Character will make you wealthy

  • July 14, 2010
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Aug. 1 (Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23; Psalm 90; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21)

Who is Ecclesiastes? In some translations Qoheleth is rendered the “Teacher” or “Preacher” while others translate Qoheleth as the name of a person. But one thing is clear: he is probably not the sort of person you would invite to a party or an outing.

He often strikes the reader as dour, cynical and world-weary. In fact, a fair number of rabbis were somewhat reluctant to admit this book into the canon of Scripture — it seems to lack joy, hope or a sense of life’s purpose.

His opening blast seems to confirm this view: “vanity of vanities… all is vanity.” Vanity is a rather imperfect way of rendering the Hebrew word that means vapour, smoke or emptiness. His teachings are not based on revelation but on experience and observation of ordinary life. The good guys don’t always win, life is often unfair and not every story has a happy ending.

All of the things that we invest with so much energy and importance can be swept away in an instant and often are. This is easy to confirm — just call to mind the images of untold thousands of survivors of earthquakes, fires, floods and the like. As they pick their way through the wreckage of homes, neighbourhoods and cities, they are left with nothing but the clothes on their backs (and often not even that) and shattered lives. Fortunes can be wiped out overnight in economic reversals. Illness and accidents can alter or cut short even the most successful lives. And we can’t take anything with us. Ecclesiastes simply asks us why we knock ourselves out straining after what is temporary, fleeting and in the long run, of questionable value. His advice in the end is to enjoy life each day with gratitude and not to be overly ambitious, attached, obsessive or driven.

Not bad advice — and on second thought, perhaps Ecclesiastes wouldn’t be such a bad addition to a party.

The author of Colossians agrees in part with Ecclesiastes, for he warns us not to become mired in the things that are self-indulgent and earthly. But there is something else at work here: we are in the process of forming our new self — the self that we will become when we pass from this Earth. He asks us to set our sights higher on those things that will truly make us happy — those things that reflect the reality of God.

We become what we cherish and seek after — if our choice is for earthly things, then that is our reward. But if we choose for those things that last — justice, kindness, compassion, truth, generosity, courage and the like — then that is what we will become for eternity. The choice is ours and we are presented with countless opportunities each day to make those fundamental choices.

The Gospel story illustrates this so well. A couple of people are arguing over property and they try to drag Jesus into the fray but He refuses to rise to the bait. Instead He uses this as an opportunity to convince His audience that it is shear madness to pour all one’s physical, mental and spiritual energy into amassing wealth and possessions.

The man in the story believes that he is master of his own fate and that the hour of his death is his decision. Like many who play the success game to the max and then succumb to a heart attack or some other problem in their mid-life, the character in the story will soon discover that someone else will enjoy his wealth. Not only that, he will have missed many opportunities to lead a more fruitful and happy life.

Mother Teresa once observed that many in the developed countries suffered from their own brand of poverty — spiritual poverty. From time to time we need a “spiritual audit” — if we were to leave the Earth today, what would we take with us?

What kind of person have we become? Are we rich or poor in matters of the soul? The only wealth that we can really amass and keep is that of character and spiritual maturity.

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