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If you had one chance to ask a question of Jesus Christ, God himself, the Second Person of the Trinity, what would you ask him?
Well, you have the chance every time you pray. And the Gospel for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C, like the recent Sunday Gospel about Martha, is meant to help you know what to ask.
I, for one, need the lesson. Badly.
Often in the Gospels, people come up with great questions for Jesus. But not today.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Which is the greatest commandment?” and “Are you the one to come, or shall we look for another?” are great questions to ask Jesus.
But this week, in the Gospel passage from Luke, chapter 12, “One of the multitude said to him, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” This is very much like Martha’s question two weeks ago, which was essentially, “Make my sister help out!”
Jesus refuses both prayers, and helps both see what was wrong with their prayer: They acted like Jesus is here to help them get what they want. He is not. He is here to help them become who he made them to be.
“Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” he asks, with a smile, I imagine, the same way he said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things …”
Then, he helps the brother and Martha understand that they aren’t really looking for family justice. He tells the brother: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” He tells Martha that focusing on Christ is “the one thing necessary.”
We should absolutely come to Jesus with our cares, small and large; but we should be ready for the same answer.
“Lord, resolve my conflict at work,” we pray. “Lord, fix the imbalance in my family.” “Lord, we need more money.” What can we expect Jesus Christ — the Second Person of the Trinity, God himself — to say to such prayers?
As a teenager, after years as an atheist, I was just beginning to possibly allow myself to believe in God when a line from a Bob Dylan song struck me: “Did you ever wonder just what God requires? Do you think he’s just an errand-boy to satisfy your wandering desires?”
Like the brother in this story, and like Martha, we too often treat God as a means to get what we really want, which is not him, but a comfortable life. But the idea that God is here to give us something , is idolatry, according to St. Paul in the Second Reading.
This is why Jesus gave us the Our Father last week. When we ask God for things, we should ask in the context of finding a place in his kingdom, doing his will “on earth as it is in heaven,” and seeking his forgiveness.
And there’s another lesson from last week’s Gospel. Jesus said, “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?”
The brother in Sunday’s Gospel asks Jesus for a snake. He gives him a fish.
In fact, in his parable — one of the great parables only found in Luke — Jesus points out that he is falling into the idolatry the snake inspired in the Garden of Eden.
“There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest,” Jesus begins. So bountiful, he tears down his barns and builds larger ones, which is an image of the culture of consumerism we know all too well, which destroys simplicity to make way for excess.
Then the rich man “says to himself, ‘Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!’ That says to himself is important. He doesn’t consult God or others but focuses on his own selfish perspective. But God speaks to him. “You fool! This night your life will be demanded of you!” and the only thing that will turn out to be truly “his” will be his selfishness.
Jesus tells us, “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”
The frightening thing about this parable is that it is not in the least bit extreme. It is exactly what we all do in America, one of the richest societies in the history of the planet. St. Augustine could have been describing many of us when he described the man in this parable:
“He was planning to fill his soul with excessive and unnecessary feasting and was proudly disregarding all those empty bellies of the poor. He did not realize that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns … it would of course have been digested on earth, but in heaven it would be kept all the more safely.”
When we die, we will leave all of our nice things behind and take with us only our soul, and our soul will be shaped by how selfish or how generous we have been.
Of course, there is one sense in which the parable is totally unlike us.
Our lives are not so much like the carefree farmer as like the stressed-out laborer in the First Reading, from Ecclesiastes. For most of us, it’s not the triumph of a bountiful harvest that marks our life but the “toil and anxiety of heart” of one who “has labored under the sun.”
In 21st century America work-related stress dwarfs other forms of stress, and it’s getting worse. It causes hypertension, insomnia, and, increasingly, heart attacks. Ecclesiastes describes so many of us: “All his days, sorrow and grief are his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest. This also is vanity.”
This makes us even more foolish than the foolish man in Jesus’s parable. He plans to eat, drink and be merry to celebrate his wealth. We comfort-eat, “self-medicate” with drink, and binge watch shows to escape from our world, but the stress still wakes us up in the middle of the night — when we eat, drink and binge-watch some more.
We need to pray for the way out of these problems. But now we know what Jesus will answer.
He answers this Sunday with the words of St. Paul in the Second Reading.
“Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” he says. “When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.” The first effect of our Baptism should be to clear our vision to see the world the way God does. This world is a thin veil shot through with his light. It is a place being created right now through Christ, crucified, where his beauty, truth, and goodness fill everything, showing us our ultimate destiny in the glory beyond.
“Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry,” says St. Paul, whose high theological descriptions almost always end in blunt moral precepts. It’s the same in the spiritual life: Poetry becomes prose. High feeling inspires our daily grind: How can I stop compromising moral standards at work? How can I temper my passionate anger with my family? How can I change my lifestyle to no longer put material goods before God?
Then Paul gives one of the Christian truths that has transformed cultures to this day, in a worldwide revolution of equal rights for all: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all. Look at that list: Greeks were cultured, Jews were religious, barbarians were foreigners, Scythians were warrior nomads, and they were all at odds with each other. Today the list might be the wealthy elite, the suburbanites, the immigrants and uneducated, and our political tribes.
Christians see them all as “the nations” of people to gather together into the Kingdom of Christ.
Success, comfort and money are passing things and other human beings — all human beings — are holy things. When we pray, we don’t ask how we can get them to do our will, but how we can lead them in doing God’s will. And we pray that one day, we will all be caught up in the glory of God’s life in heaven, where money will be a vague memory and the people we served will be our greatest consolation.