Thursday, August 1, 2013

Choosing to Be Poor and Being Happy with Poverty

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 12:13-21, August 4, 2013

HOW IS A MAN’S WORTH determined?  What makes a person important?  In a secular society like ours, the popular gauge by which we measure a person’s worth is usually in terms of stocks, bond, bank deposits, flashy cars and flats in skyscrapers, that is to say, in terms of what we have.  As long as a person has something, we tend to treat him with respect.  And we do not even ask where his wealth comes from.  It is even ironic that if one steals a few pesos, most of us would call him a thief and ask the police to put him behind bars; but if he steals and even launders billions of dollars—well, he is not a thief, and many would even treat him as though he were respectable and famous, and he may even walk on the corridors of the Executive Department.  More so, if he is a scion of a rich family; everything is forgiven and forgotten about his shady deals.  If last Sunday’s Gospel was about the poor, today’s Gospel is about the rich—and their wealth.  By any standard, the man in the parable (Luke 12:13-21) is obviously rich.  In the agrarian society to which Jesus was born, this wealthy man was certainly an object of envy, since he was so wealthy that he lacked barns to store his goods, just as not a few would envy someone who is known to have fat accounts in different banks, enormous stocks, own Ferrari and a flat in Makati—an example of a truly, it would seem, successful man.  No wonder, even in the country, wealth has become the idol of many: they have tried to acquire fortune whose origins cannot be traced to the sweat of their brow and therefore that cannot be explained—except probably in a court of law or in the parliament of the streets

            Although people weigh a person’s worth and importance in terms of riches, the punch line of today’s Gospel denies that equation: “Beware of all covetousness, for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possession” (Luke 12:15).  For Jesus, man’s life is never defined in terms of assets.  Of course, true life, in the New Testament, is not simply identified with earthly life; for when this life is destroyed, one receives a new life, a new home, which is eternal (2 Cor 5:1).  Like material possessions, earthly life, which is visible, is transitory; what is unseen, life with God in the here and now and in the hereafter, is eternal (cf 2 Cor 4:4.18).  True life, which survives even when the earthly tent is destroyed, consists in the Kingdom of God.  And as we saw in last Sunday’s Gospel, one experiences this life by embracing discipleship—one listens to the word of God and acts upon it (Luke 11:28), and enters into the family of God where there is unity and love and freedom from evil.  For this reason, Jesus refused to connect real life with the abundance of possessions, even if these were inherited.  Contrary to what our culture and the media of social communications glorify, what counts is the person we become in the process of living, not what we have.  And in the New Testament, to live authentic life is to live the life of Jesus in discipleship (Col 2:6).  Life with Jesus is eternal life, the life that abides.  Hence, the 2nd Reading says: “Since you have been raised in company with Christ, set your heart on what pertains to higher realms where Christ is seated in God’s right hand.  Be intent on things above rather than on things below (Col 3:12).

            Since this is authentic life, anyone who equates life with material possessions is thus a fool.  Like the rich man in the parable.  He exists, but he never lives a true life.  And nations can be fools, too.  For many years, countries have made money an idol and they idolized it through a system called liberal capitalism.  And as a reaction, others tried and instituted Marxist collectivism.  But neither of them is really after the true life of man, for both of them have a common root—the worship of wealth.  And the consequences of these two systems are staggering: the environment is polluted, natural resources are depleted, a consumerist mentality is cultivated, and people are sacrificed to the idol of money.  No wonder John Paul II called these systems “institutionalized injustice”.  To trust, to labor in order to acquire material wealth is therefore foolish, because it cannot guarantee authentic life even in the here and now.   Which calls to mind the 1st Reading: “For here is a man who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and to another, who has not labored over it, he must leave his property.  This also is vanity and a great misfortune.  For what profit comes to a man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun?  All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest.  This is also vanity” (Ecc 2:21-23).

            This is not to say, of course, that material wealth is useless.  Earthly beings that we are, we need material things to survive.  Starvation, homelessness and destitution are evils which society must eradicate.  Jesus, after all, was never happy that people went hungry—that is why, his heart moved with pity for the crowd who have been following him for three days and who had nothing to eat, he multiplied the five loaves and two fish to feed them (Mark 12:1-9).  Starvation is not a virtue.  But the point is that, one must set priorities.  Wealth has a relative value; it is valuable to the extent that it serves to make us persons who are more loving, more caring for others, or to the extent that it promotes higher values.  But when it becomes the be-all and end-all of one’s existence, then greed, one can assume, has undoubtedly captured the heart.  In this connection, the remark of Timothy is very instructive: “We brought nothing into the world, nor have we the power to take anything out.  If we have food and clothing, we have all we need.  Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and a trap.  They are letting themselves be captured by foolish and harmful desires which drag men down to ruin and destruction.  The love of money is the root of all evil.  Some men in their passion for it have strayed from the faith, and have come to grief amid great pain” (1 Tim 6:7-9).

            The lesson is clear: wealth does not make a person happy and valuable; to be truly happy, one must follow Jesus in poverty for the sake of the Kingdom of God. In the Diocese of Borongan (Eastern Samar, Philippines), there is a very small community called Oikos Ptochos Theou (The Poor Household of God).  The members live on the promise and actuality that the Father cares for them; they are so poor that they live with much insecurity.  They are not even assured of where to get their sustenance the following day or week.  They live only on what people give them.  But they are happy with serving the Lord who is present in the abandoned children, battered women, and abused children they tenderly care for.  They see in them the face of Christ, whom they follow in discipleship.  Their life is a witness in the Diocese that what makes a person happy is not wealth, and that one’s dignity and worth are not measured in terms of riches.   And the late Mother Teresa, whose life was spent in following Jesus by caring for those who had no one to care for them, may have the last word as a commentary: “We have chosen to be poor.  That does not mean we cannot have material goods.  In and of itself, it isn’t bad to have things, but we have chosen not to have them.  For once the sisters abound with material goods, we still not have time to tenderly care for the poorest of the poor.  We will then be too busy caring for things instead of people.  So we must continue to have as little as possible.”

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