You Can’t Take It With You But You Can Send It On Ahead

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 WealthThere 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 raceIn 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

The Prescribed Priority of Personal Prayer: A Meditation at the House of Martha and Mary

Today’s Gospel at Mass is the very familiar one of Martha and Mary. Martha is the anxious worker seeking to please the Lord with a good meal and hospitality. Mary sits quietly at his feet and listens. One has come to be the image of work, the other of prayer.

Misinterpreted? In my nearly fifty years I have heard many a sermon that interpreted this Gospel passage as a call for a proper balance between work and prayer. Some have gone on to state that we all need a little of Martha and Mary in us and that the Church needs both Marthas and Marys. But in the end it seems that such a conclusion misses the central point of this passage. Jesus does not conclude by saying, “Martha, Now do your thing and let Mary do hers.” He describes Mary as not only choosing the better part but also as doing the “one thing necessary.”  This does not amount to a call for “proper balance” but instead underscores the radical priority and primacy of prayer. This, it would seem is the proper interpretive key for what is being taught here. Many other passages of the Scripture do set forth the need to be rich in works of charity but this is not one of them.

With that in mind let’s take a look at the details of the Lord’s teaching on the Priority of Personal Prayer.

1. PROMISING PRELUDE Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. Our story begins by showing Martha in a very favorable light. She opens her door, her life if you will,  and welcomes Jesus. This is at the heart of faith, a welcoming of Jesus into the home of our heart and life. Surely Revelation 3:20 comes to mind here: Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any one hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with him and he with me. While we acknowledge this promising prelude we ought also to underscore the fact that the initiative is that of Jesus. The text says Jesus entered a village…. In the call of faith the initiative is always with God. It was not you who chose me, it was I who chose you (Jn 15:16) Hence, while we must welcome, God leads. Martha hears the Lord’s call and responds. So far so good. What happens next isn’t exactly clear but the impression is that Martha goes right to work. There is no evidence that Jesus asked for a meal from her, large or small. The text from Revelation just quoted does suggest that the Lord seeks to dine with us but implies that it is he who will provide the meal. Surely the Eucharistic context of our faith emphasizes that it is the Lord who feeds us with his Word and with his Body and Blood. At any rate, Martha seems to have had the Lord make himself comfortable and gone off to work in preparing a meal of her own.  That she later experiences it to be such a burden is evidence that her idea emerged more from her flesh than the Spirit.

 2. PORTRAIT OF PRAYER She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Now here is a beautiful portrait of prayer: to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen. Many people think of prayer as something that is said. But prayer is better understood as a conversation and conversations include listening. Vocal prayer, intercessory prayer and the like are all noble and important but the prayer of listening is too often neglected. Prayer is not just telling God what we want, it is discovering what He wills. We have to sit humbly and listen. We must learn to listen,  and listen to learn. We listen by devoutly and slowing considering scripture (lectio divina), by pondering how God is speaking in the events and people in our life, how God is whispering in our conscience and soul. Jesus calls this kind of prayer “the one thing necessary” as we shall see. What Mary models and Martha forgets is that we must first come (to Jesus) then go (and do what he says)….that we must first receive before we can achieve…..that we must first be blessed before we can do our best……that we must listen before we leap into action.

3. PERTURBED and PRESUMPTUOUS –  Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” – And so, sure enough Martha who is laboring in the flesh, but not likely in the Spirit and in accord with the Lord’s wishes, is now experiencing the whole thing as a burden. She blames her sister for all this but the Lord’s response will make it clear that this is not Mary’s issue. One sign that we are not in God’s will is the experiencing of what we are doing as a burden. We are all limited and human and will experience ordinary fatigue. It is one thing to be weary in the work but it is another thing to be weary of the work. All lot of people run off to do something they think is a good idea. And maybe it is a fine thing in itself. But they never asked God. God might have said, “Fine.” or He might have said, “Not now but later.” Or He might have said, “Not you but some one else.”  Or he might have just plain said, “No.” But instead of asking they just go off and do it and then when things don’t work out  will often times blame God: “Why don’t you help me more!”  And so Martha is burdened. She first blames her sister. Then she presumes the Lord does not care about what is (to her) an obvious injustice. Then she takes presumption one step further and presumes to tell the Lord what to do: “Tell her to help me.”  This is what happens when we try to serve the Lord in the flesh. Instead of being true servants who listen to the Lord’s wishes and carry them out by his grace we end up as angry and mildly (or not) dictatorial. She here is Martha, with her one hand on her hip and her index finger in the air  🙂  Jesus will be kind but firm.

4. PRESCRIBED PRIORITY Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.  Now don’t let the Lord have to call you by your name twice! But it is clear the Lord wants her attention and that she has stumbled on a fatal mistake that we all can too easily make. She leapt before she listened. The Lord observes that she is anxious about many things.  Anxiety about many things comes from neglect of the one thing most necessary: to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen to him. In life the Lord will surely have things for us to do but they need to come from him. This is why prayer is the one thing necessary and the better part: because work flows from it and is subordinate to it. Discernment is not easy but it is necessary. An awful lot of very noble ideas have floundered in the field of the flesh because they were never really brought before God and were not therefore a work of grace. Jesus does not surely mean that ALL we are to do is pray. There are too many other Gospels that summon us to labor in the vineyard to say that.  But what Jesus is very clear to say is that prayer and discernment have absolute priority. Otherwise expect to be anxious about many things and have little to show for it.

Ephesians 2  makes it clear that God must be the author and initiator of our works: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.  For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

And old prayer from the Roman Ritual also makes this plain: Actiones nostras, quaesumus Domine, aspirando praeveni et adiuvando prosequere: ut cuncta nostra oratio et operatio a te semper incipiat, et per te coepta finiatur. Per Christum Dominum nostrum  (Direct we beseech Thee, O Lord, our prayers and our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance, so that every work of ours may always begin with Thee, and through Thee be ended). Amen

The Audio version of this Homily is here: http://frpope.com/audio/16%20Sun%20C.mp3

This song reminds that when we really ARE working in the Lord’s will and as the fruit of prayer we love what we do and do so with joy. This song says, “I keep so busy working for the Kingdom I ain’t got time to die!”

 

Catholic Preaching – What do you Think?

47b6cc20b3127cce9854864ffc0300000027100abuw7rs2zswjgWhen I talk with Catholics who have left the Church, the number one reason I get that they left was poor preaching.This is especially true of those who left for the Evangelical Churches. Catholic priests as a group have the reputation of being poor preachers. I think there are several reasons for this.

  1. The expected length of a Catholic sermon is 7-10 minutes. This is far too brief a time to really develop well a biblical or doctrinal theme. It results in a  slogan based and brief exhortation. In this matter the people of God have to work with us. Most Catholics are upset if the liturgy goes more than 50 minutes. We all need to agree to take more time to be with the Lord. Longer sermons are necessary to really develop and break open most passages. Most Protestant sermons are about a half and hour. True, I don’t want a preacher to go longer unless he really has something to say but it is also true that most priests have to wrap up when they’ve barely gotten started. It’s not a good context for preaching.
  2. This leads to the second point. I think many of us priests confuse exhortation for preaching. Most of the sermons I grew up with could be summarized in two sentences:  “1. Jesus is challenging us to do better today.” And 2. “Let us try to do better and now please stand for the creed.”  This is exhortation but true preaching takes the Word of God and does four things: Analyzes, organizes, illustrates, and applies it. It doesn’t just exhort us to do better it shows how, and sets for the why and wisdom of God’s Word. This as you might guess takes a little more than 7 minutes.
  3. Good preaching is edgy. It comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. But too many priests are afraid of offending or upsetting. Despite the fact that we serve a Lord who got killed  for what he said, too many of us are not willing to suffer even the raised eyebrows of our congregation. We have to be will to talk forthrightly about serious issues today, about sin, about injustice, about promiscuity and so forth. We have to speak the truth in love but the “Jesus loves you sermons”  are not enough. Jesus loved us enough to speak the truth to us even when we killed him for it.  We priests have to get a spine, and a heart and be willing to preach  even the difficult stuff. It has been my experience that Catholics respond well to tough sermons. They don’t want angry priests but they do want priests who are zealous for the truth.
  4. How about a little enthusiasm? If you really care about what you are saying shouldn’t it be reflected in your mannerisms and tone of voice? Too many priests have a kind of lecture like discursive approach instead of a fiery Charismatic approach. True enough there are different personalities but a fiery enthusiasm is hard to hide. But being on fire can’t be faked. It comes only from prayer and a deep love for God and His people.

Now I raise all this because this blog isn’t just supposed to be a cheer leading section. One of the purposes of this blog is to reach out to Catholics who have drifted or outright left. And I KNOW this is one of the big issues.

So alright readers I know you can add to the list  above. Perhaps your feed back will help some of us priests improve. So have at it. Be kind and constructive but speak the truth. We priests can use it. And pray, pray, pray. You get the priests and the sermons you pray for.  Also encourage Father when he does well and gently admonish him if he needs improvement.

Before you write take five minutes and listen to this sermon by Fr. Bill Casey, a great preacher, for his take on this! It’s powerful and talk about edgy! He tells us priests to stand up like men with a backbone. He also thinks that help is on the way. There is hope since the Holy Spirit has not given up on us!

By the way the goofy looking preacher with the big mouth in the picture at the top is yours truly. 🙂