One summer the New Yorker magazine used for its front cover a painting of a scene from the beach. There were five people in the painting: four adults and a little girl. Three of the adults were pacing back and forth with anxious expressions while talking on their cell phones, and the other adult was seated on a beach chair, staring intently at his laptop computer. In the meantime, the girl was holding a seashell up to her ear, listening to the sound of the sea inside, with a look of wonder on her face. The artist very appropriately labeled the painting “Higher Calling” (Bausch, Once Upon A Gospel, p. 228). Worldly responsibilities and the demands of business and work certainly have their place, but we can all surely understand why it’s a shame to waste a beautiful day at the beach—an opportunity to relax, have fun, and appreciate the beauty of nature—by refusing to unplug ourselves from technology and temporarily step off the fast-moving conveyer belt of life in today’s constantly busy society. This truth applies not only to our physical and emotional well-being, but to the very meaning of life itself. God’s purpose in putting us here on earth is to give us the chance to choose to be made ready for eternal life with Him. We must be on guard against anything that interferes with or diverts us from this goal, for only if we have the proper priorities can our lives be a success.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote, “Suppose you saw a starving man inhaling great deep breaths, filling his cheeks with wind to [hold off] his hunger; would you not call him mad? And it is just as mad to think that [filling] yourself with earthly goods can satisfy your [eternal] soul.” We were created for a higher purpose or calling, and that’s why St. Paul tells us to “seek what is above,” and to “put to death . . . the parts of [ourselves] that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.” Throughout history many people have had false gods of money and possessions, only to discover the hard way that worshipping worldly things is always a dead end. As the Book of Ecclesiastes says, all the things this world values are vanity, meaning of only passing usefulness and importance. Moreover, those persons who devote themselves to accumulating money and material possessions are not only unprepared for eternity, but also risk replacing the simple joys and beauty of life with fear and anxiety. The rich man in Our Lord’s parable thought he could avoid worry by storing up earthly wealth, ensuring for himself a lavish and care-free lifestyle. He wasn’t necessarily a bad person; he acquired his wealth not by cheating or exploiting others, but through careful management and hard work. The problem was his priorities were mixed-up; rather than using them as an opportunity to serve God and his neighbor, for the rich man wealth and leisure had become ends in themselves. That’s why God called him a fool; there was no sense of a higher calling, and so his earthly life was wasted, and his eternal destiny forever lost. As Jesus warns, “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”
In contrast to the foolish rich man in the Gospel, there was a wise woman—someone with proper priorities—who lived alone in a mountain cabin. While out walking one day, she found a beautiful, precious stone in a stream, so she picked it up and put it in her bag. A while later she came upon a hiker who was tired and hungry, so she opened her bag to share her food. The hiker saw the stone, and began calculating its worth and how he might obtain it for himself. He asked the woman if he could have it, and to his surprise, she willingly gave it to him without hesitation. The man went away very happily, for he knew the stone was worth enough money to take care of his needs for the rest of his life. However, a few days later the man knocked on the door of the wise woman’s cabin, and when she opened it, he said, “I’ve been thinking. I know how valuable this stone is, but I’m giving it back to you in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Please give me whatever it is inside of you that allowed you to give me this stone in the first place” (Rev. John G. Hillier, Anecdotes & Scripture Notes, p. 17). What the woman had, of course, was a proper sense of priorities, and an awareness of the purpose of life—and her demonstration of this truth by her immediate willingness to give the man what he asked for helped him realize his own priorities needed to be adjusted.
What about us? Which do we value more: earthly wealth, or heavenly treasure? Are there any aspects of our lives which would prompt God to say to us, as He did to the rich man in Our Lord’s parable, “You fool”? Do we need to adjust our priorities—and if so, how do we go about this? I would offer the following suggestions when it comes to valuing, possessing, and using material things. First of all, we must remember that everything this world offers us is temporary—including our money, material possessions, pleasures, honors, and status. We will take none of these things with us into eternity—so we should use them now, while they still have value, to help prepare ourselves for eternal life. In the words of Charles Thomas Studd, a rich and famous English athlete who gave away his fortune and became a missionary, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” Secondly, we must remember that everything we have is an opportunity to serve God and others. When the Lord blesses us with material things, they aren’t just for our own personal benefit, but also to give us the chance to help others—by sharing our time, treasure, and talent. According to Sir Winston Churchill, “We make a living by what we get out of life, but we make a life by what we give.” Thirdly, we must never forget that financial peace of mind is not nearly as important or valuable as spiritual peace of mind. The 19th century American millionaire William Henry Vanderbilt stated, “The care of $200 million is enough to kill anyone. There is no pleasure in it,” and John D. Rockefeller Jr. observed, “The poorest person I know is the one who has nothing but money.” Happiness comes not from material prosperity, but from trying to discover and live by God’s plan for our life; doing the Lord’s will—which includes being generous whenever we have the chance to do so—brings a freedom and a peace unmatched by anything this world can offer.
Jesus is today calling us to have proper priorities in life, and to devoting ourselves to hearing and answering our “higher calling”—and He promises that if we make this our goal, we will indeed become rich in God’s sight and thereby be forever blessed.