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Saturday, 30 July 2016

Homily for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, CSSp

Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23, Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11, Luke 12:13-21

On the Gospel, When Possessions Become Obsessions

A preacher notices a woman in the congregation who begins to weep as soon as he begins to preach. Thinking he has made a big catch he preaches with even greater fervour. The more he preaches, the more the woman cries. Finally, the preaching over, it is time to give testimonies. The preacher points to the woman and says, “Sister, I can see you were mightily moved as we proclaimed the word of God. Now can you please share with us what it was that convicted your spirit so much.” The woman hesitates, but the pastor insists so she comes up and takes the microphone. “You see,” she begins, “Last year I lost my he-goat, the most precious thing I possessed. I prayed and cried much over it and then I forgot all about it. But as soon as you came out to preach and I saw your beard, it reminded me all over again of the he-goat. I still cry whenever I remember it.” She did not remember one word of what the preacher said.

Possessions are necessary for life. But possessions can assume such an importance in one’s life that they become obsessions. When one is so consumed with the things that one could have, so much so that one no longer hears the urgent call of God, then one has indeed got one’s priorities all mixed up. Such is the man in today’s gospel who asks Jesus to come and make his brother give him his share of the family inheritance. Jesus is not against him having more wealth, nor is he against justice being done between the man and his brother. Jesus is rather disappointed that after listening to all his preaching, the first concern of this man still remains his share of the inheritance. This man is in the same position as the woman who has brooding over her lost goat while the words of life were falling on deaf ears. Like the woman, this man also could probably not remember one word of what the preacher said.

Jesus, fearing there could be more people in the crowd like this man, turns and says to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Greed? What greed? The man was only asking for justice to be done between him and his brother. Shouldn’t a man of God be concerned about fairness? O, yes. Jesus warns us that greed comes in different guises, even in the guise of justice. Have you ever heard a respectable man opposing plans to improve conditions for welfare recipients: “I’ve worked and paid taxes all my life. How can the government spend my money on welfare recipients who do nothing but sit down and do drugs everyday?” Sounds like an argument for justice and fairness. But it could indeed be greed in disguise. That is why Jesus warns us and emphasises it: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” Greed can be upfront or subtle, conscious or unconscious. We must be on our guard against greed in all its forms.

To illustrate his point Jesus tells the Parable of the Rich Fool. When you read the parable you ask yourself, “What wrong did this man do?” Think about it. The man did his honest work on his farmland. The land gave a good harvest, as expected. The man decided do build a larger storage for the crop so that he could live the rest of his life on Easy Street. Except he did not know that the rest of his life was less than twenty-four hours. Jesus uses him as an illustration of greed even though he took nobody’s money. He did not do something wrong. His greed lies in what he did not do. Sir Fred Catherwood is quoted as saying that greed is “the belief that there is no life after death. We grab what we can while we can however we can and then hold on to it hard.” Now you see why the rich man qualifies as an example of greed. Now you see why Jesus was so hard on greed. Greed is the worship of another god. The name of that god is Mammon or Money or Materialism. Today’s gospel invites us to believe in the God of Jesus Christ who alone can give eternal life and not in the god of this world who gives us the false promise of immortality through accumulation of possessions.

On the Epistle, Stop Telling Lies to One Another

One of the most popular and most misunderstood Reformation sayings of Martin Luther is the statement, “Sin boldly, but believe ... even more boldly.” This saying, which he made in his letter to Philipp Melanchthon in 1521, is often understood in such a way as to suggest that what we do in the physical body does not affect our standing before God, so long as we believe in the heart. This is the Reformation principle of sola fide (“by faith alone”) taken to the absurd extreme. If all that we need for salvation is nothing but faith alone, than ethical behaviour is irrelevant. In today’s 2nd reading, Paul confronts a similar false belief in the Christian community of Colossae.

The Colossians believed, and rightly so, that they had died and been raised to new life with Christ in baptism. What they failed to appreciate was that this mystical experience had practical implications in their day to day living. They gloried in their new spiritual status as born again Christians, but in their daily lives, there was little difference between them and their non-Christian neighbours. There was a disconnect between their faith and their life. In today’s passage, Paul tells them that this dichotomy between faith and life is wrong Christianity. Their faith view of themselves as people who have been born to new life in Christ should be seen in the way they choose to live their lives from day to day. He uses four strong words of command to point out areas of their lives that must be brought into conformity with their faith. These four imperatives are: “seek,” “set your minds,” “put to death,” and “do not lie.”

The first two commands, “seek the things that are above” (Colossians 3:1) and “set your minds on things that are above” (verse 2) look like two different ways of saying the same thing. They refer not to specific concrete actions but to ways of thinking, to attitudes and dispositions of the heart and mind. True faith colours the way we see reality, it transforms our value system in such a way that we can sing with Isaac Watts in the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,

When I survey the wondrous cross / On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss, / And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, / Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most, / I sacrifice them to His blood.

Faith is not just a declaration that we have received Jesus as our personal Lord and Saviour. It is something that continues to work in us, transforming our personality from within and conforming us ever more perfectly to the image of the Creator God within us (verse 10).

The last two commands “put to death” and “do not lie” refer to concrete actions. In the Latin Vulgate, the word used for “put to death” is mortificate, from where we get the word mortification. It is the discipline of self-denial, of saying no to our natural human tendencies that may lead us to sin. Hence the Colossians are advised to “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry” (verse 5). Paul singles out greed for a special condemnation, equating it to idolatry, the worship of another God. As we see in the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18 ff), attachment to wealth could prevent well-meaning Christians from hearing and heeding the voice of God in their lives.

Finally Paul dwells on the command, “Do not lie to one another” (verse 9). The Greek used here actually means, “Stop telling lies to one another.” The Colossians were telling lies to one another by teaching that it did not matter whatever one did in the body so long as one believed in the heart. A heresy is a lie, and Paul wants them to stop it. Do we sometimes tell similar lies to ourselves in order to rationalise and justify our clinging to old sinful habits while continuing to tell ourselves that we are born again Christians? The message for us today is loud and clear, “Stop telling yourselves such lies,” for, as James tells us, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).

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