Back in my seminary days, I had one of the greatest laughs I ever had while watching an episode of the “The Simpsons.” At the start of the episode, in classic Simpsons non sequitur style, we find Mr. Burns, the elderly, miserly, miserable billionaire in a shopping mall for some reason. Being aloof from the lives of the common people he thinks that the coins in the bottom of a fountain are for the taking. In his greed he reaches into the fountain to attain a penny, but in the frailty of his age he trips and is helplessly submerged into the shallow water. We then begin to hear his inner monologue as he realizes this will be the end of his life. It went something akin to “Well, I guess this is the end. I just wish I had spent more time at the office.”
The line was hilarious to myself and some of my friends watching, because we, like the millions who also laughed at the video knew well that such a line is never, if not, rarely uttered by one as one prepares to die. We also knew from our training, and now through our experience, that as folks near their final breath they will manifest regrets often about spending too much time at the office, and not enough time with their families, friends, or in service to Christ and his Church.
Today our readings deal with the vanity of prioritizing material goods, and wealth above that which is most important: love of God, and love of neighbor. Our first reading is written by an ancient ruler, most likely King Solomon himself, at the end of his life. He has seen his kingdom grow. He has seen himself become enriched, and he has seen his people become enriched as well. By all accounts of secular thinking, he has been a successful king worthy of praise for this. Yet, his final advice is warning that all this success is vanity. The ancient Hebrew word for this would describe the vanity as more of fleeting, and short lived than anything else. He is reminding us all that no matter how wealthy, no matter how powerful, no matter how many toys we possess in this life, it is all fleeting; it will all come to an end. Even if we die rich, those riches do not come with us to the next life, they remain on this earth for others to manage, or to squabble over. Perhaps one builds a magnificent company with all the energy he had in this life, but when he dies the shareholder decide to break the company up into smaller ones, and sell them off for profit: fleeting.
Perhaps one has spent her entire life decorating her dream house to perfection: from the color of the wallpaper, to the tiles on the floor, to the flowers in the front yard. The house is her pride and joy, but upon her death, her children auction it off to pay down their debts: fleeting.
Perhaps a priest pours all of his energy into building a shrine to his favorite saint. He has spent all of his talent, and time raising money to make this happen, but he dies suddenly of heart failure, and the project is then abandoned and the treasure raised is divided and invested into smaller projects: fleeting.
Now imagine that the business man had invested fewer hours in that company, and more in the lives of his wife and children. He decided that his priority was that they knew Christ, and his Church, so he made sure to lead them in prayer, set an example, and be involved in their lives. Maybe that company wasn’t so big at the end of his life, but that man now has treasure that will last.
Imagine if that woman rather poured her efforts into a home life than into a house. She was attentive to her children, and her husband. She set an example of piety, and charity in the home. Maybe the stairs were a bit dusty, or the kitchen had a few spots, but the home was filled with love. She built up treasure that will last in heaven for eternity.
Perhaps that priest, rather than forcing a shrine into existence, instead learned from his favorite saint lessons of bringing others to Christ with love. Perhaps no shrine would have been built, but there would be a thousand souls who came to know Christ, or came to know him better through his leadership, and sacrifice: treasure that will last in heaven.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is not wrong to own a business, it is not wrong to be wealthy, it is not wrong to have a good home that is well kept, and it is not wrong for a shrine to built in honor a saint, but how attached are we to these goods of the earth. Do these goods of the earth point to the higher goods of heaven. Do we see our jobs as means to support the family, the Church, and the poor? Do we see our homes as a place for learning, and love? Do we see our church buildings as places to encounter the living God? If all of our earthly goods are not directed at the higher goods, than we are far too attached to the earthly goods, the fleeting goods.
All things in this life are fleeting. They arise for a short time, and then go away, but the treasure in heaven is everlasting. Do not be like the rich man in the Gospel who took pride in building extra barns for his wealth, but took no time to grow in righteousness. Be like the saints who directed their efforts in this life for the greater glory God, whatever those efforts may have been. Be not like Mr. Burns who wished he spent more time in the office as he stared death in the face. Be like Our Blessed Mother who gave all she had in this life over to God so that others may have eternal life.