No Money in Their Belts

(Homily for Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B)

Bottom line: The poverty of a disciple points to true wealth.

The Russian people have a fable about a foolish boar. (By "boar" I am not referring to myself the guy who puts you to sleep, like sometimes happens with these homilies, but to the animal - the wild pig.) Anyway, this particular boar was very greedy for acorns. If he found one, he would keep digging, looking for more. He dug so deep that he began tearing the roots of the oak tree. Finally the tree spoke, "Look up, you foolish animal. I am the source of your food. If you destroy my roots, you will have no more acorns."

Today Jesus reminds us of the source of blessing. He did this when he sent his disciples out, two by two. Each one had a traveling companion, but not much else: no food, no sack, no money in their belts. By their lack of possessions they would witness to authentic wealth, what Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven. Laying hold of that wealth involved three things: repentance, liberation from demons and, for the sick, anointing with holy oil.

And what do the apostles gain by giving up everything? Jesus promises both material and spiritual earnings. In this life the disciple will receive a dividend of 10,000 percent (that is, a hundred fold). Jesus assures the missionaries that they will find homes ready to receive and care for them. During my years in Peru, I saw that generosity in action. I was hardly a great apostle or preacher; nevertheless, and in spite of their own poverty, they wanted to give me the best they had. I often see similar generosity here at Holy Family.

Perhaps someone will protest: I don't want the generosity of other people; I want my own home, my own kitchen, my own bank account. In one sense that is fair enough. Having one's own possessions is part of human freedom. Yet, in a deeper sense, Jesus is trying to tell us that the one thing none of can ever have is "my own things." When I try to hold on to my things, it separates me from God and other people. Once a guy was showing off his new car. He was so proud of it that he wanted everyone to see it. In admiration one of his friends extended a hand to touch the seat cover. The owner stopped him. "Don't get your fingerprints there," he said.

Once I own something, I have to defend it. We spend money on security and consider it money well spent. But there is a danger. Possessions can become more important than people. There is a big difference between ownership and stewardship. Stewardship begins with gratitude and ends with sharing. Ownership asserts that I am somebody because of what I possess. When you think about it, it is so unrealistic. Sooner or later everything we own will slip from our hands. That new car will end up in the junk yard - and, before that happens, the owner might meet his demise.

The death of Ken Lay should serve as a lesson for us. As Christians, we of course pray for his eternal rest. Still, it is hard not to see him as an example of what happens when a person grasps at wealth. In retrospect his actions seem both infuriating and pathetic. According to newspaper accounts, in addition to owning fifteen homes, he once gave his wife a $200,000 yacht as a birthday present. Nice, but he owed over ten million dollars (not counting those he defrauded). Ken Lay enjoyed many luxuries, but like everyone else, he could not take his money with him. At the same time thousands will say, "Ken Lay took my money with him." Like the foolish boar, he ignored the source of true wealth. May he have found that Source before his sudden death. Perhaps his father, a Baptist minister, interceded for him.

The point here is not to judge the state of Ken Lay's soul. The point is that you or I could die in a similar manner. We not only have the negative example of those who defraud others; we have the positive example of a few who give up everything as witnesses to Christ. This week I received a big shock. One of my classmates announced that he is stepping down from parish ministry to become a Trappist monk. He is a successful pastor, a brilliant moral theologian and a person who enjoys outdoor activities, for example, mountain biking in Alaska. Now he wants to trade tasty food, sleep, entertainment and freedom for prayer, penance and manual labor. Most people would not consider that a very good bargain, but he wants to do it. I have admit it made me think. Not about becoming a Trappist monk. I know I could never do that, but about my own approach to possessions, what I falsely consider to be mine. St. Paul tells us that only in Christ do we have true wealth: "In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of our transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace that he has lavished upon us."


Spanish Version

From Archives (15th Ordinary Sunday - Year B):

2015: Building on Strength Week 2: Teaching Authority of Church
2012: The Source
2009: Repent and Pray
2006: No Money in Their Belts
2003: No Money in Their Belts (same title, different homily)
2000: About the "Right to Choose"

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Recommended summer reading: The Party of Death by Ramesh Ponnuru. Don't let the somewhat sensational title and cover put you off. This book will help "conservatives" clarify what is at stake in the various life issues. And, if they will read it, it will help "liberals" understand why so many blue collar "values voters" have pulled away from their cause. Amy Welborn has an excellent review of Party of Death in this month's issue of Crisis magazine (not yet available online).

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