28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

           The great Ella Fitzgerald, Lady Ella, was once quoted as saying, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, but I prefer rich!”  Of course she was being a bit catty, and certainly commenting on her impoverished upbringing in Harlem, but let’s take a look at how so many things get pitched to us on TV.  Luxury this, luxury that, fine Corinthian leather, wealth management, Rolex, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.  Nobody ever sells anything by calling it common or plain.  Once in a while you’ll hear someone mentioning an ‘entry-level’ house or car or even digital camera, but the implication is that you’re only going to put up with the thing until you upgrade as quickly as possible.  Even Caesar cat food is sold as gourmet, a step above for the truly discerning cat.

            But Jesus says something a bit different today about the value of material wealth, doesn’t he? Unlike some of those TV preachers who exploit mankind’s incessant desire to grow ever wealthier, going so far as to tell you that God himself wants you to be rich, Jesus doesn’t say that at all today.  In fact, he seems to be saying the exact opposite.  A man comes up to him with what seems to be a spiritual crisis going on inside him.  He decides to go to Jesus for an answer.  “What must I do to obtain eternal life?,” he asks.  Jesus, understanding how conflicted the man is, a man who apparently honestly wanted to go to heaven, answers him at first with what I’m sure the man expected to hear: he reiterates the Commandments.  Thou shalt not do this, thou shalt not do that, etc.

             Jesus knew that this learned man was probably originally taught the law by the Pharisees way back when he was a boy, so he most definitely would know the commandments and the law and was clearly trying to observe them, but still, like so many of us who make an honest and deep spiritual inner inventory of our hearts, he instinctively knew that something was missing, that the Pharisees didn’t go ‘all the way’ in their teaching of what God expected of us.  So he replies to Jesus, “I’ve kept all these commandments and laws.”  Jesus knew that the man knew that something was still missing just obeying the minimums required of him, the mere keeping of the commandments and calling that enough.  The man knew that just doing the commandments was not enough.  He knew that there had to be more; that he had to go deeper.  He had figured out that just obeying God's law is not the same as loving God. 

            So Jesus says that if he wants to gain the highest place in eternal life, the place intended for those who fully love God, besides obeying the commandments themselves, he must also turn his back on anything that impedes his love of God and neighbor, and in his case, and as we know very often our own case, that was his love of his stuff, his materialistic tendencies.  He was a wealthy man with a lot of possessions, and apparently was initially horrified at the thought of giving up the place of priority that his stuff meant to him.  We do that today.  Who needs heaven when you can have a Jaguar or a Rolex now?

            The T-shirt and the bumper sticker says, “the one who dies with the most toys wins!”  Jesus says, “the one who dies with the least attachment to the things of this earth is the real winner.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”  The Gospel says that the man’s face fell, for he had many possessions.  Did he go away from Jesus that day, more attached to material objects than to the eternal life of his soul, fooling himself that these things would actually make him happy?  Maybe, but if he did, I am hoping that this intimate encounter with Christ brought him back to his senses.  I guess we’ll never know but I certainly hope so.  Be sad to end up in hell by choosing material things over God, don’t you think?

            If Jesus was transported to earth again today, I’m sure that he would teach that the marketing gurus of Madison Avenue, with their ability to fulminate a desire for many things we don’t truly need, has gone a long way into making the very kind of person we see talking to Jesus today in the Gospel.  The minute we buy one toy, we are told to want another.  That old iPhone 6 which works perfectly and does what it is supposed to is now an obsolete old antique.  Who’d want that old thing?  That two-year old car of yours needs upgrading too, gee, the new model now has keyless ignition and LED headlights!  How did I ever get by without them?  And each time they convince you to buy, the marketers are smiling.  Sadly, I think, Jesus is not over the brainwashing we’ve been given.

            So let’s remember that as followers of Christ, we need to put things in proper perspective.  No car, no phone, no house, no portfolio, no nothing material is going to make you happy or get you into heaven.  God intends us to use the things of this earth and to enjoy them, but to always keep them in their proper place.  The Old Testament story of Job shows him losing all so that he could gain all.  Instead of cursing God because he lost all his belongings, he instead realizes the lesson God is trying to teach him and says, ‘Naked I came into this world and naked I return.  Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

            The TV preacher guy tells you that God wants you to be wealthy.  But he usually means stuff-wealthy or money-wealthy.  That’s nothing but the old 18th century Protestant work ethic repackaged for a 21st century audience.  To my mind it doesn’t square with the far more authentic message concerning the real nature of wealth we see today in Jesus’ encounter with the rich man.  Our Gospel lesson today tells the correct relationship we must have with wealth: that is, use it, don’t abuse it, because you’re eventually going to lose it.  And hopefully, by understanding this well, you really will end up really gaining it all.

            I agree wholeheartedly with Lady Ella, but within the context of the Gospel: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, but I most certain prefer rich.”  In this context, I pray that you gain true riches.  May the portfolio of good deeds you have done in the name of Christ be recognized as your real wealth when you present yourself to God on that day when all accounts will be squared; may the good you have done gain you an everlasting mansion in eternal life.  Amen.

May God bless you

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