Sunday, 1 August 2010

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

To those who are old enough, do you remember the song, “You’re so vain”? To those too young to remember, this song was written and performed by Carly Simon who sang of a man who thought that the song was about him. That is vanity as we commonly understand it—something related to excessive pride in one’s appearance or accomplishments or that one is conceited. But, vanity as conceit is a secondary meaning. Instead, its primary meaning points to futility, nothingness or vacuity.

That is the sense of both Ecclesiastes and the Gospel.

Firstly, Ecclesiastes is not just a blast from the past but something which is relevant for today. To those who have not slaved for their money, it is easy to spend. Have you observed that for the first generation of the rags-to-riches immigrants, the use of money is guarded? They are guided by prudence and when they pass on, you will find that the second generation will more or less follow the path of prudence. Usually, it is the third generation who will squander the wealth of the first generation. However, today in our materially saturated world, the comment often heard is, children do not know the value of money. [1] It seems that imprudence no longer skips a generation. The main point is the author of Ecclesiastes does not offer a solution to how prudence can be passed on. Instead, he merely highlights to us the futility or the emptiness of amassing too much wealth.

Secondly, the Gospel parable may be about the barn and all it can hold. Even though a bursting barn suggests of accumulated stock or plentiful supply, what it really signifies is “nothingness” and the painful truth that we actually own nothing.

In short, both readings redirect our attention to impermanency as a constitutive condition of human existence. Nothing on our side of the divide is forever. Everything on our side of the divide is temporary. Whatever we may possess, we cannot hold onto it forever as we are made for impermanence. Even the mighty Roman Empire literally woke up one day to find her Pax Romana, the Roman peace that encircled and protected the empire, crumbling. The Pharaohs built great tombs for eternity but they never woke up in them.

Nothing lasts forever. It is a depressingly uncomfortable statement. However depressing it may sound, it is important to note that impermanency is not an invitation to nihilism because nihilism is a cynical philosophy that prescribes self-destruction. Instead, impermanence is an invitation to gaze beyond what we have to the treasures that really await us. Here we realise that impermanence is actually a relational term because it calls our attention to that which is permanent. Something is temporary only because there is eternity. All the great monuments in the world are testaments to eternity because they represent our futile attempts at replicating what belongs to eternity in our temporal world. [2]

First, as a relational term, we are reminded that everything which we hold to be important, when placed in the horizon of eternity, is rendered as mere nothing. Things are important only in so far as they help us to see beyond this temporary world. Second, as mentioned above, the impermanency of the world is not a negation of what good can come of the world. Here, we are brought into the second reading where St Paul speaks in terms of idolatry—false gods. When we subvert what is good for the journey into a good for itself, we begin to lose sight of eternity. For example, food is good but never for itself. We eat in order to live, in order to gather strength for the journey. Comfort and convenience are good but never for themselves. We may seek creaturely comfort to relieve the tedium of life and convenience is necessary for life’s organisation but today they have become the gods we worship at the altar of consumerism. Passions and desires are good but not when they degenerate into uncontrolled lust.

In a manner of speaking, we have not really lost our sense of the eternal. It is true that our sense of the eternal is weakened because we are buffeted by the storm of constant change. But, consider the irony that surrounds us. You buy your car and the next model is around the corner. You buy your notebook and the next model’s is twice faster than the one you just bought. You finished renovating your house but before you have repaid the mortgage, another renovation is up again. Those with iPhones 3 are now salivating for the new iPhone 4. If you like, the charge of constant change screams impermanency, but instead of directing our gaze towards the eternal, what is unfortunate, is we are entangled in the web of keeping up with what is impermanent. Why?

The Gospel may provide a clue. It starts with a man in the crowd asking Jesus to adjudicate between him and his brother. In response, Jesus cautions the crowd to watch against avarice or greed. What is avarice or greed? We often think of avarice or greed as the insatiable need to accumulate but in truth, greed or rapacity merely reflects a culture that refuses to accept the impermanency of life.

Nowhere does the Gospel passage say that wealth or even its accumulation is evil. So let us not get lost in unnecessary guilt of having or possessing. What the Gospel highlights is the inevitable connexion that impermanency has with death. We disguise our fear of death by speaking of causes. She died of cancer. He died of AIDS. Or we hide behind statistics. 99% of people who smoke will die from lung cancer. 72% of the elderly will develop Alzheimer’s. The other 28%? Parkinsons? The truth is whatever the causes, the statistics stand that 100% will die. The song "Every breath you take" by Police is most apt not because it sings of the strength of love but because every breath just means one breath closer to death.

In conclusion, impermanency is not meaningless when placed in the context of eternity. It is definitely not an invitation to a depressing despair but rather an encouragement to keep before us the purpose of life. What are we here for? Is life more than a series of eating, drinking, sleeping, enjoying, etc? And when the time is up, whenever it is or wherever it may be, how shall the Lord encounter us? These are questions that come to us from eternity and the answer we give will shape the eternity we want after this temporary life is up.
[1] If Ecclesiastes can offer any help, it is that privation or deprivation is a good teacher.
[2] At best they become icons. Icons function by pointing to realities beyond themselves.