Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Burden of Wealth

In his book, Parables, Fr. Anthony De Mello tells the following story.

A wise man had been wandering the countryside of India. One night, outside a small village, he lay down under a tree and began to fall asleep. Just then, a villager ran up to him, shouting, “The stone! The stone! Give me the stone!”.  The wise man asked the villager what he was talking about. He replied that he was told in a dream that a wise man outside the town would give him a stone that would make him wealthy beyond his wildest imagination. “Oh”, the wise man answered, “You must mean this stone.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a diamond as big as a man’s head. “I found it on the side of the road a few days ago”, he explained. “You can have it.” The man’s eyes nearly popped out of his head when he saw it. He took it from the wise man and ran home as fast as he could.

However, that night, the man tossed and turned all night, unable to rest. First thing in the morning, he ran back out to the tree where the wise man was sleeping, and shook him awake. “What else can I do for you?”, the wise man asked. The man answered him, “Give me the freedom you have to be able to give away that stone so easily.”

We associate being wealthy with being free. When we are young, we cannot wait to get a job so that we can move out of our parents’ house, get our own place and be able to make our own choices. However, we realize fairly quickly that with work comes responsibility. The things we think will make us free - our own place, a car, credit cards - come with a steep price. To pay for all these things, we have to work more hours and find ourselves with less free time. Later on as we have a family and others begin to depend on us for their livelihood, we have to invest even more time and energy into our jobs. When we do have free time, all we want to do is rest before we have to go back to work again. What we thought would make us freer to enjoy ourselves actually begins to take over our lives.

In fact, wealth and the hoarding of material goods is probably the one thing keeping most people from experiencing the fullness of life that God wants for them. It is not that material possessions are bad. Rather, they are all gifts of God and integral to our well-being and happiness. However, we tend to treat money as the only reason for living. It crowds out every other good thing we could otherwise be enjoying. And it gives us a false sense of security. We think that as long as we have a job and enough money in the bank, everything will turn out fine. Then we get sick or experience some other tragedy, and we find that our money does not solve all our problems. Then we have no idea where to turn for answers.

Today’s gospel is a perfect example of how wealth can keep us from being the people God dreams we can be.

The young man who runs up to Jesus is a very good person. He keeps all the commandments but he is not satisfied. He wants to make a deeper commitment to his faith. He wants to live his religion at a more profound level. Jesus is certainly impressed by this young man’s sincerity and zeal. But there was something holding him back. Jesus could sense it and puts his finger on it. He was a rich man unable to part with his possessions. Because of his wealth, he was not free to follow Jesus.

Many people throughout the past two thousand years have heard these words of Jesus and taken them literally. They have sold all they had, given it to the poor and dedicated their lives to serving God. Like the wise man in Mello’s parable, they are the freest people who ever lived. Now, it could be that there are some people in this church today who are also called to take Jesus’ words literally and experience such total freedom. However, most of us have responsibilities that keep us from being able to leave our jobs, sell our homes and give away our possessions. How can we answer Jesus’ radical call in our everyday lives?

A first step for us would be not to give everything away but to give something away. A good question to ask ourselves would be, what do I have that I do not absolutely need but would still be hard for me to give away? Is there someone who needs it more than I do? Could I sell it and give the proceeds to a worthy charity? If not, what is keeping me from doing so?

I would make a bet that, if we did find it within us to give away that material possession that we think means so much to us, we would not feel regret or sadness. Rather, we would feel elated and maybe even relieved. We would know the joy that comes from being able to help another human being. And we would have a taste of the freedom that Jesus offers.

Something else would happen. We would begin to see that making money and having nice things is not all that life is about. We would begin to take notice of all those who have less than we do, who are looking for work or who are not able to feed their families. Rather than feel superior to them or blame them for their misfortune, we will begin to feel a sense of responsibility and concern for them. We will want to help.

Then we will be richer than we ever could imagine.  

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