18th Sunday of the Year Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21–23; Colossians 3:1–5, 9–11; Luke 12:13–21
The meeting What counts in life is not what we acquire, but what we become.
Years ago a Chicago restaurant had specially printed place mats at all its tables.
The mats were designed exclusively for the restaurant. And if you asked the waitress, she’d give you one to take home, frame, and hang on your wall.
Let me share with you the wording that appeared on those mats. It went something like this:
“In 1923 an important meeting took place at Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel. Attending the meeting were the following men:
“the president of the largest steel company, the president of the largest utility company, the president of the largest gas company, the president of the New York Stock Exchange, the president of the Bank of International Settlements, the greatest wheat speculator, the greatest bear on Wall Street, the head of the world’s greatest monopoly, a member of President Harding’s cabinet.’’
That’s a pretty impressive lineup of people. Yet, 25 years later, where were those nine industrial giants?
According to the story on the place mat, the president of the largest steel company, Charles Schwab, died bankrupt; the president of the largest utility company, Samuel Insull, died penniless; the president of the largest gas company, Howard Hobson, had gone insane; the president of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Whitney, was just released from prison; the bank president, Leon Fraser, died a suicide; the wheat speculator, Arthur Cutten, died penniless; The Wall Street bear, Jesse Livermore, died a suicide; the head of the world’s greatest monopoly, Ivar Kruegar, died a suicide; the member of President Harding’s cabinet, Albert Fall, was just given a pardon from prison so that he could die at home.
That story dramatizes as few stories can the point behind today’s Scripture readings. And what is that point? It is summed up perfectly in Jesus’ parable of the foolish farmer.
Contrary to what some people think, in this parable Jesus isn’t knocking the acquisition of wealth. He isn’t knocking private enterprise.
What he is knocking is the foolish idea that some people have of placing greater importance on laying up material treasures than on laying up spiritual treasures.
Afew years ago an African missionary in Kenya described how some Africans still follow the practice of removing the clothes from their dead before burying them.
One of the purposes of this practice is to dramatize that we leave the world the same way we came into it.
It’s the same point Paul makes in his First Letter to Timothy, when he writes, “What did we bring into the world? Nothing! What can we take out of the world? Nothing!” 1 Timothy 6:7
And this, too, is the point Jesus makes in his parable of the foolish farmer. He tells us that what counts when we die is not the wealth we acquired during life, but the person we became in the process of living.
Jesus is saying that our priority in life should be on becoming a person, not on acquiring wealth.
Concretely, we violate the priority Jesus speaks about when we acquire wealth at the expense of becoming dishonest, when we acquire power at the expense of becoming ruthless, when we acquire a reputation in the community at the expense of neglecting our own family.
In short, we violate the priority Jesus speaks of when we acquire passing treasures in this life at the expense of losing eternal treasures in the life to come.
Today’s readings invite us to review the priorities in life. Think of it this way.
If someone asked your son, “What’s your dad’s number one priority in life?’’ what would your son say?
Would he say, “That’s easy. Dad’s number one priority is his family!’’ Or would he say, “Dad’s number one priority is his business!’’
Or if someone asked your daughter, “What is your mother’s number one priority?’’ what would she say?
Would she say, “That’s easy. Mother’s priority is her family! would she say, “I’m not sure what my mother’s priority is, but it’s certainly not her family!’’
Or, if someone asked your father what your priority in life was, what would your father say?
Would he answer as one father did, saying, “I hate to admit it, but my son’s priority is himself. He isn’t interested in anything unless there’s something in it for him.’’
One morning, years ago, Albert Nobel opened his newspaper and read his own obituary. A French reporter had carelessly reported Alfred’s death in place of his brother’s.
Alfred was shocked. For the first time in his life, he saw himself as others saw him. He saw himself as the “dynamite king’’ who had spent his life making instruments of death and destruction.
That morning Alfred Nobel resolved to change his image. His resolution resulted in the annual Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace.
Today’s gospel invites us to do what Alfred Nobel did. It invites us in our imaginations to read our own obituary. It invites us to see ourselves as others see us. It invites us to see ourselves as we really are. It invites us to see ourselves as God sees us.
Or, to put it in terms of the parable in today’s gospel, if we were to appear before God tonight to give an account of our life, would God have to say to us at this moment what he said to the farmer:
“You fool! This very night you will have to give up your life; then who will get all these things you have kept for yourself?”
Let’s close with a prayer:
Lord, you said to your disciples, “Will a person gain anything if he wins the whole world but is himself lost or defeated?” Luke 9:25 Help us take these words to heart. Help us see ourselves as we really are.
Above all, help us see that what counts when we lie down in death is not the wealth we acquired during life, but the person we became in the process of living.
Series II 18th Sunday of the Year Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21–23; Colossians 3:1–5, 9–11; Luke 12:13–21
Instant replay Someday we will have to answer this question: What have you done with your life?
Jerry Kramer was an all-pro linesman for the Green Bay Packers in the late 1960s.
He won fame not only for playing a great game of football but also for writing a best-selling book. It was called Instant Replay and dealt with a dimension of pro football that we rarely think about.
Taking the form of a diary, Jerry’s book describes what goes on in the minds of athletes as they play their games week in and week out. And some of the things that go on in their minds surprise you.
For example, one entry in Jerry’s diary tells how he had just seen a film called Cool Hand Luke. It starred Paul Newman, who played the part of a wild man who had no goal in life and no fear of God or man.
Toward the end of the movie, Cool Hand Luke escapes from prison. As he flees, he comes upon an empty church. He goes inside, kneels down, and prays to God in words like this:
“Old Man, whadya got planned for me? Whadya have in mind when you made me? Whadya put me on earth for, Old Man?’’
Jerry says in his diary:
“I ask the same questions. I often wonder . . .
what’s my purpose here on earth besides playing the silly games I play every Sunday. I feel there’s got to be more to life than that. There’s got to be some reason for it. . . . I didn’t come up with any answers this morning. I just thought about it for a while.’’
Twenty years later, in the 1980s, Jerry Kramer wrote a second book called Distant Replay. It’s a kind of sequel to his first book.
In it he looks back over his life and career and asks himself the same questions he did in Instant Replay.
For example, there’s one chapter in the book called “What Have I Done with My Life?’’
He begins the chapter by recalling a book he had just read, called Life after Life by Dr. Raymond Moody. It deals with people who were resuscitated after having been declared clinically dead. Kramer writes:
“One of the people recalled floating up; and encountering a being of light that somehow, nonverbally, asked, ‘What have you done with your life?’ ’’
Kramer then says:
“I remember putting the book down and asking myself the same question. Then I answered it by listing my possessions my ranch in Idaho, my cars, my boat. Suddenly, I stopped and said to myself, ‘Isn’t that wonderful?’ ’’ Kramer says that when he was playing with the Packers, he thought he would live forever. Then he adds that as he nears age 50, he finds himself thinking a lot about death.
Jerry Kramer’s two books fit in very well with today’s Scripture readings.
For example, the first reading asks:
You work and worry your way through life, and what do you have to show for it?
And in the second reading, St. Paul says:
Keep your minds fixed on things [in heaven], not on things here on earth.
And, finally, in the gospel reading, Jesus himself says of the man who decided to tear down his old barns and build bigger ones:
“You fool! This very night you will have to give up your life.”
No serious person can read today’s Scripture readings without asking the same question that Jerry Kramer asked himself: What have I done with my life?
It’s this question that Jesus sets before us in today’s readings. It’s this question that Jesus wants us to take to heart in today’s liturgy.
It’s a question that no one can answer for us. It’s a question that we must answer for ourselves. One answer that Jerry Kramer came up with in his second book was this: He said that if he accomplished nothing else in life, he should, at least, accomplish one thing.
And what is that one thing? He said he should, at least, give his children “proper values . . . that would help them survive in this world and flourish.’’
He was then struck by a thought that bothered him immensely. He puts it this way:
“I realized I hadn’t done for my children what my father had done for me.’’
I wonder how many of us here would have to say “Amen’’ to his observation. Neither have we done for our children what our parents did for us.
The question, What have you done with your life? is a question that we are all destined to face sooner or later.
If we don’t face it in this life, we will certainly face it in the next life. For as St. Paul reminds us:
[A]ll of us must appear before Christ, to be judged by him. We will each receive what we deserve, according to everything we have done, good or bad, in our bodily life. 2 Corinthians 5:10
This, my brothers and sisters, is the message of today’s readings.
It’s one of the most important messages the Gospel can set before us. For it gets at the heart of everything. It gets at the heart of why we are here:
To live in such a way that when we die and Jesus asks us, “What have you done with your life?’’ we will have something to say. We won’t have to turn away in embarrassment or in regret.
Series III 18th Sunday of the Year Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21–23; Colossians 3:1–5, 9–11; Luke 12:13–21
Christian vision Christian vision is seeing as God sees.
Keep your minds fixed on things [above], not on things here on earth. Colossians 3:2
Some time ago, the Chicago Tribune carried a story on Dave Browne, CEO of Lenscrafters.
It was occasioned by an address that Browne gave to a prestigious meeting of businesspeople at Arizona State U. In the speech, he made an amazing confession.
Some months before, he had made a retreat that turned out to be a life-changing experience.
He explained how on one of the days, he went for a long walk. During that walk, he saw himself as an SOB, whose bottom-line goal was to increase corporate profits. Period!
As he pondered more deeply his position as CEO of a large corporation, a surprising idea flashed into his mind.
How could he become an even more effective CEO and, at the same time, use his position of power to make a difference in the lives of his employees and his consumers?
To make a long story short, Browne returned home and reorganized his company into teams.
To those who volunteered he gave time off from their jobs to go on “service missions.”
The goal of these service missions was to examine and fit glasses for millions of unfortunate people who might otherwise never see clearly.
These missions also gave employees an opportunity to use their skills in service to those in need of what they could offer.
Browne took his place as a member of one of these “service mission” teams. He also enlisted the help of the Lions Clubs of America to fund such a massive project.
One day Browne was on a “service mission” in rural Mexico. A 20-year-old woman came to ask if they could help her.
She was legally blind, able to see only a few blurry inches. She made her living doing needlepoint. The cloth she worked on virtually touched her nose as she squinted to do the patterns.
Browne himself took care of her. He got the strongest pair of glasses they’d brought to Mexico.
Carefully, he put the glasses on her face. No sooner had he done so than she began to scream and to sob.
He thought he must have accidentally jabbed her eye. “Lord, what have I done to this poor girl?” he thought.
An interpreter heard her scream and came running over to see what was wrong.
Browne waited nervously as the woman explained why she screamed and was crying.
When she finished, the interpreter smiled and said to Browne:
“She said, ‘I can see! It’s a miracle!
I’ve been touched by the hand of God!’ ”
Dale Dauten, who wrote the article, ended with this comment:
I think the girl was right. In our culture executives are gods,but only the rare few get promoted to servant. Chicago Tribune (December 1997)
Ilike that story for two reasons, especially. First, it is a beautiful illustration of the point of today’s Mass readings.
The first reading describes a man who labored wisely and skillfully all his life to acquire property only to die and have it fall into the hands of someone who had not labored over it at all.
Similarly, the Gospel reading describes a man who spent his life acquiring possessions only to die in the process of building bigger barns in which to store them.
He ended up rich in people’s sight but very poor in God’s sight. Finally, in his Letter to the Colossians, Paul describes the ideal attitude Christians should strive to acquire. He writes:
Keep your minds fixed on things [above], not on things here on earth.
And that brings us to each person in this church.
How might we apply to our lives the point of today’s Mass readings and the point of the Dave Browne story?
You’re probably thinking:
“I’m not a CEO of a large corporation. Nor am I a wealthy person, as the man in the Gospel was.
“I’m just an average person, struggling to earn a living and give my family the things I didn’t have.
“So how is it possible for me to apply the Dave Browne story and the Gospel story to my own life?”
But this is precisely what Jesus is inviting us to do. He wants us to ask ourselves:
How can we, with the help of God’s grace, begin to use our talents and our jobs more effectively? How can we use them better to help not only our loved ones but also others less fortunate?
This is the kind of question Jesus invites each one of us to reflect upon.
This is the kind of question that, with the help of God’s grace, unites us with other Christians to transform our world into the kind of place God intended it to become when he created it.
Let us close with this prayer to do our part to begin this transformation with renewed effort.
Give us, O God, the vision which can see your love in the world in spite of human failure.
Give us the faith to trust your goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness. . . .
Show us what each one of us can do to advance the coming of the day of universal peace. Amen. Colonel Frank Borman radioed this prayer back to Earth, early Christmas Eve 1968, while orbiting the moon on the Apollo 8 flight.