The Rich Fool and The Wise Poor Man

(Eighteenth Sunday, Year C)

Let's face it. We are fascinated by wealthy people. Television and magazines strive to satisfy our curiosity. This weeks stars were the winners of the Powerball Lottery. Someone who always gets our attention is Seattle's own Bill Gates. It was recently reported that his fortune is equivalent to the combined wealth of the poorest 40% of the U.S. population. That would mean his "worth" is equal to that of over 100 million people. You might quibble about the math but it does give some idea of huge riches. Still, these figures, like Carl Sagan's "billions and billions…" are so hard to grasp that we tend to perceive them not as a multiplication of something we already know, but as qualitatively different. I can easily conceive the meaning of $100 (e.g. 15 breakfasts at Denny's). But I have a harder time expressing the meaning of one million dollars. When it comes to one billion, I am lost. The person who controls such fabled wealth seems like an Olympian god.

This Sunday's readings warn us against such a fatal error. They tell us to resist the temptation to turn money (and those who possess it) into an idol. "Vanity of Vanity," says the Old Testament Preacher, "all is vanity." The first vanity he mentions is money. He is not saying this in some kind of Bhuddist sense which would consider money as part of an overall illusion. The vanity in question is our claim to it, our thinking that it is "mine." The preacher points out that the wealthy man is laboring under a lie. The falsehood is definitively exposed by an inevitable event--death. The emperor has no clothes.

Jesus points out that childlike truth in an even more poignant context. He is approached by a man who feels his brother has cheated him out of an inheritance. He wants justice in a strict legal sense. Jesus avoids the trap. Instead of even "hearing him out" (a practice which often only increases resentment) Jesus tells a simple story. A man prospers and takes the necessary steps to secure his wealth. People admire his prudence and envy his power. Jesus sees thru the illusion. He tells the truth. What seemed to be unassailable defenses are easily breached. A vessel breaks, a clot travels. The man falls dead. "Fool. This nite your soul shall be required of you." (Lk 12:20) With all his wealth he could not purchase the next day's sunrise.

The point is not to avoid making money and investing it. Jesus has other parables which in fact encourage diligence and a certain prudence. But we must avoid the trap of "possessions," the illusion that what I have and use is somehow "mine."

The Catholic Church has grappled with the paradox for almost two thousand years. The result is a rich social teaching. The fruit of that tradition is distilled in the Catechism under the heading of the Seventh Commandment-"You shall not steal." Yes, we are commanded to respect private property and not take things that do not pertain to us. At the same time we teach that all property has a "social destiny." Instead of saying "I have" (a car, bank account, stocks, pension plan, etc.) we should say (or at least reflect) that "I am a steward." That is, I have been entrusted with the use and distribution of certain goods for a limited time. And that time will soon be up.

I could give you examples of "rich fools." Howard Hughes, the billionaire who died such a lonely, miserable death, comes to mind. But this Sunday I wish to avoid such men. Part of the reason is that none knows the state of another's soul at the moment of death. We cannot say Howard Hughes was therefore lost. Nor of course can we say that someone was saved. Less than a year ago the public wanted to canonize Princess Diana. Some restraint is advisable.

But the other reason for not speaking about "rich fools" is more personal. I prefer to focus on a wise poor man. I say this not to "canonize" him. In his last will and testament, Fr. Michael Holland insisted that people not speak about his "few good deeds" which he considered would be "boring to all." Fr. Mike knew he would not be saved by works, but by God's free grace. But I did know him as a man who lived with an intense awareness of mercy. He saw it expressed in the "preferential option for the poor," those most dependent.

Fr. Mike requested that he be buried in a welfare casket. That gesture was consistent with his whole life. The year that I lived with him at St. Mary's I saw a man of remarkable simplicity. He drove a used car and his clothes were well worn. He enjoyed a hearty meal, but at diners where you could see plenty of burly guys like him. His vacations in Mexico included visits to the humble homes of his parishioners' relatives. What money he had he used to help the needy or further the ministry. On dying he willed the remainder of his estate to the Hispanic ministry of St. Charles Parish.

At the funeral, Fr. Vince Pastro told of how the poor touched Fr. Mike. During his year in Latin America he was celebrating Mass in humble neighborhood. Before Mass he placed some hosts on an offertory table, then went to the sacristy to get a cruet of wine. When he returned a young child was stuffing the hosts in his mouth. At first Fr. Mike was upset. But when he took the boy aside, he said, "tengo hambre. I am hungry." Rather than castigate him, Fr. Mike made sure he got something to eat.

Fr. Mike is a wise, poor man. He lived with a sense of the Source of who he was and what he had. On Wednesday we gathered for his funeral Mass and burial. As his casket was lowered into the earth, Fr. Paul Magnano said the prayer reminding us that that we have been taken from dust and must return to it. Each of the hundreds who gathered around his grave was invited to take a handful of earth and sprinkle it on his coffin. His brother priests did it first, then his dad and brother. Small children, a young woman on crutches, a man with a fine suit all tossed in some soil. Then three strong Hispanic youths took the shovels and filled in the rest. Rectangles of sod were brought for the final covering. The choirs sang hymns reminding us to trust in Jesus and that Mary is our mother.

To some people this seems like an unnecessary ritual. They point to the expense and concern for environment. But the weight of long tradition, the testimony of cultures is on our side. Deep in us is the desire to honor the dead. But even deeper is the need to acknowledge the basic fact of our existence.


Homily about Fr. Holland's death.

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

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

My bulletin column

St. Mary of the Valley Album

(July 2010)

My bulletin column

St. Mary of the Valley Album

(July 2010)

Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

Are these homilies a help to you? Please consider making a donation to St. Mary of the Valley Parish

World Youth Day 2013

(click on the picture to view 40 slides from our WYD experience)

MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru

(new, professional website)

KRA's & SMART Goals (updated June 2013)

A Homilist's Prayer