Powder Days, New Trucks, and the Temptation of Wealth
Photo: Deacon Kirby Longo skiing through fresh powder somewhere in Montana.
“Love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” John Locke, the great English political theorist would probably have picked that passage from Timothy as his least favorite in all of scripture. For Locke thought money was the greatest thing human beings had ever thought up. For good reason, because you cannot put surplus corn in the bank for an emergency ten years from now. And even if you barter your corn well, you are still stuck with a bunch of perishable stuff. Locke loves money because it doesn’t decay, it doesn’t take up a lot of space as, for instance in today’s Gospel, grain obviously does and it has diverse use. If Bill Gates had the equivalent of $60 billion dollars in canned goods, fruit, grain, olives, and cotton he would still certainly be rich, but he would also look like a fool for stock piling such excessive amounts of goods. However, having $60 billion in a diverse range of properties, stocks, and cash, is much more desirable and practical than canned goods.
What relevance does John Locke’s economic theory have on our lives as Christians?
Locke knows that wealth in the modern world gives the impression of a vast, endless horizon in which there are no practical limits; we can always acquire more. It is easy to begin chasing a certain dream, perhaps something as simple as a retirement portfolio that will be adequate enough to provide comfort in old age. Or pursuing the dream lake house, the boat for the lake at the new lake house, and the 2017 Ford F250 King Ranch (that always was my dream truck) to tow the boat to the new lake house. So, we focus all our energies on these goals which we imagine will bring us peace and suddenly a recession hits, or a medical emergency drains our bank account, or we die. Or we manage to get it all, and next year someone builds a more beautiful place next door and pulls up with a better boat and a 2018 F350 King ranch, suddenly the glow of our dream cabin fades a bit. It is as the Psalmist says today, “Our lives are over like a sigh, like grass that springs up in the morning, but by evening it fades.”
If pursuing these worldly things is fleeting, is Jesus telling us that we must fire our accountant, our financial advisor, our stock broker, and give all our money away aside from what we need today? Is He saying fiscal security is for those in the world, and Christians should trust in the Lord?
I’m sorry to say it is not this simple, though sometimes we wish it were. Sometimes I wish I were called to a monastery where I could take a vow of poverty and be done with money. But for those of us called to live in the world, Jesus is focusing our attention on what matters most- eternal life! St. Paul says this in our second reading today, “Seek what is above, where Christ is seated,” This, and only this, puts all the cares of this world in their proper context.
We can thank God that today that our world reminds us more than ever of how worthless and fleeting our things are. A company like Apple will surely release the iPhone 7 next month when you just finally picked up the 6s. The coolest viral video, blog-post, or meme that gets 10 million hits today will be forgotten tomorrow. Fame very literally lasts about 15 minutes on Facebook these days as each new post pushes the other down and out of your news feed.
If we chase the treasures of this world, it will exhaust us. It promises satisfaction if only we ascend that next ridge, and as we crest, we find only an even greater, more promising but more unreachable ridge in the distance. We will never reach the top because the world cannot provide the summit we seek, only the intense yet quickly fading joy of mounting a false summit.
Is there anyone who knows the false summits better than our good friend Qoheleth in the first reading? For those of you familiar with the book of Qoheleth, called Ecclesiastes in many Bibles, you know this book is not terribly encouraging. In fact, when you first read it you might come away wondering why it is part of our scriptures. Yet it is profound! This book has always been associated with Solomon, the fathers say he wrote it near the end of his life after having acquired wisdom, wealth, 300 beautiful wives, power, and fame. Having acquired all these things, he proclaims it all a, “Vanity of vanities… I have seen all the things done under the sun, all of them are meaningless, chasing after wind.”
At this point in my homily you have either checked out, or you are thinking: What exactly are we doing here? God put me on earth but tells me not to pay attention to the “fleeting” things here on earth. He has hidden heaven from me but tells me to seek what is above. It seems a lot like giving a small child a bunch of toys then telling him, “Don’t play with those toys, sit there quietly and listen while I lecture you about John Locke’s love of money.” I promise you, this is exactly the opposite of God’s plan for creation.
He did not give us all these things so he could tell us to reject them. Yet when we worship the things he gave us, there is no room in our hearts to worship him! And it is easy to do, for when I pray to God, can I be certain he heard my prayer? I surely do not know whether he will answer it. Yet, when I throw on my skis for a powder day at Big Sky, I am absolutely sure I will have a blast. That powder is right there in front of me, God is nowhere to be seen. How mysterious it is then that my heart is truly at peace when I pray to an unseen God, while the joy of that powder day, however epic, fades when Big Sky doesn’t get snow for two weeks.
You see, when we finally begin to realize the shortness of our life, how fleeting the things of this world are, a great weight is taken off our shoulders. It’s not that praying makes me not want to ski, rather that knowing God, knowing that he loves me helps me to know that skiing is a great gift, one I had yesterday, and I might not have tomorrow. God promises that if we live in Him, abandon ourselves to Him, we will have life, and have it to the full. Yet life to the full is not just powder days and new trucks and trophy elk, it is union with Jesus Christ. When we seek what is above, we find that Jesus is already in our hearts. So we look to him to guide us, to prosper the work of our hands. In seeking Jesus, we will have joy now, for we have found the treasure we were seeking all along, that true treasure in heaven. Jesus himself is that treasure we seek.
The danger of our wealth is that it stares us in the face every day, promising to make us happy. As we accumulate more, the promises become more extravagant and harder to ignore. Don’t think, however, that the poor escape this temptation. In fact, the danger can even increase when we experience poverty. In America, we are surrounded by incredible wealth, yet the person in poverty has nothing. This sort of poverty can be a great temptation toward avarice and envy. So both the rich and the poor and most of us who fall in between, have a duty to one another. The rich must care for the poor who are Christ, for they will only be admitted into heaven provided the poor lead them in. The poor must be witnesses of joy in the world, to remind the rich that joy is found in Christ, not in the things of the world.
Is money evil? No, we concede to Mr. John Locke that it is a rather clever and good invention. But we must not let it be our master, for we must only have one master, Jesus Christ. Everything we do must be in union with Him if we hope to find any lasting joy. Do not be discouraged in this world full of beautiful things, vying for your attention, for our God gives abundant grace, more than sufficient for you to hear his voice amidst the many promises of the world. So listen to Him, take up His cross, and follow Him.
Whose work inspired this Homily:
John Henry Newman: Parochial and Plain Sermons
Bishop Robert Barron
St. Thomas Aquinas