In the secure and somewhat privileged life I have lived, I have never known what it means to survive on social supports and welfare payments. I know my parents often struggled to make ends meet in the family home, but since leaving home and in a life of a priest, I have been secure in the knowledge that I will always have somewhere to live, food on the table and some spare change in my account for personal use.
This is certainly not the case for many, even in our relatively wealthy and economically secure Australian society. For many, ensuring a modicum of decency in providing for the family comes by way of significant struggle. Many will be looking with increasing concern at the present headwinds of inflation, interest rate rises and cost-of-living pressures, and wonder how they will find a way to make ends meet. Thankfully and rightly, Australian society has long recognised the need to provide a social safety net, via various benefits and reliefs, for when people are unable to provide from their own means.
In the time of Jesus, no such social benefits existed. There were no safety nets, no tax breaks, no welfare payments. If you lost your capacity to work, or your family could not provide, or you were robbed, then you were left to fend for yourself. Most people owned the clothes they wore, and a spare tunic, but there was no wardrobe to go to for a daily selection to suit the weather or the occasion. Achieving a state of economic security is a very modern notion. Most people lived from hand to mouth, having just enough to live on each day.
Therefore, perhaps we should not be too quick to criticise in our minds that man in today’s gospel, who wanted his share of the inheritance he thought was owed to him. Perhaps he was well off, or perhaps he wasn’t. Whatever the situation, we might do better to attend to how Jesus deals with this matter, rather than the moral status of the man.
As we know from the story, Jesus does not take up the man’s demand. He declines to be a judge of the matter, preferring to place the responsibility back onto the family’s internal dealings. Instead, he turns to the people present (a ‘crowd’ we are told), and reminds them of the kind of disposition all of us are called to live by. ‘Watch, and be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for a man’s life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs.’ Jesus wants the people to know that there is so much more to life than achieving economic security. We are not to define ourselves by what we own and possess, but by who we are as people made in God’s image, and his beloved children.
Jesus is focused on the great temptation we are all prone to—avarice. Avarice is an inordinate desire for wealth and material gain. It is a vice that turns us away from God, who has promised to provide us with all we need, and causes us instead to place our hope in self-gain. Jesus saw that this can come in many forms, not solely dollars in the bank. Avarice is a state of mind and attitude, where the things that we possess come to rule our lives, and the more we seek to possess, the more our lives will be possessed. The man who spoke with Jesus may have been either wealthy or poor; it didn’t matter. It was the attitude of his heart that Jesus discerned as troubling. A disposition towards greed and materialism will stifle any sense of generosity and self-giving; it hinders us from being a neighbour to the person next to us, who might be in need. It turns us away from God.
Without a doubt, there are things in life we might all need to flourish. And in this time of economic challenge and social difficulty, there will be a desire for security and wellbeing. Let us not, however, turn towards a self-centred desire that corrupts. Rather, let us orient our hearts, minds and hands towards the generosity of life in God. As St Paul put it, ‘When Christ is revealed—and he is your life—you too will be revealed in all your glory with him.’
Main image: Niko Pirosmani, Rich merchant.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli25 December 2022