Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
18th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Success
The readings today begin with Ecclesiastes’ diatribe against those whose lives revolve around meaningless goals. “Vanity of Vanities,” the Preacher, Qoheleth, says, “All things are vanity.” People work hard for things that pass away. It is all in vain. In the Gospel, from Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer whose goal is to be rich, and when he has far more than he needs, merely stores what he has, and dies that very night. “Seek that which is above,” Paul tells the Colossians and us, and then he lists some of the things that hold us back in our seeking God: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed and lying.
The readings ask us to consider our priorities in life. What is it for which we work so hard? Certainly, we need to work hard to provide for our families. That is important. But what is the priority there? Why do we work hard for our families? What is it that we are so determined to provide? We want a decent home. We want food and care for all in that home. We want to provide for the children’s future and our futures. Why? Why do we want all these things? I am sure you will agree that the basic goal we have is to allow the children to be raised in a house full of love, true love, the sacrificial love of the Lord. That has to be our basic goal for ourselves too: we have to grow in the love of the Lord, expressed in the way accorded to our vocation in life: single, married, religious, or ordained.
The problem is that we often forget our priorities in life and put all our energy on attaining those things that really are not lasting goals. So we work so hard for something that we always wanted. Once we have it, we enjoy it, for a while, and
then we work hard for the next thing. We often work in vain.
What is a successful life? Is a person’s life successful if he or she is making a good salary? There’s a story about a grandmother who pulled out pictures of her three grandchildren, all under two, and showed them to a friend saying, “That one’s the rich doctor, that one’s the rich lawyer and that one’s the chairman of the board of a large corporation.” Is success predicated on salary?
That is the way that most people calculate success. But are they correct?
How about marriage? What makes a marriage successful? Is a marriage successful because a woman and a man have been together for twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years and have avoided both divorce and homicide? Marriage anniversaries are important, but do they point to the success of a marriage or only to its longevity?
The readings for this Sunday force us to take a closer look at the whole concept of success. In the Gospel reading, the man is convinced that he is a success because he is a rich farmer. What should he do now that he has succeeded in harvesting more grain than he can store? Build another silo, of course. The basis of his success is his grain. When he suddenly dies, his success remains here, and he goes on to God empty handed. There is a reason why you never find a luggage rack on the roof of a hearse.
The whole mind set that success is predicated on salary is based on a fallacy that was very clear to the author of the first reading. He is sometimes called Qoheleth, or the Preacher. This book from the Hebrew Scriptures is the very insightful and difficult book called Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities,” says Qoheleth, “All is vanity.”
There is a fantastic book of meditations on St. Francis of Assisi written by James Cowan, a lay novelist, who spent some time in Assisi trying to understand Francis. You are all well aware that Francis gave up all his worldly possessions as a radical prophetic action. Cowan writes that Francis recognized that wealth, family, social position and profession confined him in a web of relationships that made it impossible to define himself as a fully human being in the image of Christ. His prophetic action of stripping off his rich clothes in the square in Assisi was a sign that the inner person had to be exposed rather than cloaked in silk and velvet. Francis’ action was prophetic, a radical action to help us recognize the entanglements of what the world calls success.
A doctor is successful not if he or she has a prosperous practice but if he or she becomes the healing hands of Christ for the sick. A lawyer is successful not if he or she is part of a profitable firm, but if he or she uses learning, knowledge and talent to protect people and the community, to do good for people and the community, or, simply, to be just.
Many times an incorrect view of success is based on honors and titles. Is a priest a success if he becomes a Monsignor or a Bishop? Monsignor Guido Sarducci from the old Saturday Night Live boasted that it was really important for him to become a Monsignor because he could get a better cut of veal in Rome. No, success is not measured by titles. A priest is on the road to success if he can draw closer to God each day of his life while he also draws those he serves to join him on the journey to God.
How can we determine if a marriage is successful? Certainly, longevity does not determine the success of a marriage. A marriage is successful if the man and woman are better people, more loving people, because of the marriage. The sacrament of marriage is celebrated when the husband and wife become the means of salvation for each other.
How about parenting? What are the signs that people are good parents? Success in parenting is certainly not based on what your kids have, but who your kids are. For example, many of you parents have begun shopping for school clothes. Perhaps, some of you are shopping at Walmart or Target. Perhaps some of you are shopping at Macys or Nordstroms. The cost of the clothes that you put on your children has nothing to do with the success of your parenting. The success of your parenting is evidenced in the decisions your children make throughout their lives. Many of our young people are going off to college determined to use their abilities to better the world. Their parents raised them well.
The concept of success accepted by most in society is a fallacy. Success is not predicated on what we have, what honors we receive, what jobs we hold, etc. Success is predicated on how each of us is becoming more and more the reflection of God we were created to be.
Success is predicated on our ability to assume the person of Jesus Christ. St. Paul says in the second reading that our lives are hidden with Christ in God in such a way that when Christ appears we appear. The personality of a Christian is so entwined with the person of Jesus Christ that Christ and the Christian, Christ in the Christian, must be one. That is success.
Success is not a present reality, it is a goal, the goal of Christian life. The goal is reached, the life is successful, when every aspect of life reflects the person of Jesus Christ. That is success.
All else is vanity.