Leaving our children a true inheritance

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18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: August 1, 2010
Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23; Ps 90:3-6, 12-13; Col 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21

In the past couple months, there are several families within our parish that have experienced the loss of a loved one. In several cases, these were family men who were not nearly to the age at which one would have been expecting them to die. And, especially when someone with children still at home dies, relatively young, it brings back more sharply what we all have probably observed and experienced, at one time or another in our lives: that death, at one time or another, brings to an end everyone’s earthly life; and that, at that point, whatever we have materially accumulated is left behind, and it becomes an inheritance for our children, grandchildren, and other family, those that we leave it to.

This was something that Qoheleth observed in the Book of Ecclesiastes, which we heard in our first reading, as he noted: “to another who has not labored over it, he must leave property.” And Christ also spoke of this in his parable, where this landowner, who had built new barns to house a great harvest, had come to the moment when it was time for him to die. And, as God says to him in the parable, “The things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?”

Christ was telling this parable because he was prompted, as we heard early in the Gospel reading, by someone calling out from the crowd, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” And so we observe obtruding, right in this Gospel passage, a reality that we know, which is that, often, family members will fight over the inheritance that has been left to them; and one may try to grab something unjustly and not share it with the other as he should.

All of this is something that can be observed at the time of Qoheleth, and at the time of Christ, and now. But how we see it, how it appears to us, changed radically. For, if we turn back to our first reading: the first reading is from the Book of Ecclesiastes, in which the writer, calling himself Qoheleth, is engaged in an examination of life, to see what life is all about and what is the best way to live. And, especially in the first couple chapters of this book, Qoheleth is engaged in this search, trying out different things. And the great fact that dominates his mind is this fact of death. For he sees that, at the point that someone dies, everything that he has worked for comes to an end; and everything that he has achieved ends up being dissipated; so that no one is able to make a permanent change in the world, and everything simply goes back to being however it was before he attempted this change. And Qoheleth’s question is: Is there any way to live that will overcome this? Is there any way, through great toil, through great effort, in one way or another, that we can overcome this vanity, this pointlessness, this uselessness?—that, for him, death causes in everything.

And so in these first couple chapters he describes this search, testing out: what if I try to accumulate pleasure, enjoyment, laughter, wine? What if I try to accumulate houses, vineyards, gardens, and parks? What if I try to accumulate slaves, cattle, sheep, silver and gold, singers, concubines? What if I try to accumulate wisdom; or if I simply live in a way characterized by foolishness? All of these things he describes; and he says that they all come to an end with death. And so his own idea is then: don’t work so hard; enjoy the little things of life; for if you work hard, none of this ultimately gets past this barrier of death.

That is the message of Qoheleth. It is a message that is characterized by him not yet having received the revelation that there was life beyond death. And so, without this knowledge, seeing death only as the final end, the final barrier, this was his conclusion.

Now, when we come to Christ and to his message, we then find enormous good news. For what Qoheleth was looking for and could not find, Christ proclaimed; and, indeed, made the way in himself. Not exactly the way that Qoheleth was looking for, because Qoheleth probably would have liked death to have been swept away entirely. But, instead, Christ made a way through death: as, in his passion and death, he went through death to the resurrection; and he then opened the way for all of us to follow him, through being baptized in him, and through a life like his and a death like his, into a resurrection like his.

This is incredible good news; for, whereas Qoheleth saw everything as coming to an end and therefore nothing worth very much effort at all, through Christ’s way, through Christ’s resurrection, it turns out that some things are not useless. They do not come to an end. They are really worth putting effort into, because they last forever. And here is something that is not vanity, that death does not stop; something that really is worth our labor, our work, our time, our sweat, and our love; for these things really can persist.

The question is: What are these things? For, since Christ did not simply sweep death away, but made a way through it, so many things still do stop at death; and that includes all of those material possessions that we may have accumulated. As the saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.” Well, all those material things you can’t take with you; but, in Christ, there are some things you can. What are those things? And how do we live in a way that does not pour our efforts into what is still vanity, but rather pours them into what can last eternally?

The fundamental answer for where we can put our effort, for what follows Christ into eternity, is persons. C.S. Lewis put it well when he wrote:

…it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

The material things, the jobs, the honors, the institutions—all of these things, even civilizations and governments and laws—all of these things come to an end. But the person-to-person interaction that we engage in all the time, wherever we are: we are engaged in the work of building eternity.

And yet, as Lewis points out, by saying both “immortal horrors” and “everlasting splendours,” there is both reward and punishment coming. Our lives are not vanity, but rather it turns out that they carry a great deal of importance—not only great promise, but also great risk. If we should not live in a way that is characterized by Christ, by heaven, by his life, then we may well be preparing ourselves for everlasting punishment; or, worse, we might be preparing others for it. And so, far from the vanity that Qoheleth saw, these areas become very, very important indeed, with eternal consequences.

All of us are surely concerned with what will be the inheritance that we leave to our children. And we see thus that, far more important than the material inheritance that we may leave, will be the spiritual, the moral, inheritance that we leave. The actions that we live out—actions of worship to God, or of ignoring him; actions of living out love and generosity to others, or of turning selfishly to ourselves; actions of being kind and generous to others, or of pushing them aside—all of these things make us who we are, and also make others who they are.

And there may be other consequences as well. Just a couple weeks ago, one particular website was hosting different writers who were writing on the topic the “Future of Catholicism.” And one young adult Catholic included one paragraph which was quite striking, as he said:

Our children and grandchildren are abandoning the faith because they perceive—rightly—that its demands are at fundamental variance with the lives we have prepared them to lead.

—that is, what the faith asks of us is contrary to the lives we lead and the lives we instruct our children to lead. He continues:

We have raised them to seek lives characterized by material comfort, sexual fulfillment, and freedom from any obligations that they have not personally chosen. Should it surprise us that they fail to take seriously our claims to follow one who embraced poverty, chastity, and obedience to the will of God?

Now, of course, this writer’s words are not true of everyone; and indeed his prediction about the future may not be true overall. Or it may. His words serve as a mirror in which we may examine ourselves and ask: What moral and spiritual heritage are we living, and leaving to our children and grandchildren?

St. Paul, in today’s second reading, addresses this concern, as he addresses early Christians who, like us, had been baptized in Christ, and who yet faced the challenge of living in that reality and not in other ways. And so he says: Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. Seek to live out the life of ours that is hidden with Christ in God—the life that will be revealed in glory. And he goes through and lists instructions that can help us to know how to live in a way that prepares us for that future, and that leaves a true spiritual and moral heritage for our children. There are several things he lists; and let us quickly walk through them:

We heard read, first of all, here in his Letter to the Colossians: Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire. And so, in these four words, he addresses an improper use of our sexuality, as well as of other physical appetites that we have. And he tells us: put away pornography; put away lustful imaginings; put away contraception; put away all sexual activity that is outside the marital bond of husband and wife. Put away these earthly things, and live in a way that is characterized by the life of heaven.

And he continues: put away also the greed that is idolatry. And so he urges us, as we use our material things, to use them wisely. Not in a selfish way, not in a way that seeks to give ourselves pleasure or security, but rather in a way that they are tools that we use as we live out God’s calling to us—especially the calling of spouses and parents to truly encourage their spouses and children, and grandchildren, in the way of Christ, the way to heaven.

And then St. Paul continues, in a verse that is omitted from today’s reading: you must put them all away: anger, fury, malice, slander, and obscene language out of your mouths. And so St. Paul recognizes how many ways we can use angry and cutting words to hurt other people: directly to their face, behind their backs, in an e-mail, in a text message, however we choose to do it. He says: leave that all behind; don’t use your words to hurt others; use them to help them and to build them up.

And St. Paul says: Stop lying to one another, since you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed.

So in these lists he has told us what to take off and leave behind. And then, right after today’s reading ends, he goes on and tells us what to put on, what to take up. He says:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another … as the Lord has forgiven you … And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.

Now, remember, in the view of Qoheleth, who saw nothing beyond death, this might not have sounded like practical advice: for what would the use of it be? But to us who are in Christ, and who see the way into eternity on which he leads us, this becomes supremely practical: a turning away from futility; a preparation for true life; and the preparation of a true heritage, spiritual and moral, to leave to our children and grandchildren.

And, more than that, it becomes something else, that Qoheleth was searching for and never found—as St. Paul continues: Let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. For this way also is the way of peace, which everyone is searching for.

How, then, to live in a way that is not vanity, but really counts for eternity? One Christian poet summed it up succinctly: Only one life, ’twill soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last.

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Published in: on August 1, 2010 at 5:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

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