So, if you ever do see a U-Haul riding behind a Funeral hearse heading to the cemetery, it’s purely by chance. Have you met the person who buys two plots of land in a cemetery, one for their body that will turn to dust, and a second larger plot for their possessions that will also turn to dust? I haven’t.
Throughout the length of our years on this planet called Earth, we earthlings go through a process of both building up and tearing down. At times this process can seem like a roller coaster that goes up slowly, building up steam, then goes down, tearing the track. The roller coaster is a good image for our possessions in that it takes much longer to build them up, like an uphill endeavor at a slow pace: building up that 401K or taking some time to buy a home you like. And then, the going downhill part of the roller coaster could be the speed at which we either lose it all or spend it all if we don’t take precautions along the way. Or, we give it all away like St. Francis.
Our readings this week for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time reflect the ordinary process most of us experience; the building up and the tearing down; the profit and the loss; the buying and the selling. But our Lord lovingly reminds us in this awesome parable that in the midst of our building up and tearing down, in the midst of buying and selling, that we as Christians who follow Christ, do not cast aside the holiness called works of mercy. Thankfully, many of us do not cast aside this necessary part of our faith, so necessary that our faith in Jesus cannot reach its fullness without such works.
In the Gospel parable, this rich man is obviously blessed and loved by God. Not because of his capacity to build up many possessions. He’s loved by God by virtue of his humanity. God does not love the rich man more than any poor person. This is where the present-day Gospel of Prosperity tumbles down like the walls of Jericho. That gospel says that God loves you more by way of blessing you with large amounts of material goods and dollar bills. The truth, however, which can be proven time and again in the Scriptures, is that God favors the poor. The immigrant. The struggler. The one needs assistance. God’s love for those we call poor, and those who are poor, is a special divine love shown only to them, and it surpasses that of God’s love for the rich man.
The rich man in the parable is blessed, and he is loved by God. He has worked hard, which God gave him the capacity to do. He has built up his fortune with some healthy retirement figures, so much so that he needs bigger barns for storage. He needs more investment companies. All looks good.
But the shift in the parable is not his life being demanded of him that very night. His time was up no matter what. His heart attack was happening that night not because God was getting even with him for building bigger barns. God loves this man unconditionally. He’s dying that night because his time is up.
The shift in the parable, if you will, is found in these few words from St. Paul in today’s reading: “Seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” The rich man sought what was above. But when he sat down and looked up, he saw bigger barns of his own possessions instead of the Son of God. We’re given this stark image in Jesus’ parable of a rich man looking up and worshipping his own goods.
When we seek what is above alongside the material blessings we gain, what’s demanded is not someone’s life. What’s demanded is sharing our blessings. What’s demanded are the corporal works of mercy, which, in the parable Jesus tells, there was none.
This parable of Jesus, like any other parable the Lords tells, can be understood in a variety of ways with all the parables the Lord teaches. In this one, the Lord mentions guarding against all greed. Greed on its own is like eating way more possessions than our stomachs can handle. Greed alongside the Person of Christ is a matter of not sharing the many blessings bestowed upon us. Rejecting works of mercy. And in my humble estimation, that’s the heart of this parable.
In seeking what is above, we adore not the material wealth we’ve gained in barns. We seek Christ, who cannot be separated from his special love for the poor and the material blessings we have. If we die from this world without a heart for the poor, like the rich man in the parable, I can just about guarantee you Purgatory at best. But the goal is heaven, alongside the likes of St. Mother Teresa, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Francis, and the countless others whose personal barns were empty, but looked up and saw Christ in the face of the poor.