July 31, 2016 — Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
If we attempt to ascribe a theme to the readings each week, this week’s theme may well be to focus on what is important in life. Actually, that is not completely accurate because the deeper message is that what happens after our lives on earth is far more important. It surely was to Jesus, and He tries over and over to explain that to us and teach it to us. St. Paul in turn does the same.
The Book of Ecclesiastes, from which our First Reading comes, follows the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament. Like Proverbs it is more or less a series of narratives, proverbs, parables and allegories intended to teach, to provide wisdom to the hearer and the reader. There is, however, a consistent skepticism included in its teaching.
Today’s reading opens “Vanity of Vanities…All things are vanity!” We tend to think of vanity as applying to appearance and how one is overly concerned about it. However, it also means an excessive belief in one’s opinions, ideas, position, fame, success and accomplishments. The teacher’s point, and one that is affirmed by the Second Reading and the Gospel, is simply that what occurs on this earth and in our lives here is just not that important. Not that it is not important at all, as it can be significant, but ultimate truth and understanding can only be reached in the next life, in a heavenly existence, not an earthly one.
That is why early in the Second Reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Paul says, “If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above.” Paul confirms that our goal in life is to get to heaven where everything matters, with no meaninglessness attached to it. Paul always spoke of heaven and reminded us often that in that sense we needed to emulate Jesus. After Jesus’ resurrection, He spent His time being with and ministering to His followers and disciples. That should be our goal as well — to concentrate on serving one another. In addition, Jesus makes many references that indicate that He was looking forward to heaven. Again, St. Paul recommends that should be our focus as well; we need to recognize that our real citizenship is in heaven, not on earth.
Paul then states that we must take “off the old self…and put on the new self.” The phrase Paul uses in the original Greek to make this statement actually was a reference to changing one’s attire — to take off the old clothes and to put on the new clothes. Thus, Paul, too, as was the author of the First Reading, is reminding us that much of what we seem to concentrate on in this life is not truly essential. Truth and freedom come from the realization that the “new” requires a heavenly focus.
As is often the case in sacred Scripture, the complete message is delivered to us in the words of Christ through the Gospel. Jesus knew that the people of His time, and certainly many in our time, have an excessive focus on things of this life, possessions in particular. The Lord comes right to the point, saying “…though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” What do we consider to be vital in our lives? Many — too many according to Jesus — think appearances and what they have gathered and saved are the truth. To exemplify the foolishness of that, in Luke’s Gospel Jesus shares what is popularly called “The Parable of the Rich Fool.”
As was the case in the First and Second Readings, the intent of the message is to let us know that our true concentration should not be on this life necessarily. Jesus reminds us that “…the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? Thus will it be for all who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” This is not always a comfortable realization for us. We tend to get caught up in everything around us and gathering and storing, but that really might be considered to be vanity, a false sense of security. In stewardship we recognize that we are indeed gifted, but all really belongs to God. It is in service to God that we can seek and find truth, and it is in service to God that we are thinking about the right things, prioritizing our lives and its proper motivation in heavenly, not earthly ways.