I don’t know if you’ve ever heard about a TV show on the Fox Business Channel called ‘Strange Inheritance’. The premise of this show is quite simple: the show introduces real people who inherited something, well, strange. For example, a family realized that that carved piece of wood in the basement of the deceased is actually a piece of the White House. A dental technician’s son inherits dentures made for Winston Churchill. A treasure hunter’s children inherit a 17th-century Spanish shipwreck. And, in an episode named ‘Tanks a lot’, a millionaire leaves his kids a fleet of 240 military vehicles.
And often the heirs just don’t know what to do with this stuff. It may have been a treasured possession for someone, but may be an oddity or at worst a burden to those ‘lucky’ heirs. And often, the inherited items have more of a historic or symbolic value rather than any monetary value.
Now, as most of you probably know, an inheritance doesn’t necessarily have to be strange to baffle us. Whoever has tried to take care of their parents’ or some other family member’s estate after they pass away knows that there tends to be all that stuff, all those things that we now have to deal with. And often we don’t know what to do with these things –we know we can’t or shouldn’t keep them, but then it somehow feels wrong to just get rid of things that once were so important to someone else and may even have some sentimental value for us. And all this stuff, that we didn’t even think about or desired, now occupies our minds – and sometimes our hearts as well. We are now responsible for them.
So, just as an aside, I strongly suggest to you to not put your heirs in that kind of position. Tell them to do with those things left behind as they wish, and that you don’t have any hard feelings about them getting rid of things that have sentimental value to you. Give things away while you’re still alive – if you haven’t used them or looked at them in a year or more, or toss them. Be kind to your heirs.
But back to the TV show, ‘Strange Inheritance’. At the end of each show, the host smiles into the camera and says, ‘And remember: you can’t take it with you!’
You can’t take it with you.
Vanity, all is vanity, a chasing after the wind. For all can see that the wise die, that the foolish and the senseless also perish, leaving their wealth to others. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?
Today’s lessons give us some sort of reality check, don’t they? Whatever we accumulate, whatever we achieve, the things we treasure – we can’t take any of that with us once we die.
The irony is that, in this part of the world, most of us spend most of our lives just getting more and more stuff. In the free market world, consumption is the gospel message, because consumption drives the economy, and a thriving economy creates jobs. And those who have jobs then buy more stuff after they’ve covered their basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing. The mantra is ‘more’, and it suggests that more is better. I would argue that one of our greatest societal sins is to buy into that mantra, to chase after material things that supposedly make us more fulfilled – and once we’ve completed that chase, there is something else that we now think we need, because it’s bigger or better than what we already have.
And in the end, we can’t take it with us.
And in the course of producing, consuming and discarding all those things, we rape this planet, God’s creation. There is the mindless consumption of things, the rapacious hunger for more – often at the environmental costs and the cost of many poorer nations in this world. And let’s not be naïve, in the end, it will come back to haunt us as well, and if not us directly, then our children and children’s children.
We, and I am guilty as charged, so easily fall into the temptation of listening to the false gospel messages of this world. There is a reason why greed is one of the seven deadly sins in the Catholic tradition. Now the deadly sins are those sins that separate us from God, and greed is one of those very serious powers that keep us apart from God – and from our neighbor.
Greed, the want for more, makes us blind to the needs of others, the needs of our co-creation – and possibly our true needs as well. How often have psychologists told us that all the stuff we accumulate merely covers up a lot of our deep emotional and spiritual hunger – hunger for acceptance, hunger for love, hunger for true and deep relationships, hunger for meaning and purpose, hunger for the experience of the divine – hunger for God.
And that’s another reality check today’s Scripture lessons provide. What is it that we need? What truly makes our lives rich?
In the lesson from Ecclesiastes, the author talks about pursuing wisdom instead of the vanities of this world – wisdom being much more than knowledge or intellectual capacity, wisdom being the knowledge we gain from life experience – wisdom being the thing that helps us distinguish between good and evil and make life-affirming decisions for all of God’s creation. This is what makes our lives – and the lives of others – truly rich.
Paul in his letter to the Colossians affirms us that, since we are in Christ, we have died to this world and its norms and desires, we are a new creation where there are no more differences between genders, class, or ethnicity, all in Christ and Christ in all; and as this new creation, given a new life in God, we are now free to live into God’s kingdom of justice and peace. Thus we set our minds and hearts on the things that are above – and beyond our existence here on earth. This is what makes our lives – and the lives of others – truly rich.
Jesus tells the story of the rich fool, who accumulates much more than he needs – and congratulates himself for his accomplishments instead of thanking God for the gift of bounty – and dies suddenly before he can enjoy his worldly goods. Jesus points out that one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. That there are other things that make us rich toward God.
And these are the things that we take with us as we move from this world from the next. Our soul and all that makes it what it is: the live-giving breath of God, enriched by all the joys and sorrows we have experienced, enriched by all the relationships we have fostered in our lifetime, enriched by all the life-affirming passions we have followed while treading this earth, enriched by the love we’ve given and the love we have received.
These are the things that you take with you – and, at the same time, leave behind as your legacy. My prayer for us all is that we, as we leave this world, will not be remembered for the all stuff we leave behind – but for the true riches we pass on: love, mercy, justice, wisdom – our soul.
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