Our mission is to know God

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  • July 26, 2007
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C), Aug. 5 (Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23; Psalm 90; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21)

What is real? We have so little time on earth — what is the most important thing in life? These are questions that people have asked for millennia and they are addressed by both testaments of the Bible.
The rather dour and world-weary author of Ecclesiastes has a blunt and uncompromising answer. The word “hebel” that we translate as “vanity” means vapour, and “hebel hebelim” — the phrase found in Ecclesiastes — is devastatingly clear: nothingness. Long ago many rabbis were hesitant to include Ecclesiastes among the canonical collection of writings, for it seemed to lack the positive tone of Old Testament teaching. And yet it rings very true if read from the right perspective.

Some spiritual traditions believe that the world is an illusion and that physical reality does not have true existence. We needn’t go that far. It is not that physical reality lacks existence, but that our perception of reality is not only limited but in many ways distorted. It is very easy to measure our worth and success by what we achieve and what we possess, for that is what human societies teach us. But governing one’s life by the success principle can leave a person spiritually empty and emotionally impoverished.

It is not that we shouldn’t work — that is part of life — but the things we toil for have relative and short term rather than ultimate value. We should keep the proper perspective. If we have neglected or compromised love, family, friends, integrity, decency, joy or our relationship with God in our relentless drive to achieve or acquire, then we have truly been in pursuit of “hebel hebelim.”

The author of Colossians is on the same page with his advice to set one’s mind on the things that are above rather than on earth. This is not some sort of hairshirt asceticism or a denial of life. What is to be stripped away is not anything of value: evil desire, greed, idolatry, fornication and so on cannot be counted among the qualities that belong to an authentic human person or provide lasting happiness. Neither does the eagerness to exclude, separate or label other people.

Who would want to hang on to these things? Good riddance! Stripping off the old self and stepping into the new self is what we are here for — nothing else. That is our mission in life, to leave behind all that prevents us from loving and knowing God.

One of the crowd in the Gospel story thinks that it is his lucky day. He can enlist this respected holy man in his family inheritance squabble. A whiff of money has unravelled many friendships and families. But Jesus refuses to rise to the bait, and uses the situation as a teaching opportunity.

Jesus counters with a story of a driven and industrious man — probably a decent man, not at all wicked. He spends all of his time and energy planning, building and projecting his mind into the future. His pursuit has even robbed him of the ordinary joys of life, for he delays legitimate relaxation, food, drink and celebration until his projects are complete — delayed gratification run amok. Jesus poses the most dramatic and extreme possibility: the man is going to die that very night.

All of his industry will only serve to provide his heirs something to fight over. But the one treasure that matters most he has neglected; in fact, in this respect he is a pauper. This treasure is knowing God. It has little to do with knowing about God or being observant in conventional religiosity. Our lives can change in an instant through financial collapse, serious illness or personal tragedy. After major floods, fires and earthquakes, stunned and tearful survivors survey the rubble of their ruined homes. Everything is gone — often a whole lifetime of work. They are left only with who they are as human beings.

How much time do most people spend seeking God? When we leave this world, we can take with us only how well we have loved, how we have treated others and how closely we have known and walked with God. At the end of each day, we should ask ourselves the question, “In the things that matter, am I richer or poorer this day?”

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