All of our readings for this Sunday concern the goals we have in life. The author of Ecclesiastes was a teacher who possessed much wisdom. So it seems a little surprising that he had hoped to discover in his busyness and wealth something that would satisfy his longing for purpose and meaning, and it is most astonishing that he thought his achievements in life might delay his death. So often that is the human story: we tire ourselves out by being endlessly busy in a hopeless effort to find lasting satisfaction, security and happiness. But our usual means of trying to achieve those worthy goals are described as vanity, which in Hebrew means they are short-lived or transitory. And, as Jesus points out in his parable in our gospel reading, death has the final say for all of us. All of our attempts to ward off despair, fear and death by accumulating possessions or power are doomed to fail from the start.
Today’s lessons are a reminder of that for which our hearts long can never be satisfied with ceaseless busyness, self-indulgence and/or over consumption. President Jimmy Carter offered these words on the subject in his July 1979 speech entitled Crisis of Confidence: “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
That all sounds kind of depressing. Should we just give up, give in, just go along and accept things? Our second reading from Colossians offers a better alternative. If we find ourselves caught up in an endless and unsatisfying treadmill of being busy just to accumulate possessions or power or status, we should turn to Christ as the center of our lives. We can accept that our glory is not in our possessions, our work or status. We must also accept that death is inevitable. However, with Christ as our guide, we can accomplish much in life which will serve as a legacy for those who follow us, and our attitude towards death can be one of eternal hope.
In our gospel, Jesus refuses to engage in a conversation with the man who wanted him to tell his brother to share the family inheritance. Instead he uses that question to advise the crowd listening to him to “be on guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he goes on to tell the parable about the rich man. The point that Jesus was trying to get across was not that we shouldn’t contribute to our retirement fund for the future. If we don’t save for the future we will become one of the poor who need help. Jesus was offering guidance us as to what would be the best use for the wealth we accumulate.
The rich man is curved in on himself. He even conducts conversations with himself. There is no sense of community in his thought process, no thought of generosity or even any consideration of others who might be in need and could benefit from all the wealth he has accumulated. He doesn’t even consider God, who blessed him with such abundance in life and who has special intentions for all of us. Instead, on his own, he comes to the conclusion that he should build even larger barns to store his many possessions.
The rich man’s story is not about saving sensibly for retirement, or holding on to those things which have meaning for us. This is about accumulation of wealth just for the sake of having it. People who downsize to a smaller home go through the often difficult process of weeding out which possessions to keep and which to let go of. This guy is upsizing to bigger and better storage units!
Commentator Karoline Lewis tells about her Baby Bjorn (a sling-type of baby carrier) which she has not been able to let go of even though her sons are almost 17 and 15. She has loaned it out to many people but has always asked for it back. Her first son was premature and spent a long time being carried in the Baby Bjorn, which provided him with a safe cocoon. As Lewis puts it, her second son rode in it as an infant but he was the kind of baby who seemed ready to ride a skateboard by the time he was a year old. The Baby Bjorn is a treasured possession because she associates it with her sons. Such treasured possessions can be kept and even handed down to the next generation. That is not the same as having a lot of possessions just for the sake of accumulating them, even though we may think they give us pleasure. We often find that pleasure is short lived or transitory.
An equally important, point that Jesus was making is that we cannot escape death. Accumulating wealth or becoming powerful or famous will not hold off death, as we know from the many celebrities and wealthy people who die seemingly before their time. The lesson Jesus offers is that if we live a life of hope, we will not only be more content while we are alive, we will leave a lasting legacy for those who follow. The latest issue of the Bellmore Herald Life newspaper shares a story about Bernard and Michael Otterman; a father and son who are working together on a project to bring educators from across the Middle East to Hiroshima, Japan, to raise the awareness of the dangers of nuclear war.
Bernard is a Holocaust survivor, one of the few who, at the age of two years, survived the concentration camps with both his parents. A brother was born two years later, and the family came to the United States in 1951. He earned a degree in engineering and became the chairman of Hofstra University’s engineering and computer science department. In 1979 he joined his brother Harry, an accountant, in managing their parents’ real estate holding company. But Bernard was not content to amass wealth. He and his wife created the nonprofit Bernard & Sandra Otterman Foundation to work towards world peace. Their son Michael, who is a former intern and reporter at Bellmore and Merrick Herald, as well as a nonprofit speech writer and publicist, has joined the family business so he can manage the foundation.
The foundation is focusing on educators from the Middle East, which is where Bernard thinks a nuclear attack is most likely to occur because of the instability of the region. The first dozen teachers will be sent to Hiroshima from August 2-9 to learn about the power and the risk to humanity posed by nuclear weapons. They will be meeting atomic bomb survivors and disarmament experts from around the world in the hope that they can incorporate what they learn into the curriculum they teach in their own countries. The foundation hopes to continue the forum for the next 5-10 years, bringing the educators to either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
In spite of the fact that he witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust, Bernard did not become bitter. On the contrary, he has lived a life of hope and now he and his family are using the wealth they have accumulated to leave a legacy of hope for peace in the world. The project is called the Middle East Oleander Initiative, after the bright red flowers that bloomed in a patch of radioactive ash in Hiroshima. Bernard says that after his time on earth is complete, “Hopefully others will pick up the ball and run with it.” That is a worthy and hopeful legacy, much better than possessions left to accumulate in ever larger barns. Amen.