Luke 12:13-21, 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
If you are a pessimist, you will find the First Reading quite affirming. It says, “Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity”.
Vanity here does not mean preoccupation for external glamour. It refers to the fleeting quality of everything under the sun. It is to say there is nothing in this world that endures forever. Like mist or smoke, all things would pass and fade away as quickly as when they came. Even the prettiest of roses withers.
The First Reading goes on to say, “For what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun? All his days, sorrow and grief are his occupation”.
How do we make sense of these statements? Scholars say that the Book of Ecclesiastes “represents an era of crisis in biblical history, a period of self-questioning”. But like most crisis, it brought about a “deepening of the spirit”. It made possible a deeper understanding of the faith.
The First Reading therefore is not extolling negativity or teaching us cynicism. Instead it proposes realism at its finest form. It is not saying we should drop everything that we are doing and stare blankly at the sky while waiting for our miserable end. It reminds us however that if we are honest to ourselves, we have to admit that no matter how skilled or smart we are, we are living on borrowed time. We can go anytime, sometimes without the slightest warning.
Remember what happened about some years back. Eight people died while almost fifty others were injured when a bomb exploded outside a mall in Cagayan de Oro. Minutes before the explosion, that area was replete with songs and laughter, filled with life. In an instant, especially for those who were unfortunate to be present at the scene, the world turned upside down.
The inevitable question therefore is, “If everything that we have built and worked for can vanish anytime, what is the point of it all?” If everything is built on shaky ground, what is this fleeting life all about?
From the two other Readings somehow we are given a response: life is about investing in something that lasts.
A few days ago, on the 31st of July, the Church remembered the great saint, Ignatius of Loyola. It was Ignatius who taught us the Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises, that is, that we are created to serve, honor and reverence God.
If we pursue our lives according to this Principle and Foundation, whenever we serve, honor and give reverence to God, we are investing in something that lasts.
In the Bible, and certainly in the mind of Ignatius, serving, honoring and giving reverence to God are not abstract at all. They find concrete expression in our dealings and relationships with people, in the way we reach out to our brothers and sisters.
If we are loving, kind, generous, and forgiving, we are investing in something that lasts not simply because of the impact we leave on people. Our loving endures because it partakes of the very nature of God.
Sometimes it takes a lifetime to become genuinely loving, kind, generous and forgiving. But we need to begin somewhere, and soon. Elsewhere I have read something that goes like, “Thoughts become words, words become actions, actions become habits, habits become character, and character becomes destiny”.
We end our reflection with a prayer: Lord, grant us the grace to remember that you alone endure, that love alone is incorruptible. Teach us to invest only in things that last.
*”Vanitas” painting by Harmeen Steenwyck