Do not be possessed by possessions
Here is a story from Tony de Mello:
When the sage reached the outskirts of the village and settled under a tree for the night, a villager came running up to him and said, “The stone! The stone! Give me the precious stone!” “What stone?” asked the sage. “Last night in a dream I was told that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk a sage would give me a stone that would make me rich forever.” The sage rummaged in his sack and, pulling out a stone, he said, “It is probably this one. I found it in the forest yesterday. Here, it’s yours if you want it.” The man gazed at the stone in wonder. It was the largest diamond in the world. Later that night the man tossed about in bed. At break of day he woke the sage and said, “Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this stone away.”
Our daily life in the modern world revolves around money. We work to earn money. We spend restless nights calculating how we can increase it. And we go through anxious moments as we plan how best to spend it. We spend money to get more money.
I myself am a religious priest. One of the vows we make is the vow of poverty. This implies that all our resources are owned by the community, and I have no bank account, practically no private possessions (the most valuable possession is my laptop) and have no control over my finances. I am expected to live in total detachment from material goods, while depending on my religious community for my needs. And yet, I know I spend quite a lot of my time thinking about money. Actually, even to practice the vow of poverty I need to plan well my spending.
Word of God of this Sunday – the 28th Sunday in ordinary time – invites us to examine our attitude towards money and wealth. In the first reading, King Solomon, who is acclaimed as the author of the book of Wisdom, sings:
I prayed, and understanding was given me;
I entreated, and the spirit of Wisdom came to me.
I esteemed her (Wisdom) more than scepters and thrones;
Compared with her, I held riches as nothing (Wis7:7-8).
Perhaps it is this wisdom that the man was requesting from the sage who gave away the diamond without a thought, in the story of Tony de Mello.
In the Gospel today, Jesus warns us: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God” (Mk 10:24)! This statement shocks us just as it ‘astonished’ the disciples of Jesus (v.26). This discourse of Jesus on wealth is prompted by the encounter between Jesus and the man (‘young man’ as Mt 19 would have it) who wanted to inherit eternal life. The man was not able to respond to the invitation of Jesus because he was possessed by his possessions.
So, what is the Word of God this morning inviting us to? What was the attitude of Jesus to money and wealth? And what could the teaching of Jesus mean to us – we who live in a more complex society, governed by a more intricate economic system, compared to that of Jesus’ time.
First of all, we do know that Jesus had access to funds and he used money:
· When the gospels speak of Judas Iscariot, they also refer to him as one who ‘had charge of the common fund’ (Jn 13:29). So Jesus and his company did have some kitty.
· In Lk 8:1-3, Luke talks about the women disciples of Jesus. He mentions their names: “Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others…” And Luke adds …and they provided for Jesus and his company “out of their own resources.”
And yet, Jesus would make statements like:
· “Blessed are you who are poor: the kingdom of God is yours” (Lk 6:20)
· In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man is punished for his indifference, and the poor man is exalted for his forbearance (Lk 16:20-31).
· In Luke 12:13-31, Jesus gives another set of instructions on possessions: “Watch, and be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for life does not consist in possessions…”, and he concludes the preaching saying, “set your hearts on his kingdom, and these other things will be given you as well.”
· And finally in today’s gospel text, he says, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God” (Mk 10:24)!
Now what does all this mean for us – we who live in a society governed by a capitalistic, profit oriented, market economy; we who are constantly bombarded by consumerist ideology; we who are part of a society that uses people and loves things; we who are tempted to draw our identity from our possessions, enmeshing our being with our having? The message of the Word of God can be summarized in three simple statements:
1. Accept the primacy of God and his Kingdom: The repeated message of Jesus is very clear – seek first the kingdom of God (Lk 12:31)! What is it that occupies the core of our hearts? Is it our wealth and possessions? Is it our fame and achievements? Is it our human securities? Jesus simply challenges these ephemerals, and invites us to give God the prime place. Why? Because, money can buy us a cosy bed but not sound sleep. Money can buy us a variety of food, but not the peaceful ambient to enjoy our meal. Money can buy us a house, but not a home of loving people. Money can buy us books, but not the gift of wisdom.
2. Use things and love people: We live in a use-and-throw society. We open up cans and we throw them. We use ball-point pens and we throw them; gone are the days of fountain pens that we used for years. We pull out facial tissues and we use and throw. And… we use people and we throw them. We go steady with a girl-friend or a boy-friend for a few months, we use them and we dump them! Instead of using things we love them: ‘I love my car; I love my dog; I love my clothes!’ On the other hand, we tend to use people: someone is important to me as long as they are useful to me: we abort unwanted pregnancies, we have no time for our elderly parents, and we debate about ‘assisted suicides’! The Word of God invites us to prioritize. Yes, to use things and love people.
3. Be free not to be possessed by your possessions: If our identity as human persons is locked into our possessions, then when we lose our possessions what will become of our identity. On the other hand, our identity comes from the fact that we are created in the image of God – that the Kingdom of God is within us. The unnamed man in the Gospel of today was not able to respond to his heart’s deepest desire, because of his shallow desire for his possessions. And he remains unnamed, without an identity! On the other hand, the disciples who ‘left everything and followed Jesus,’ – we know their names today. Their identity comes from their relationship with Jesus. Indeed they were given a hundredfold!
So then, let us pray in this Eucharist that we accept of the primacy of God and his kingdom in our lives, so that we only use things, but love people. And in this way, we will be free not to be possessed by our possessions.
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.