‘Vanity of vanities, the Preachers says. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The Book of Ecclesiastes, with its oft-repeated refrain “all is vanity”, questions the many illusions that cloud our quest for well being. A consumer society presumes that security is to be found in the accumulation of wealth and property. We are reluctant to face the truth that we are rapidly becoming a society that judges the quality of life by what we have, rather than by what we are becoming. The Book of Ecclesiastes is caustic in its judgment of our frantic efforts to secure a future for ourselves. “What of all his laborious days, his cares of office, his restless nights? This too is vanity.”
The responsorial psalm, continuing the reflection of Ecclesiastes, highlights the superficiality that seeks to conceal life’s vulnerability. We are like “the grass of the field that springs up in the morning. By night it has withered and died.”
The psalmist’s frank acknowledgment of vulnerability, far from leading to despair, becomes a prayer of enduring hope. “Make us know the shortness of our life that we may gain wisdom of heart. In the morning, fill us with your love; we shall exult and rejoice all our days.”
St Paul described this “wisdom of heart” as the knowledge that our lives are hidden with Christ in God. This alone endures, and is our only lasting security, for “when Christ is revealed, and he is your life, you too will be revealed in all your glory with him”.
St Luke’s Gospel exalts poverty and condemns riches. Luke clearly understood that riches promote the dangerous illusion of imagined self-reliance, whereas poverty can lead to prayerful trust. In today’s Gospel a man from the crowd sought to make Jesus the arbitrator in a property dispute. “Master, tell my brother to give me a share of our inheritance.” The incident seems insignificant, until we begin to reflect on the tide of human misery that flows from acquisitiveness and greed. More than anything else, greed and jealousy have the power to divide families and societies. Jesus refused to become involved, but gave firm direction as to how we should conduct our lives. “Watch and be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for a man’s life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than enough.”
The familiar parable of the rich man whose many barns were filled to overflowing illustrates the superficiality that wealth can hide. His contentment was foolish presumption. “My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time.”
Possessions, in themselves, are neither good nor evil. We all need a certain amount in order to flourish with dignity. What impoverishes the spirit is not so much the lack of possessions as the idolatrous trust that we can place in them. “Fool! This very night the demand will be made of your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?”
We cannot avoid the question that Jesus asked. Do we store up treasure for ourselves in place of making ourselves rich in the sight of God?