Some people live by a simple nihilistic philosophy: “Life’s a witch, then you die” (but they don’t say witch). Those are the same people who might take strange comfort from this Sunday’s more poetic take on the same sentiment as expressed by David’s son, Qoheleth, king in Jerusalem, in our first mass reading (Ecc 1:2; 2:21-23):
“Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! … All things are wearisome, too wearisome for words. The eye is not satisfied by seeing nor has the ear enough of hearing. What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun!
Therefore, this reasoning might state, why work and slave your whole life away only to be rewarded with bad luck or dumb fate? You might as well save your energy and coast through every day. Don’t risk helping others. All effort is futility. Cling to all the resources you’re able to accumulate.
Jesus features such a philosopher in his parable from this Sunday’s gospel reading (Lk 12:13-21). He holds a figurative mirror up to a follower who asks for a favorable judgment against his brother for a share of their inheritance. This seems like one of those “nice to have” problems of the idle rich, so Jesus tells a story to which this guy might relate. It features a well-to-do man with too much food and not enough space in which to store it. His chosen solution is to build more storage rather than applying all that effort to share his bounty with neighbors in need. Jesus quotes his Father’s judgment against the man in this case:
‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’ Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”
The nihilist and the idle rich in these examples share a common philosophy: “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!”
St. Paul tells us to die today instead. Our second reading (Col 3:1-5, 9-11) quotes this advice from his letter to the Colossians:
Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry. Stop lying to one another, since you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.
The nihilist might ask, why bother, since at the beginning of every Lent Christians are told that they are dust and unto dust they shall return?
The answer is, because we enter the world as enriched dust, loaded with potential energy. Like Jesus’s parable of the distribution of talents (http://www.usccb.org/bible/matthew/25), the one who buries the talents he receives for fear of what his master might do if he loses them is punished for inaction rather than for taking a leap of faith and investing them. He didn’t plant his talents in rich soil hoping for a harvest, he buried them in the dust, banking on safety. Such a person fulfills his own Ash Wednesday prophecy and dooms himself to return to the sure sterility of dust.
We are invited to turn the dusty burial ground we inherited from our fallen ancestors into a family farm rich in spiritual growth potential. It’s a dirty lifelong job, but any harvest we reap from it depends on our chosen philosophy. In his book, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis tells us how the same lot in life can be seen as one man’s heaven and another man’s hell:
The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why…the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven;” and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.”
Which harvest is yours?