Monday, August 02, 2010

… the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit on this beautiful Sabbath day. History is loaded with examples of people who have been falsely written up in newspapers and websites as dead who were, in fact, still alive. Probably the most famous of these stories lies with Alfred Nobel. We probably remember Alfred Nobel because of the Nobel prizes given out each year, including the peace prize most recently won by President Obama. But, prior to that, Nobel was known for one thing. He liked to work with chemicals and searched for ways to cause larger explosions using chemicals. Eventually, he combined nitroglycerin with an absorbent substance to make Dynamite. In 1888, there was an explosion at a dynamite factory which killed 8 people including Nobel’s brother Ludvig. The initial story got Alfred and his brother confused and proclaimed loudly to the world, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." Imagine for a second if that was what you read in your obituary. I’m sure part of the reason Nobel created those awards was because the very substance he created was the reason his brother died. Yet, it seems obvious that part must be attributed to seeing how he would be remembered in that obituary that forced him to change his life and seek ways to encourage peace.

Most commentators, when talking about today’s readings, focus almost entirely on the fact that possessions can distract us from the Kingdom of heaven. And, it’s true, greed is a problem in any society and especially true today. Yet, I have to admit that I think there’s something more profound going on in both the first reading and the gospel than a simple call to simplicity of life. The parable of the rich fool is Jesus’ long answer to someone in the crowd who asks him to negotiate a fair settlement for his brother who had excluded him from an inheritance. The parable talks of someone with a bumper crop who decides to tear down his barns and build larger ones in order to keep all the grain for himself. God, in an unusual speaking role, takes the man’s life and then asks this question, “the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” It’s a rather interesting question because I don’t get the sense from the story that the man was selfishly trying to keep his possessions from anyone. There’s no indication of that anyway. I think the point Jesus is trying to get across is that he had simply paid no attention to anyone else throughout his life except for himself and so his stored treasure may go to some relative who barely even knows him and will, as a result, have no appreciation for all the work he and his servants put in to making the stuff.

This is what Qoheleth from the first reading calls vanity. For him, the deepest vanity is that people work so hard to amass a fortune and then hand it on to children and grandchildren who never had to work a day in their lives. Yet, what connects the first reading and the gospel is that there is a disconnect between one generation and the next. It’s what the song writer Harry Chapin sung about in Cats in the Cradle. “we'll get together then…You know we'll have a good time then.”

One of the things that Americans have been taught is that we are supposed to work really hard in order to make sure that the next generation has an easier life. We are supposed to make any sacrifices we can in order to make sure our children have it easy. In High School, I learned this is the definition of the American Dream. Yet, I’d like to suggest that that is exactly what the first reading and gospel are cautioning us against. Our first priority shouldn’t be making sure that life is easier for the next generation, that they will have enough money to live like a celebrity. Our first priority should be to get to know our children so as to instill within them a love of God and a sense of goodness and right. We shouldn’t rely on the schools or on a visit to faith formation classes and occasional attendance at mass to instill these values. It’s what being a parent and grandparent is all about and what it means to be the domestic church. “…the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? ”

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