We Carry Only What We Gave Away

We Carry Only What We Gave Away

Once upon a time there was a court jester who said something so foolish that the king, as a joke, handed him a staff and said, “Here, jester; take this and keep it until you find a bigger fool than yourself.” Many years later the king, now a very ill old man, lay on his deathbed, and he summoned his courtiers to gather around him. Addressing them, the king said, “I am about to leave you. I am going on a long journey, and I shall not return here; therefore, I have called you to say goodbye.” Everyone was saddened and silent, but then the jester stepped forward and said, “Your majesty, may I ask you a question? When you used to journey abroad, visiting your people, staying with your nobles, or paying diplomatic visits to other kings, your heralds and your servants always went before you making preparations for you. May I ask what preparations your majesty has made for this journey you are about to take?” “Alas,” said the king, “I have made no preparations.” “Then,” responded the jester, “take this staff with you, for now I have found a bigger fool than myself” (Wharton, Parables for Preachers and Teachers, p. 67). It is indeed the height of folly to spend all our time and efforts on the things of this world, and to make no preparations for the life to come. Jesus warns us that this is especially true when it comes to the use of this world’s goods. Depending on how we make use of them, our money and material possessions will either be a ladder helping us ascend to heaven, or a ball and chain dragging us down to hell. We must prepare ourselves for eternity by striving to become wealthy in the eyes of God, for this is the only approach to life that truly makes sense.

Here is a religious trivia question for you: On which of these subjects does the Bible have the most to say—faith, prayer, heaven, the Church, or money? Most people would be surprised to learn that the answer is money. The Bible has twice as many verses devoted to this subject as to faith and prayer combined, and Jesus talked more about money than He did about heaven or the Church. In fact, of the total verses from all four Gospels, an amazing 10 percent deal directly with the subject of handling money and possessions. The reason for this is simple: vast numbers of people are not only concerned about their finances, but with accumulating more than they actually need. It’s a natural desire to want to become rich, but this desire can easily become a temptation threatening to undermine our spiritual health and deprive us of lasting happiness.

As the Book of Ecclesiastes (1:2; 2:21-23) suggests, a man who has nothing but money to show for a long life of hard labor is a fool, for he can’t take his wealth with him when he dies; someone else will inherit it, and it will do him no good. If we fail to live for God, and instead live only for ourselves, we’ll lose everything. That’s why St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (3:1-5; 9-11) refers to greed as a form of idolatry, or self-worship; as Christians, however, we’re supposed to “think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” Jesus emphasizes this point in a vivid way with His parable (Lk 12:13-21) of the foolish rich man, who was completely unprepared for death and judgment. Our Lord’s point is simple: we have a limited, unknown number of years here on earth, and we must use or invest them wisely, so that we’ll have no regrets when we die.

There was a woman who had the habit, all her life long, of making lists of things she wanted, and each time she made such a list, she added the date when this particular desire occurred. Over the years she learned to do something very intelligent: after she wrote down a certain wish, she would set the list aside for three months, and then look at it again. Then she asked herself: “Do I still want this? Is it of real value? Do I really need it? Can I get along without it?” She soon noted that during her three-month cooling-off period, more than half of her wants turned out to be temporary whims, and not things she really needed (Deffner, Windows into the Lectionary,p. 89). This intelligent approach to the acquisition and use of material things is in direct contrast to the actions of the foolish rich man in the Gospel, who thought only of himself and who piled up more wealth than he could ever use. When God said to him, “You fool,” He was making a moral judgment—for in biblical terms, a fool is not just someone who makes silly mistakes, but a person who’s morally bankrupt. The rich man was condemned by God because he failed to use his material blessings to help others; by placing all his hopes in this life and choosing to accumulate great wealth instead of practicing charity, he lost everything.

Jesus begs us not to make this same, everlasting, irretrievable mistake. There’s nothing wrong with being materially prosperous if—and it’s a big if—in all things, we place God’s will first. In terms of our material blessings, this means three things in particular. First of all, everything we earn or own must be obtained honestly. This obviously rules out such things as stealing, knowingly receiving stolen property, or cheating on our taxes. We all realize this, and I think it’s safe to say we all do rather well in this regard. However, so did the foolish rich man; there’s no hint that he obtained his wealth illegally or dishonestly. Merely existing in an honest, live-and- let-live manner isn’t enough; God requires much more of us—bringing us to the second point. We mustn’t become too attached to our honestly-acquired possessions, nor should we give in completely to our natural desire to obtain more and more. The method used by the intelligent woman is one we can follow; in particular, we should ask ourselves, “Do I really need this? Can I get by without it?” Many of us as Americans own far more things than we actually need— perhaps even more than the rich man in the parable—and could greatly benefit spiritually from a somewhat simpler or less-cluttered lifestyle. The third point is the most important one of all: we must consider ourselves stewards of everything God has given us, which means instead of truly owning our possessions, we see ourselves as temporary custodians of them, and realize that we’re expected to use them in part to assist the spread of the Gospel and to help other people in need. This was the rich fool’s biggest failure, and the reason he was condemned. God requires us to share our money, possessions, time, and abilities with His people and with His Church.

The biblical standard of tithing, or giving away 10 percent of our income, is an especially powerful and wise way of doing this; even if this seems too much at first, however, all of us are given frequent and practical opportunities to share God’s blessings with others.

There’s a French proverb which says, “When you die, you carry [with you to judgment] only what you gave away.” Every act of charity we perform during our lives on earth will testify on our behalf on the day of judgment, and every wasted opportunity and every act of selfishness will fill us with shame. Jesus calls us to store up treasure in heaven, and the time to begin doing so is now—for this is the only way to become truly rich, and at peace in God’s sight.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper