18th Sunday: The Successful Christian
Today’s readings force us to confront the questions: What is a success? What is a successful life, a successful career, a successful relationship?
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, “These are my grandchildren: 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.” The word success for her had to include having a high salary. But is real success predicated on salary? Certainly, 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, thirty, forty, fifty or sixty 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 has storage room? Build a bigger barn, of course. The only thing is, the basis of his success is his grain. When he suddenly dies, his success remains here, and he goes on to God empty handed.
The whole mind set that success is predicated on what we own 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.” Qoheleth’s point is that the only real values are the spiritual values. The early Christians loved this book of the Hebrew Scriptures because it helped them remain focused on the reason for their existence. That was why it was called the Church’s book, Ecclesiastes.
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 full human being in the image of Christ. Francis
lived at the time of the emergence of the middle/merchant class. Before this a person was either a peasant or a noble. The merchant class was so taken up with making money and having the finest things of life that, as Qoheleth predicted, there days were full of labors and their nights were restless. Francis’ 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, 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 or woman is a better person, a more loving person, because of the marriage. 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 Ross, Walmart or Target. Perhaps some of you are shopping at most exclusive stores in Tampa Bay. 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.
What I’m saying is that the general concept of success 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 has developed as a person.
Let me take this one step, one infinite step, farther. 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.
All this is a completely different way of considering success. For the Christian, success is not a present reality, it is a goal, the goal of Christian life. This goal will be reached when every aspect of our lives reflect the Person of Jesus Christ.
That is success.
All else is vanity.