Two years ago I had the pleasure of being assigned to St. Thomas of Villanova parish near Villanova University. It was the same year COVID had entered our lives and the world went into quarantine. I remember living in the Rectory throughout the quarantine period, frequently looking out my bedroom window to gaze at the empty parking lot of the parish, praying and hoping for the day when the parking lot would once again be full of cars as people returned to Mass.
Yet, as I gazed out that window day after day, something else captured my attention.
While the parking lot sat empty for months, I do not remember a single day during that period of quarantine when I did not see at least one or two cars pull into the parking lot to either drop off or to pick up and deliver donations for people in need.
In a time when our entire future was uncertain, a time when the whole world was hunkering down, anxiously storing up things like toilet paper, canned soup and other essentials out of fear of an unknown future, this parish was alive. This parish was alive and hard at work sharing their time, their talent, and their treasure with those who were suffering the most during that period: the poor and marginalized of our society.
When faced with fear and uncertainty (as we all were during COVID), our instincts towards survival and self-preservation tempt us to turn inward, to focus on ourselves and our own security. Left unchecked, this instinct can lead us to become selfish and to stop sharing with others. This is because possessions can create the false illusion that we can control our lives and our future. We are tempted to think “the more I have, the more secure I am.” Then we begin to lose trust in God.
This is the temptation that Jesus addresses in The Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21). A rich land owner had a bout of luck. His land produced a bountiful harvest, a windfall of sorts. With this luck came a problem. He ran out of room to store all that he had been blessed with.
Rather than sharing or giving away his surplus, the man decides to tear down his existing barns in order to build bigger ones to store the blessings for himself. This way, the rich man reasons, his future will be even more secure. If he built bigger barns, he could have goods to last him “many years” of which will be full of opportunities to “rest, eat, drink, and be merry!” (Luke 12:19). He believed the more he had, the more secure he would be. The rich man fell into the trap of thinking he could control his future.
In response, God calls this rich man a “fool.” Not a fool because he was irresponsibly using his wealth. After all, the rich man could have squandered his good fortune on pleasures in the here and now as we see the prodigal son do in an earlier chapter of Luke (Luke 15:11-32). The rich man in this Gospel was rather prudently planning for his future.
Yet, his error was in the fact that he placed all his hope in his possessions. His ultimate sense of security came not from God but from how much he owned. He would be shown to be a fool when his possessions could not save the life he was about to lose.
What good are his possessions now, the Lord asks? The rich man’s entire world was limited to his possessions and he missed the greatest blessing of all: faith in God. Faith and security in the God who is always present and always bigger than even the greatest threat we could ever face.
Jesus is inviting us to examine, where do we place our ultimate sense of hope and security? Is it in God or is it in the things we possess such as retirement accounts, titles, accolades, fame, fortune and all the other things we strive for on earth? Is it in the promise we have of eternal life or is it in the size of our nest egg?
During the darkest days of the quarantine two years ago, we had no idea what was going to happen to us. Some thought the world was going to end. Some thought we would launch into civil war. Others doubted we would ever have a vaccine that later would save so many of us when we eventually caught COVID.
In a time when we were faced with uncertainty, a time when we all felt insecure, the people of this parish dared to resist the temptation towards selfishness by taking from their surplus to help others. Only faith in a God who is bigger than anything we may feel threatened by could lead a people to become as generous as this parish became during that time. Consequently, this parish remained a place of faith and hope, a beacon of light in a dark time when many were losing their faith and hope.
Here we are today, a day none of us were promised two years ago, yet a day God has given us.
But what about today? None of us are guaranteed tomorrow, and our future in some ways seems even more uncertain than it did two years ago. The stock market that once guaranteed a comfortable retirement for many has failed us recently. The war in Ukraine now threatens all of us. The unity of our country seems to be more at risk than ever. We are at the beginning of another outbreak of another illness, Monkey Pox.
Where is our sense of security now? Where is our hope? Have we placed it in God or do we find ourselves tempted to find our security elsewhere?
Today God calls us, as He did two years ago, to place our trust in Him. While we wait to see how God is going to show up and work in the midst of our present day challenges, He invites us to resist the temptation towards selfishness. He invites us to do good.
One of my favorite quotes by Augustine goes as follows:
“You say, the times are troublesome, the times are burdensome, the times are miserable. Live rightly and you will change the times. The times have never hurt anyone. Those who hurt are human beings; those by whom they are hurt are also human beings. So, change human beings and the times will be changed.”Sermon 311, 8
The best way we can change the times is to trust God and to do good while we wait to see how God works; for often God will work through us. The good we are called to do today and always is the chief commandment: to love God and to love neighbor.
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It is no wonder this parable is placed in context of two brothers who come to Jesus to ask Him to resolve a dispute over their inheritance (Luke 12:13-15). How often we fight and try to dominate one another over possessions. Whether it is toddlers fighting for a toy, coworkers fighting over a promotion, neighbors racing to “keep up with the Jones'” through buying more and more things, adults fighting over an inheritance, or politicians fighting over their office or donor, we have all been tempted to think the more we have the better off we are. The more we fall into this temptation, the more we are inclined to become selfish and neglect love of neighbor. Aren’t so many of our modern problems caused by greed and the desire to get ahead of others?
“Essentially, there are two kinds of people, because there are two kinds of love. One is holy the other is selfish. One is subject to God; the other endeavors to equal Him. One is friendly; the other is envious. One wishes for the neighbor what it would wish for itself; the other wishes to subject the neighbor to itself. One guides the neighbor in the interests of the neighbor’s good; the other guides the neighbor for its own interests.”Saint Augustine (The Literal Meaning of Genesis 11, 15)
Jesus doesn’t solve the dispute for these two brothers arguing over their inheritance. Rather Jesus invites them through this parable to examine their true motives. He invites them to see their lack of trust in God and their selfishness so that they can discover trust in God as the true path to freedom.
“Live rightly and you will change the times,” Augustine advises.
As we share the Eucharist this Sunday, we unite with our ultimate sense of security, Jesus Christ. As we do so we are invited to open our hearts to become more like Him. To become not a people who horde and fight over the gifts and talents we have been given, but a people who have a level of trust in God that enables them to share generously with others, trusting God will meet our needs.
As we share the Eucharist this Sunday in a time when there is great anxiety of our future, may we pray for the grace to leave Mass with hearts that trust. To leave with the kind of trust which truly allows us to give generously as so many in this parish did two years ago. For when we live generously rather than in fear, as God calls us to do, we can truly change the times and create hope of a better future.