a serious drawback: it does not eliminate the cause from which all the discord, hatred, and injustice are derived.
Instead of solving the individual case, Jesus chooses to go to the root of the problem. "Be on your guard—he tells everyone—and avoid every kind of greed, for even though you have many possessions, it is not that which gives you life" (v. 15). Here the cause of all evil is singled out: the greed of money, the desire to grab things. The disagreements arise when one forgets the fundamental truth: this world's goods do not belong to us but to God, who allocates them to all. Whoever hoards for oneself and grabs more than one should without thinking of others distorts the Creator's plan. The goods are no longer considered gifts of God, but man's property; from precious objects, they are transformed into idols to worship.
Here one notices not the contempt of Jesus for material goods, but his detachment from this world and the superiority of his projects and proposals. The inheritance he is interested in is something else. He has in mind the Kingdom that will be "inherited" by the poor (Mt 5:5). He has in mind—as Peter will say to the newly baptized—the inheritance that does not corrupt nor goes bad or passes away (1 Pt 1:4).
To clarify his thought, he tells a parable (vv. 16-20), the central part of which consists of the long argument that the rich farmer makes with himself. This man, I think, proves himself likable. He works hard, is wise, obtains optimum results, and is fortunate and blessed by God. Jesus does not say that he has enriched himself by committing injustice and theft. There is the assumption that he is also honest. Having achieved well-being, he decides to retire for a well-deserved rest; he does not plan revelry and debauchery, just a quiet, comfortable, and blessed life. In this story, if someone behaves incomprehensibly, God seems to be the one. Where did the farmer go wrong? Why is he called foolish?
The characters in the parable are only three: God, the rich man, and the goods. Has this man—we wonder—no family, wife, and children? No neighbors? No workers? Of course, he has them. He lives among people, but he does not see them. He has no time, no energies to spend, no thoughts, no words, and feelings for the people. He is only interested in his property and its increase. He thinks of the crops, the stores, and the wheat. In his mind, there is no room for anything else, certainly not God. His assets are the idol that has created a vacuum around him and has dehumanized all. Even the farmer, in his heart, is no longer a man; he is a thing: he is a machine that produces and makes calculations, is a register of accounts.
We feel compassion for him because he is a poor, unfortunate, and mad man, as Jesus said. Something in him is broken because he has no inner balance and has completely lost life's orientation and meaning. Consider his monologue: he uses fifty words, fourteen of them referring to ‘I’ and ‘mine.’ Everything is his; only he and his property exist. He is foolish. But suddenly, the third character appears—God who, that very night, asks him an account of his life. Do not ask why the Lord acts in this way, why is he so ‘nasty’ and ‘vindictive.’ It is a story. God—mind you!—does not do these things. Jesus introduces him in the parable to show his audience the true values ??on which it is worthwhile to base our life and those brief and deceptive ones.
The judgment of God is heavy: whoever lives to accumulate assets is a fool! Is wealth thus bad? Absolutely not. Jesus has never condemned it; he never asked anyone to throw it away, but he warned people against the grave dangers that it hides. The ideal of a Christian is not a miserable life. At the end of the parable, the mistake made by the rich farmer is indicated. He is not condemned because he produced many goods, worked hard, and was committed, but because "he has amassed for himself" and "has not enriched himself in the sight of God" (v. 21).
Here are the two woes produced by being blinded by possessions. The first: to enrich oneself alone, accumulating wealth for oneself without thinking of others. Wealth must be increased, but for everyone, not just for some. Incompatible with the Gospel is ‘greed,’ the ‘insatiable craving for possession,’ the foolish feelings and thoughts of the one who, like the farmer of the parable, obsessively repeats that wretched possessive pronoun ‘myne.’ When the energies of all people will be engaged to increase not the ‘mine’ and the ‘yours,’ but ours, then the causes of war, discord, and problems of inheritance will be eliminated.
The second woe: excluding God from his own life and replacing him with an idol. This choice leads to ‘madness,’ and the most apparent symptom is removing the thought of death. Whoever idolizes money becomes paranoid; he does not live in a real world but in what he built for himself, which he imagines eternal. He forgets ‘the measure of his life and how short life is’; he does not consider that "each living person is only a breath, passes like a shadow. He is just a mere whiff of breath; he rakes in wealth, not knowing who will take it next" (Ps 39:5-7). Is one who owns no fields and has no bank account not affected by this parable? Jesus does not warn the one who has great wealth but whoever accumulates it for oneself. One can have a little money and have the "heart of the rich."
Everyone should be aware that the treasures of this world are treacherous; they do not accompany us to the other life.