What Matters to God

(Eighteenth Sunday, Year C)

Fr. Frank Pavone tells about a man, upset with the pro-life movement, who said to him, “Father, I have a right to die.”

Without missing a beat, Fr. Frank replied, “Don’t worry. You won’t miss out on the experience.”

Jesus said something similar in today’s Gospel. "You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you..." (Lk 12:20) Death is not an event we can measure. It measures us.

The past two Sundays I have referred to the beginning of our human existence. Today’s readings focus our attention on the end.

Many desire control over their own death. A few years ago, our southern neighbors passed a law allowing physician-assisted suicide. What started out as the right to die quickly morphed into the obligation to die. According to the Oregon Health Division, 63 percent of those who sought and received physician-assisted suicide gave as their reason that they feared being a burden to their family.

That fear springs from how we define human value. In our culture we see our worth in two ways. First by our ability to enjoy life – and a terminal disease effectively destroys that capacity. Secondly by productivity. A dying man does not do things for other people. Instead he often consumes an enormous amount of resources.*

But is our worth solely in terms of ability to produce and enjoy? Gilbert Meilaender challeged that utilitarian philosophy with a delightful essay: I Want to Be a Burden to My Children! People chuckle when I mention the article, but it contains a deep truth. I have friends who say that caring for a terminally ill loved one was the most profound experience of their lives. It prompted them to ask, Why are we here? What is the source of my value?

The author of Ecclesiastes addressed those questions without flinching. He was a man who had everything: wealth, intelligence, admiration of his colleagues – not to mention attractive women. Yet, speaking in the third person, he declares:

All his days sorrow and grief are their occupation;
even at night his mind is not at rest. (Ec 2:23)

These words do not come from a man down on his luck. Like the Buddha, the author of Ecclesiastes belonged to the upper class. Qoheleth possessed a fine intellect, which he devoted to studies. His fellow men esteemed him. But also like Gautama, he recognized this world cannot satisfy human longing. The more we strive, the more we suffer. No matter how carefree one might be at any moment, we cannot avoid aging, sickness and death.

When feeling dejected, I gain a strange comfort from reading Qoheleth. Perhaps the experience is something like that of a Buddhist meditating on the Four Noble Truths. That kind of resignation holds a deep attraction. Jesus himself calls for it in today’s Gospel. Still, he invites us to one further step: Instead of storing treasures for oneself to grow “rich in what matters to God.” (Lk 12:21)

Last week I visited the grave of my dear friend Fr. Mike Holland. It was the third anniversary of his death. I wanted to say to him, “Mike, you saw my weaknesses more than most people. Help me with this problem.” Then I saw little clusters of flowers people had placed around his marker, including a red rose resting on the tombstone. Here was a man who favored second hand clothes and a used car for himself, so he could devote his resources to the poor. May we also become rich in what matters to God.


*It is important to remember what Archbishop Murphy said when dying of leukemia: While euthanasia never represents true compassion, still we are not required to accepted any and all medical treatments. The dying person must be recognized as a subject, not an object

Spanish Version

From Archives (18th Sunday, Year C):

2013: Rich in What Matters to God
2010: This Very Night
2007: Vanity of Vanities
2004: Midsummer Day's Wake-Up
2001: What Matters to God
1998: The Rich Fool and The Wise Poor Man

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St. Mary of the Valley Album

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