Being Rich Towards God

by Fr. Justin Huang
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23

Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11

Luke 12:13-21

We’re now halfway through the Sabbath Summer, the season of resting in God and celebrating Him, and our goal is to have the best summer ever—how’s it going so far? Has the Lord given us what we wanted for this summer? Or, if you’re a guest here, is God answering your prayers?

Fr. Michael White tells a story about his parish’s losing all their original staff. They were so dysfunctional and negative that they all quit or were fired. He tried hiring better people but always failed. So he gave up on hiring, even taking a pledge to work with a small staff though the parish needed more. One day his assistant highly recommended hiring a man named Chris. Fr. Michael refused. His assistant asked, “Will you at least pray about it?” Fr. Michael did, and begged for guidance from the Lord, “Why won’t you give me the people I need to do the job you want me to do?” He kept on praying this during the weekend, and then God responded strongly, “I’ll send you the right people when you are ready to treat them right” (Fr. Michael White & Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt, 239).

Two questions: For what are we asking the Father that He isn’t giving? How is He asking us to change?

I love the introduction of the Gospel: “Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me’” (Lk 12:13). This seems like a fair request, but Jesus doesn’t grant it: “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Lk 12:14). The reason is because the man is greedy. Jesus says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk 12:15).

There are two truths we can discover here:

  1. Jesus sometimes won’t answer our prayers the way we like, not because He doesn’t care, but because He wants to give us what we really need. Fr. James Sullivan, OP, points out that there are times in the Gospels when people tell Jesus what to do, and, when they do, He responds by pointing out their real need. When St. Martha tells Jesus to get her sister to help her with the serving, Jesus tells St. Martha that her problem is not her sister; her real problem is being worried and distracted (Lk 10:40-41). When, after a miraculous catch of fish, St. Peter tells Jesus to leave him because he’s a sinner, Jesus “tells Peter to stop being afraid” (James M. Sullivan O.P, Praying with St. Luke’s Gospel, ed. Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., 198). And, in the Gospel we just heard, what the man asking for the settling of a family dispute really needs is generosity.
  2. Jesus says to be on guard against what kinds of greed? “All kinds.” The parable He relates is about greed for money and material possessions. But He’s also talking about selfishness, because, at the end of the Gospel, He states “those who store up treasures for themselves” (Lk 12:21). Possessing things isn’t a problem. However, the man in the parable kept a huge harvest only for himself, while, for example, Joseph, in the Old Testament, when he had a rich harvest, stored it up for others, to feed them during a famine (Gen 41:49). In addition, Jesus is also discussing the greed for pleasure, because the fool in the parable uses the famous hedonist maxim: “Relax, eat, drink, be merry!” (Lk 12:19. See Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina, Luke, 199). Hedonism is the philosophy where we live for pleasure, having fun, and immediate gratification—these three realities can be good, but not if they’re the goal of our lives and not if they’re obtained sinfully; we’re meant for more: meaning, satisfaction, joy, and happiness.

If God the Father isn’t giving us what we’re asking, then He’s trying to give us what we need. For well over a year, I’ve been desperately trying to hire more spiritual leaders for our parish because we need them to reach our Vision and grow. I share this story because it’s one of the most painful times of prayer I’ve ever personally experienced. I’ve prayed so many novenas and celebrated so many Masses for this intention that I’ve lost track. I’ve asked many others to pray for this and they have. I’ve talked to many people about possibly working here but nothing has ever panned out, and it’s led to deep frustration. So, I asked Jesus, “Lord, what’s going on? This isn’t something frivolous. This is to further Your mission. Why can’t we get the right people?” There was no consolation when I asked this. The answer I perceived was sobering: I’m not a good enough leader to receive other great spiritual leaders—tough to hear but true. Nevertheless, it propels me to keep on doing God’s will, to grow as a leader, and keep on loving—this is what I truly needed! And I am growing.

Jesus uses a beautiful phrase that captures what He’s trying to accomplish in us when He says “no” to us: He wants us to be “rich toward God” (Lk 12:21). St. Cyril of Alexandria says this means being virtuous (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Luke, 208). We use this term a lot. “A virtue is a quality of person who does something good repeatedly, so much so that it becomes a part of that person’s character. So, for example, a person who repeatedly tells the truth… builds up the virtue of honesty, and becomes an honest person. But a person who repeatedly lies actually builds up the opposite characteristic, the vice of lying, and, if done repeatedly… that person will become a liar; lying will be part of who he or she is.” We ask God the Father for many things, typically material things, but He says, “What you need is virtue: more faith, hope, love, discipline, courage, patience, generosity. I want you to be spiritually rich!”

Here are three ways we can become rich towards God!

  1. Reflect. Once upon a time there was an American banker who made lots of money, but whose life was busy, noisy, and stressful. During a vacation to Mexico, he met a simple fisherman who fished only in the morning. Thinking this strange, the banker asked, “Why don’t you stay out there longer and catch more fish?” The fisherman replied that there was enough for his family, and traded the rest for what they needed. “But what do you do with the rest of your time?” “In the morning I like to sleep late. When I wake, I fish a little, mostly just for the pleasure of fishing. In the afternoon I play with my children and take siesta with my wife. In the evenings I have dinner with my family. And then, when my children are sleeping, I stroll into the village, where I sip wine and play guitar with my friends.”

    The American scoffed: “I’m a Harvard MBA and can help you. You should fish longer every day. This way you’ll catch more fish and make more money, and can buy a bigger boat. With the bigger boat you will make even more money, and then buy another boat and hire another man to work the second boat.” “But what then?” the fisherman inquired. “We’re just getting started! With two boats you’ll catch even more fish and make even more money, and before you know it, you’ll have a whole fleet of boats.” “But what then?” “Before long, you can sell your fish direct to the cannery, and make more money. As your fleet expands, you can build your own cannery, move to Mexico City, and manage your enterprise.” “But what then?” “By then your business will be one of the great ventures of the industry. You can move to New York City and manage your empire from the epicenter of the business world.”

    “But what then?” The American didn’t know what to say. But then a thought crossed his mind: “Well then, you could move to a small coastal village. You could sleep late, and fish just for the pleasure of fishing. In the afternoons, you could take siesta with your wife. In the evenings, you could have dinner with your family, and could stroll into the village, sip wine and play guitar with your friends” (Matthew Kelly, Off Balance, 1-4).

    To get out of going around in circles in our lives and to become spiritually rich, we need to reflect. God says today, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Lk 12:20). We’re all going to die very soon (men sooner than women, because we do dumb things). Please, reflect: How are we preparing for death? How virtuous are we? Everyone who has ever lived is or will be in only two places: heaven or hell. It’s either happiness forever, a joy that never ends, or suffering, pain, and evil that never ever end.

  2. Rest on the Sabbath. When God created the world in six days, called the seventh day the Sabbath, and rested on it, it wasn’t for His sake, but to remind us that we need to rest. Why? Because we’re not machines, we’re not God; we’re creatures. The business world realizes how important rest is for success, creativity, and productivity (Michael Hyatt, Free to Focus, 30-38, Kindle Edition). Philosophers realize how important it is for human flourishing (Matthew Kelly, The Rhythm of Life, 210-217). But, even deeper and more important, on the Sabbath, we renew our covenant with God, we contemplate and worship Him (Scott Hahn, Catholic Bible Dictionary, 785). The deeper meaning of the Sabbath is that it’s about our marriage with God (Dies Domini, 11-14), recognizing that we’re not just made to work and have pleasure, but we’re made for Him alone.

    Keeping the Sabbath holy is so important that God made it the third commandment. He commands us to refrain from unnecessary work because constant work tempts us to be distracted from Him. Don’t do your work on Sundays, unless it’s truly necessary. If you always work on the computer, do some gardening. If you do manual labour, read a book. Spend time in prayer, with family and friends. Relax, play, have good fun, remembering that we’re made for God.

    By the way, does God still ask us to go to Mass while on vacation? The answer is yes. Jesus’ death on the Cross for us, the Eucharist, our gratitude to and worship of Him are the centre of our lives, especially on vacations! If vacation pulls us away from the Eucharist, it’s a false god. If Mass is the centre of our vacation, it’ll be truly satisfying.

  3. To be spiritually rich, simplify. Put your hand up if you want a more complex life? No one. Life gets better when it gets simpler. Our Lord today talks about greed, because greed for possessions stops us from reflecting and resting. We buy and have so much stuff we don’t need, stuff that we’re saving, for when we need it 35 years later—this makes us spiritually poor.

    Get rid of stuff. It’s liberating to let go of things and donate them. I know a family who, every time they buy something, give something away. Matthew Kelly advises families to get together, go through the house, and get rid of things. Go through the closets and ask each other, “When’s the last time you used this, wore this? Why are you keeping this? Does this even fit you anymore?” (Building Better Families, Track 11).

    Could you do me a favour, please, and do this for each other, too: After Mass, let’s just ask a question for a devout conversation: “Is there anything you can do this week to reflect, rest, or simplify?”

God finally gave Fr. Michael the team his parish needed only after Fr. Michael decided to grow in virtue: He realized that his most important job was to take care of his team and treat them as best as he possibly could, so that they could serve the people—this is what Jesus did. He spent more time with the apostles than with the people—did you know that (Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism, 23-29)? He did it out of love for the people, because, once He trained 12 apostles, He could give the people 12 shepherds! And then they could each form 12 more shepherds!

At the very moment Fr. Michael decided to treat his team the way they deserved, and support them so that they could take care of the parishioners, saying to Jesus, “What do you want to me to do? Show me,” the man about whom he was thinking of hiring, Chris, walked in, and said, “Here I am.” They hired him and he’s become one of the best spiritual leaders in the parish. That’s a blessing, but the more important blessing is that Fr. Michael grew in virtue, and became spiritually rich.