It would be hard to find a piece of advice more pertinent for today than that contained in the Gospel. Watch and be on your guard against avarice of any kind, because our lives are not made secure by what we have. We see this all the time. During the week I was asked to do the funeral of a man who had recently retired. On Saturday night he went to bed singing and 10 seconds later he was dead. Another word for avarice is greed and when issues of inheritance arise it is common for greed to raise its ugly head, just as in the Gospel where this man asks Jesus to tell his brother to give him his share of their inheritance. The older generation had a piece of homespun wisdom in relation to greed. They used to say ‘It’s the greedy pig that is always the first for the slaughterhouse!’
Greed is insatiable and based on the belief that we always need something more than what we have in order to make us happy. We live in a very greedy culture where every day we are bombarded with messages that happiness is only to be found by having the latest gismo. The latest model of the iphone the labtop the car, the designer clothes are all presented as the key to bliss with the more than subtle suggestion that unless we have them we can never be content; these are then perceived as the essential ingredients for happiness.
In our society the word ‘enough’ has almost gone out of fashion, we always seem to be wanting more. A rather wise fisherman in Kilmore Quay used to say, ‘For those who have enough there will always be enough while for those who never have enough there can never be enough.’ With that philosophy of life you could say that he had found the secret of contentment.
A story is told of a wealthy business man who while on holidays in a seaside resort came upon a fisherman who one morning was lying back in the sun contentedly smoking his pipe. He asked him should he not be out fishing on such a fine day. ‘What’s the point’, replied the fisherman, ‘I have already been out and caught what I need.’ ‘What if you worked harder and caught a lot more could you not buy a bigger boat.’ And what then the fisherman asked. ‘Then you could buy another boat and eventually you could have a fleet of boats.’ ‘And then what’ the fisherman asked? ‘Then you could build your own factory and process your own fish.’ ‘And then what?’ ‘Then you could become a very wealthy man.’ ‘And then what?’ ‘Then you could sit back and relax.’ ‘Aye,’ replied the fisherman, ‘and what do you think that I’m doing right now?’
There’s a lot to be said for that kind of contentment but there’s also a healthy level of ambition that is necessary if one is to do well for oneself. There’s great pride in being a self-made person and being of comfortable means. Such was the case of the man in the gospel. Like most farmers this year he had a bumper harvest and decided to build bigger sheds and then with a smile of satisfaction said to his soul ‘Now you’re future is secure, so eat drink and have a good time.’ It was at that moment when he thought he was most secure and had everything he was shown that he had nothing and he was called to give an account of his stewardship.
The issue in that passage is not that this man had done well for himself and had lots of wealth but rather that his money had become his source of security and its obvious that he intended to use it entirely for his own pleasure. As a self-made man you could only admire his success but as a man who lived only for himself he was a miserable failure with a bankrupt soul.
A very wise person said one time: ‘If I am not there for myself who am I? But, if I am only there for myself what am I? It was in relation to the last that he failed to pass the test and showed himself to be greedy and selfish.
Nearly 20 years ago I knew a man who had just retired. He was aged about 60 and had became a very wealthy property developer who each year was building around 200 houses. He literally had money to burn and there was nothing he couldn’t buy except happiness and contentment. He was not a happy camper and was running on empty. His weekly income was more than most would earn in a year but it wasn’t the answer.
I suggested to him that perhaps the time had come to begin giving back; life had been very good to him and he now had the opportunity to use his retirement in a productive way for the good of others. As someone who had vast resources of wealth at his disposal he was responsible for his stewardship of what he would do with it. Would he use it just for himself and end up leaving it all to his children, who would likely end up fighting over it, or could he now channel it into something that would be greater than himself. I asked him that if he were on your deathbed with minutes left to live and his life was passing before him how would he have liked to have lived it, just for himself and family or for the good of others.
Beneath his ambition and drive there had always been a selfish streak. He didn’t choose to hear and continued to spend spend on luxuries he didn’t need. He drank and smoked heavily mostly out of boredom but he never gave. His life remained all about him and his retirement became a testament to wasted opportunity. While he could have been setting up a project like the Liam Mellon Foundation he was sitting at home bored and miserable looking at glossy magazines to see what other toys he could buy that were going to make him happy. His last acquisition was a yacht that cost the bones of a million. He never sailed on it because just weeks later he was dead.
For this poor bloke, like so many others, he died surrounded by lots of expensive toys. The tragedy was that what he had remained far more important than who he was and so on the surface at least it would appear that in every sense of the word he died a very rich pauper.