Jesus’ conclusion to the parable of the “rich fool” sums up the central message of today’s readings. He compares two ways in which we might strive to “grow rich.” One is to grow rich for ourselves, a path which the Bible exposes as deceptive and empty. The other way is to grow rich “in the sight of God” – which is the only truly satisfying and joyful way of life.
This message is more important in our times than ever before. We live in an age that relentlessly promotes growing rich for ourselves. The communications media bombard us daily with images and words that tell us all about how we ought to satisfy every desire and make our lives comfortable and secure. The fundamental mantra behind this flood of messages is very well expressed in the words of the self-absorbed rich man in the gospel: “Relax! Eat heartily, drink well. Enjoy yourself!” The world tells us that this is what we should do, and if we do not, we are simply foolish.
In sharp contrast to the idea that material things can make us happy, the first reading declares that “All things are vanity!” Qoheleth, the wise man who speaks in the Book of Ecclesiastes, is saying that all our struggles and labors here on earth, all our energetic efforts in pursuit of worldly dreams, are basically worthless. The world would quickly dismiss such statements as evidence of an overly pessimistic attitude, but Qoheleth is reminding us of an inescapable fact: we will eventually die, so no matter how much we gain through all our hard work, we will leave it all behind. Someone else will get it, someone who did not even work for it! Therefore it makes no sense to think that our ultimate happiness comes from earthly things. Qoheleth concludes that it is all “vanity.” Vanity in this context means worthlessness or emptiness. (This differs from the common meaning of the word, which refers to an excessive concern for one’s appearance.)
If we take the first reading by itself, we might be tempted to conclude that nothing we do has any value. If “all is vanity,” why bother to do anything? Qoheleth gives only part of the picture. The Bible as a whole does not encourage us to passive resignation and laziness. On the contrary, work is dignifying. By it, God allows us to share in his own work, caring for one another and for his creation. “Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him. It can also be redemptive…. In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature” (CCC 2427-8). Therefore, we are not to despise work. Neither should we go to the opposite extreme and make work and worldly gains into an idol. We are foolish if we act as if we are the master of everything and that we can gain the fullness of life solely by our own efforts. This is exactly the kind of approach that Qoheleth criticizes as vanity.
Jesus teaches this same lesson more clearly and simply in the gospel. “A man may be wealthy, but his possessions do not guarantee him life.” In fact, his possessions might distract him from life and make him a fool, as we learn from the parable. The rich man thinks that because he is rich he is secure. Probably his envious neighbors thought the same. His illusion of security is shattered that very night; he dies and loses everything he has piled up.
There is no essential connection between material possessions and eternal happiness. This lesson applies to both the rich and the poor. Some who are financially poor are preoccupied with money, while some who are rich are detached and generous, for they have learned to place all their trust in God. What is important is not how much or how little we own, but whether we “grow rich for ourselves” or “grow rich in the sight of God.”
Saint Paul in his letter to the Colossians helps us to understand what it means to grow rich in the sight of God. In fact, by virtue of our Baptism, we are already very rich! We have already been “raised up in company with Christ” and our life “is hidden now with Christ in God.” St. Paul’s message is an excellent antidote for the poisonous attitude of our materialistic age. He urges us to “put to death” our tendencies to seek satisfaction in sinful vices. We have put aside these dead-end pursuits and “put on a new man.” We are being “formed anew in the image of our Creator.” We do not see the fullness of this process yet, because it is still hidden. But in faith we do see it, and we look forward to appearing with Christ in glory. Then it will be very clear to us that all that is vanity is exactly the opposite of what we are made for: the fullness of life in Christ.
What do I choose as the sources of my happiness? What is my view of work and its purpose in life? When am I overly concerned with money? Do I seek fullness of life in Christ or fullness of life in the world?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 12, no. 6. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.