Brief synopsis of the readings: In the book of Wisdom (yes, a book only Catholics accept) we are told about slaves in Egypt who were told in advance that they would defeat their captors. In Luke’s Gospel we find Jesus telling his followers not to be afraid of the future. In a parable he spoke about how a master left his estate in the hands of his servants who didn’t know when he will return. A good servant will run the estate in such a way that it doesn’t matter when the master returns, but a bad servant who abuses the other servants and drinks too much will be cast out.
From our earliest days as children we Christians have been told to look toward Scripture for advice on how to live. When I graduated from high school one of the priests at my church gave me a Bible and inscribed this: “As you go on in life you’ll find no wisdom or happiness lie the wisdom and happiness given in this sacred book.”
In the forty one years since I received this Bible I’ve come to realize that while it’s true, there are some passages that travel the 2000 years from then until now better than others do.
Some are easy: Jesus taught that we should care about others, particularly the poor and marginalized. Back then Jesus spoke about Samaritans, the blind, and the poor. Today we speak about immigrants, people of color, and the poor.
But we find other readings more complicated: how much do we plan for the future? My wife and I expect to retire within the next 5 or 6 years and we’re aware of the need to plan for that. We’re awash in statements from Social Security, pensions, 401(k)’s and other savings. We regularly shovel out our mailbox and our email boxes of invitations to attend seminars by professionals who promise us free meals in return for information on how to maximize our retirement.
On the other hand, Jesus (through Luke) tells us to sell what we have and give everything away. Furthermore, Jesus tells us that those who are unwilling to do that lack faith in God and will be punished.
And Jesus doubles down when Peter asks him if he meant this for just his followers or everyone. So here’s the problem: the concept of planning for the future is relatively recent. For most of our history (and today in much of the world) life came in few stages: We’re born, we grow up, we work, and we die. If old age or disability prevented someone from working, we would be cared for by family.
As we learned last week, in Jesus’ time people gathered wealth not to save for retirement, but to live well at the expense of others.
But things changed dramatically in the last few centuries. Among other things the advent of antibiotics and surgery have pushed death back several decades and those facts make today’s readings much, much more complicated. My wife was born in 1960 and suffered appendicitis in 1976. This was not a problem because she was taken to a local hospital and surgeons removed her appendix; after a few days she was released from the hospital and has lived the last 43 years with no after effects. But if she had been born during the time of Jesus, or even a hundred years earlier, her appendix would have killed her. She never would have had to plan for her retirement.
And that lasts to this day. As I write this 22 people in El Paso, Texas and 9 people in Dayton, Ohio were murdered yesterday. None of them needed to save for retirement because none of them would live long enough to retire. Much like the wealthy man in last week’s Gospel, we need to recognize that none of us know how long we will live.
But that said, we do have a responsibility to save for retirement and we need to understand this reality while still hearing today’s readings. Simply put, we don’t know how long we’ll be able to work or how long we’ll live and it would be irresponsible for us not to plan.
So does our situation mean that we should ignore today’s readings? I don’t think it does. But it does make our lives a little more complicated. I spoke earlier of being awash in information on planning our retirement. They tell us that unless we attend their seminars and tell them how much we have, we’ll die in great poverty. Call me cynical but they populate an entire industry built on a profit model that makes us afraid. It tells us to put ourselves first and not be concerned with others, that our only way for a good final chapter of our lives rests in putting our trust in them alone.
Reading these readings in the 21st Century requires us to avoid the poles of selfishness versus irresponsibility. I don’t think many of us will read this and decide to empty our bank accounts and savings to give everything to the poor. But I do think some of us will read this and feel we can’t be generous because it will cost us when it’s too late to do anything about it.
And I think that fear diminishes us. At the end of the day we need to understand that we are called to both responsibility and generous and we are given the opportunity for both. To quote Gandhi, we are given enough for our need but not enough for our greed. Time and again we are told not to fear, that God will provide for our needs.
And it’s true that eventually we’ll die. In a perfect world we’ll die with the same zero balance we were born with. If we were able to do that we would not have to worry about wills or trusts. Last week I spoke about the fight over a television set after the death of one of my patients, and in a perfect world he would have gotten rid of his television before he died.
We’re not in a perfect world, and most of us will die where either as having lived on the generosity of others or where we will die with wealth that others will inherit.
But as Christians in the 21st Century we are called to recognize that we are called to both responsibility and generosity. We are called to fund our 401(k)’s as well as give to the poor.
Nobody said that following Jesus would be easy or uncomplicated.