The Gospel for today’s Mass contains some very clear instructions about Income that we do well to heed. Most of us think of money, income, and wealth as a great blessing. To be sure money is a necessary part of life. Without it our very life can be in danger for want of food, clothing and shelter. But the Lord also wants us to soberly understand the problems and perils that are caused by wealth. So, in today’s Gospel he sets forth five basic teachings on wealth that we do well to heed and that we ignore to our peril. Let’s take a look at them one by one.
1. The INSIDIOUSNESS of wealth – 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.” – Notice here how the man thinks his problem is an unjust brother. But the Lord diagnoses his problem to be more personal and more serious. His problem is greed (also called avarice and depicted at the right). Now greed is the insatiable desire for more. Greed is considered one of the seven “cardinal” or “capital” sins in that it leads us many other sins. Greed works insidiously within us and causes us to act unjustly, spend more than we have, and despise or ignore the poor. It will often cause people to lie, cheat, or steal. Greed divides families, and may cause grave harm to children. Consider how many children are farmed out to day care because parents want to live a life style that requires double incomes and careers. Greed also causes stress since, by it, we indulge in the lie that wealth brings security. As shall be developed in a moment but we also know by experience, our many possessions and material wealth have led to a very stressful and anxious existence. We have lives with entirely too much clutter, too many options, too many expectations, too many demands and much of this is due to the extravagant and mobile lifestyle we insist upon living because of greed. Greed also leads to ingratitude since, due to greed we are never satisfied and thus not very grateful. Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is vanity.(Eccles 5:10)
This litany could go on, but the Lord is clear here that greed in any form must be guarded against. To say it must be “guarded against” means that it is a threat, an enemy, a destroyer, a thief. We must think of it this way and secure our lives against it. It is a deadly and serious adversary and grace is necessary for us to even consider defeating it. Scripture says But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. (1 Tim 6:9-10) Despite a strongly worded text like this, most of us still want to be rich. Even when the Lord warns how hard it is for the rich to enter heaven we still want to be rich! Greed is a very strong, unreasonable and insidious foe.
2. The INCEPTION of Wealth – There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest – Notice that the subject of the verb “produced” is not the man but the Land. It was the land that produced the bountiful harvest, not the man. Scripture says, “What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you boast as though you had not? (1 Cor 4:7) This man receives a bountiful harvest from the land and ultimately from God. For, as Scripture says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1) Scripture also says Every good and perfect gift comes from above, comes from the Father of lights (James 1:17). Hence it is God who grants increase. We also see by Psalm 24 just quoted that everything belongs to God. We are but stewards, not owners. And, as stewards, we must use the goods of creation in accord with the desires of the owner, God.
Now it is a plain fact that, through innumerable scriptural texts God has told us that he expects us to be generous to the poor and less fortunate. This universal teaching of scripture is well summed up in the Catechism under the concept of the “Universal Destination of Goods.” This principle states that God gave all the good of the earth for all the people of the earth. This means that the goods of creation are destined for the whole human race…In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself. The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. (Catechism 2402, 2404).
3. The INCONVENIENCE of wealth – He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ – It is a true fact that wealth brings certain blessings but we must also be sober about the fact that it also brings burdens. Consider that we human beings have never been so wealthy as we in the West are. And yet consider again how stressful and distracted our lives are. Consider how burdening many people consider the pace of their lives. Wealth seems great but then come locks, insurance, keys, alarms, insurance, lawyers, repairs, maintenance, upgrades, lawsuits, disputes over inheritance, addiction to credit, and lack of self control. Conveniences soon become necessities and necessities, not resisted, become slavery. Scripture says, The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep (Eccles 5:12). Or again, Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it. (Prov 15:16)
Hence we see this man with an abundance. But, because he is not generous with it, he is burdened by it. A quick way to store excess food is to store it in the stomachs of the poor, but now he has to hire an architect and get a building permit, and go to zoning court to get a variance, and lay in supplies etc. It is a true fact that one way the rich can help the poor is to use wealth to stimulate industry. Hence it might not be required that he simply give it away, he may use his increase it in a mutually beneficial way so as to create opportunities for others and also to see further increase for himself. But the main focus of this man is to store up his wealth only for himself. As we shall see the Lord calls this sort of person a fool.
4. The INUSFFICIENCY of Wealth – 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 to myself, “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 be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?– In the end wealth is still poverty for it cannot solve our biggest problem which is our sin and the death it brings. A mere 80 years and the party is over. You can work all your life to be powerful, wealthy, feared and respected. And maybe you’re successful! Then you die. End of story. The world makes promises it cannot keep. And, in the end it is NOT the end, for a destiny looms after judgement. No amount of money can buy us out of this. Wealth tends to create the illusion of self-sufficiency, but that is all it is, an illusion. Consider some of the following Scriptures:
- There are men who trust in their wealth and boast of the vastness of their riches. But no man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. The ransom of his soul is beyond him. He cannot buy life without end nor avoid coming to the grave. He knows that wise men and fools must perish and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes for ever, their dwelling place from age to age though their names spread wide through the land. In his riches man lacks wisdom, he is like the beast that perish.(Ps 49).
- Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Tim 6:17)
- Whoever trusts in his riches will fall (Prov 11:28)
- For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. (James 1:11)
- Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God. (Prov 30:8)
5. The INSTRUCTION for the Wealthy – Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God. – We admire wealth and power. Things like this matter to us. But they do not matter to God. What matters to God is that we are rich in justice, mercy, holiness, love and truth. God is not impressed by my money and economic power. In fact, he warns insistently about it, that wealth will make us hard to save, haughty, proud, arrogant, self-sufficient, compromised, lacking in saving trust and faith, worldly and just plain stupid.
God’s only advice for those who are “cursed” with wealth is that they be generous with it. Perhaps it can be given away, perhaps it can serve as a source of industry and jobs for others, perhaps it can supply low interest loans, perhaps it can be used in countless ways to bless others. The Lord tells us not to store up treasure on earth but to store up treasure in heaven. And how do we store up treasure in heaven? Do we put our gold in a balloon or rocket ship and send it up? Surely not. The way to store up our treasure in heaven is to put it in the hands of the poor and needy. To use it to bless others through wise investment so that it grows and can be a source of industry and capital, so that it can grow the economy and others can benefit from it, to donate to worthy causes and so forth. This is how we store up treasure in heaven.
You can’t take it with you but you can send it on ahead – There is an old saying, “You can’t take it with you.” But that is not exactly true. The truer scriptural answer is that “You can’t take it with you but you can send it on ahead!” Through the right use of our wealth, and talents God tells us we are storing up treasure for ourselves in heaven. Hence to be generous is a form of investment, a heavenly 401K. Scripture says, Cast your bread on the water. It will come back to you after many days. (Eccl 11:1) or again, Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back (Luke 6:38).
Finally, consider these Scriptures that teach how the Lord teaches that through our generous use of worldly wealth, it is possible to store up heavenly treasure:
- “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. Mat 6:19
- I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Luke 16:9
- Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tim 6:17-19)
So then, here are five instructions on wealth from the Lord. Be very careful about greed. Be sober about wealth too. We so easily bow before it, but it is a snare. And we in the affluent West have to be VERY sober about this because we are all wealthy by any standard. Even our poor live mighty fine compared to the poor elsewhere. The only way we are going to stand a chance is to guard against all forms of greed and be generous. Without this, we will be numbered among the rich of whom the Lord said, “How hard it is for the rich to inherit eternal life!” (Lk 18:24) Only grace and mercy, operative through the sacraments and faith can save us from our greed.
Help us, save us, O Lord, have mercy one us and keep us by your grace!
Here is an audio version of this sermon (sorry for the poor sound quality): http://frpope.com/audio/Instructions%20On%20Income.mp3