Greed, Vanity and Wisdom

A Christian Perspective

Tapestry design, Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, California

By Fr. Patrick Mbazuigwe

July, 2016

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year “C.” Without God, All is vanity.

A father left 17 Camels as an asset for his three Sons. When the Father passed away, his sons read the will. The will of the father states that the eldest son should get half of 17 camels, the middle son should be given 1/3rd of 17 camels, and the youngest son should be given 1/9th of the 17 camels. As it is not possible to divide 17 into half or 17 by 3 or 17 by 9, the sons start to fight with each other.

Later, they decide to go to a wise man. The wise man listens patiently to all they have to say about the will. The wise man, after thinking through it, brings one of his camels and adds it to the 17. That increases the total to 18 camels. Then, he starts to read the deceased man’s will.

Half of 18 = 9. So he gives 9 camels to the eldest son.
1/3rd of 18 = 6. So he gives 6 camels to the middle son.
1/9th of 18 = 2. So he gives 2 camels to the youngest son.
Now add up: 9 + 6 + 2 = 17. This leaves one camel, which the wise man takes back. All are happy to go back home in peace.

There are no shortage of stories about families who have disagreed over how their family wealth should be shared or managed. In 1994, 86 year old J. Howard Marshall II, a billionaire Texas oilman, married former 26 year old Playboy star Anna Nicole Smith at a drive-in wedding chapel. Marshall died the next year, setting up a showdown between his widow and E. Pierce Marshall, who was technically her stepson although nearly 30 years older. In the New York socialite Brook Astor case, in 2006 Marshall’s son, Philip, filed a lawsuit demanding his father be removed as guardian of his 104 year old Grandma Astor’s wealth. There is also the case of Ernest and Julio Gallo wine vs Joseph Gallo cheese, etc. Sharing family wealth among siblings is a difficult task.

I often think that I will be happy to receive a family inheritance. My siblings are cool headed and will have no problem sharing the wealth with me. But, wait until that happens then you will understand who your siblings really are. Some stories about sibling rivalry are so heartbreaking that you would be glad that you have no fortune to share with your siblings.

It is often said that “blood is thicker than water” but life experiences seem to suggest that “money is thicker than blood.”

The sad truth is that most wealthy families could best be described as famous, rich and feuding. The span of disagreement could go beyond sibling rivalry to hatred for parents and grandparents. But, whether it is siblings cutting off grandpa or grandma from handling family wealth, or parents and grandparents cutting off their children as heirs, we have come to realize that money can make a family famous but cannot buy them a happy life.

As we learn from the story above, a healthy attitude of negotiation and problem solving is to find the 18th camel i.e. the common ground. This 18th camel is nothing but God. It is God who gives purpose and meaning to every situation. In God all problems are resolved.

Jesus, in today’s Gospel parables (of the brothers who were feuding over family inheritance and the man who built a larger barn to store his wealth), rejects both greed and any attitude that exalts wealth over and above God.
It is not a sin to be wealthy. Many friends of God were wealthy – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Saul, David, Solomon, etc. were wealthy. However, their greatness did not flow from their WEALTH but from their FAITH and their willingness to serve God.

Therefore, the bone of contention in today’s Gospel is not wealth but greed. Greed makes the heart to exalt wealth over service. Greed empties the heart of sacrificial love. Greed puts self above others. One’s sole desire is to accumulate more and more. Greed makes the heart incapable of a confident trust in God who is the source of all blessings.

Greed leads to pride which is one of the capital sins. A proud person is neither loved by God nor by his fellow human beings. And whenever greed mixes with pride, there is a time bomb waiting to explode, hence the unhappiness that comes from attachment to material things.

Jesus neither condemns wealth nor the wealthy. Wealth in itself is good but failure to use one’s wealth to serve others is certainly bad. By making material possessions, pleasure and power our top priority over spiritual riches, we die to the joy of giving, the satisfaction of self-discipline and the undefiled happiness that comes from sharing.

In his old age, the wise man Qoholeth having seen it all, was convinced that “all is vanity.” Whenever we devote our time and energy towards the pursuit of our selfish desires and inclinations, death merely discloses the opportunities we have wasted and the poverty of our hearts.

Justice demands that one gets what is one’s due. Seeking for what is one’s due is noble and praiseworthy, but, it is the intention that motivates us, which justifies our action. If at this moment you are fighting with your siblings for your share of family wealth, Jesus invites you to look up to God to give you the 18th camel, which only God can give.

Our God is a God of justice. Any justice that is not rooted in God is emptied of its strength, and will ultimately lead to violence. No wonder even after going to the law court to secure our portion of family inheritance, peace and happiness continues to elude us.

It is good to be wealthy, and of course we are all wealthy in different ways. We may not work hard for some of the wealth we enjoy, but we are responsible for all we have. It is by seeing all we have as a blessing from God that we come to experience the peace and joy which the world cannot give. So, while it is within your limit, be good; for a good person is the truly wealthy person. Material wealth may diminish but goodness grows whenever it is shared. And all who put their hope in God shall renew their strength in Him and all they do shall prosper here and for all eternity, Amen.

Featured Image:  Test painting for tapestry, Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, California, by John Nava.

About Fr. Patrick

Thumbnail of Patrick MbazuigwePatrick Mbazuigwe is a native of Nigeria. He is a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

What Patrick says about himself:
• I want to live and die with no regrets in my mind. I want to be good for goodness sake and to love from the pure motive of true love. I’ve been wondering how I can go about this.

Favorite Quotes:
• Bloom where you are planted.
• While it is within your limit be good.
• Do good, avoid evil, purify your mind.
• I live to live and I die to live. Life is my portion.
• In the present I have found my joy. Neither past nor future can take away my happiness.


3 thoughts on “Greed, Vanity and Wisdom”

  1. I really liked this. I have come to realize, it is through the African Priests that have come to America to teach us, show us how to live, to evangelize us. May we all live the way Fr. Patrick envisions….. then it would not matter if we were rich or poor because we would possess God’s goodness, kindness, love, joy…. what else is important?

    1. Thanks for the comment Lorrie. Father Patrick is certainly a joy to know. I have a friend from work who is also Nigerian, and have met several others as well. It is amazing to me how happy and joyful they are, considering the difficulties in their homeland. I wonder if having more, as we do here, contributes to a lack of joy for most of us. It is something I will probably write about at some point, probably in my “Greed and Fear” category.
      Ken

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *