Vanity Fair

Eighteenth Sunday of the Year (C). Ecc 1:2; 2:21-23; Ps 94; Col 3:1-5.9-11; Lk 12:13-21

How long do our possessions actually last? It is a good question for all of us, but perhaps particularly for those teenagers intent on buying the latest fashionable items, in clothing, electronics and so on. Most items purchased in our country today decay quite quickly – once we have acquired them, they soon become obsolete or wear out. Items of clothing last about four years, computers between two and five years, cars last up to about fourteen years. Domestic dogs live up to about twelve years, and cats a little longer. Land might seem to be a more stable acquisition, but land rights require a stable society and societies also pass away. The possessions of the great landowners of the Roman Empire have long since perished, and no institutions that existed at the time of that Empire remain with us today, with the singular exception of the Catholic Church herself. Finally, even the physical landscape changes. Much of England was buried under ice eleven thousand years ago. In another eleven thousand years’ time, despite contemporary concerns about global warming, that ice may well have returned.

One lesson to draw from this relentless change and decay is that to trust that possessions can provide peace, security and happiness is an empty and futile hope, what the writer the First Reading describes as ‘vanity’. Indeed, drawing on this theme, the English Puritan writer John Bunyan described the world as a ‘Vanity Fair’ in which people kept busy and preoccupied with buying and selling emptiness. Jesus also warns of the spiritual dangers of hoarding such vanities in today’s Gospel. Having been asked to arbitrate a domestic dispute over property, Jesus tells a parable to warn his listeners not to be preoccupied with possessions. The rich man who planned to build larger barns to store up his goods and enjoy life, loses all these goods that very night when the demand is made for his soul.

If the only lesson in today’s readings were that everything decays, they would seem to be little hope in any human activity or even in life itself. What should we invest our time in if everything is vanity? Fortunately, however, we have received some Good News, between the time of today’s Old Testament Reading and that of the Second Reading and Gospel. With the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are assured that some things not only persist in this life, but will last into eternity. We are assured that the human soul and our personal identities last not only in this life but beyond death as well: we know this from the way that Jesus comes back from the dead and greets his disciples by name. Furthermore, we are also assured that the kind of relationship we have with God in this life sets the pattern, title page, or genetic code of what we are to be in eternity. Those who have been friends with God in this life, and loved with God the things that God loves, will enjoy that friendship glorified in eternity. Indeed, Jesus evens promises that one cup of cold water, given for the sake of such friendship, will be remembered forever. So although our present bodies, the water and even the chemical elements will pass away, such actions will be remembered and rewarded in eternity. Conversely, those who have rejected God by their actions, who have isolated themselves from God, will not be forced to spend eternity with Him. So rather than make the mistake of the rich man in the Gospel, who invested in his barns but neglected his soul, we should invest in cultivating our souls, in making ourselves rich in the sight of God.

What, then, are the practical lessons for our lives? The general lesson is that there is no substitute for investing time in knowing God and knowing about God and the things of God. In practical terms, we should first, therefore, invest time each day in prayer, and rich sowing means rich reaping. Second, we should study Scripture and great works of the tradition, such as the lives and works of the saints, to know more about our faith. Finally, even when we are engrossed in matters of this world, it is good to keep our eternal goal in mind and to use the perishable things of this world to help bring ourselves and other people to everlasting life.

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