Greed, Vanity and Wisdom

A Christian Perspective

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.

Island of Attainment

Kenneth Piper, August 21, 2014

II. The larger the island of attainment, the longer the coastline of desire – Procter Thomson.

This one works on so many levels and for so many subjects. Let’s consider the island of the United States of America.

The conservatives think that the answer is simple – build a bigger wall. Make the borders impenetrable, put more agents on the border – but don’t let that bust the budget. And make it illegal to hire undocumented workers.

Liberals want to let those that are here stay. Of course, the liberal politicians are counting on them to be supporters down the road. And those newcomers will be happy to take the low-pay menial jobs that no one else wants.

The reality is that there is no way to make the border impenetrable. Think of it like a permeable membrane in a science experiment or a reverse osmosis water filter. If the desire to get through is high enough, they will find a way. So, why do they come?

A friend of mine used to work at a factory in Oxnard that hired undocumented workers. There was a man who had been there 18 years, and in all that time had not seen his wife or children. He was happy to know that the money he was making was allowing his children to attend good schools in Mexico. But, he could not go back, because he would not be able to come in again and he could not make enough money in Mexico. He was a virtual slave here, because the employer knew he was an illegal, so he would not quit, no matter the poor salary or working conditions. He was getting old and his productivity had dropped off. My friend’s boss told him he needed to fire the man. He would not do it, and he quit rather than do it. They had no care for the workers, just wanted them for cheap labor.

My friend says, if a his family were hungry, he would do anything to feed them. If he can’t get work, there is a ready market here for drugs – dangerous, but his family is hungry. Sure, the drug lords are rich, but the drug runners are like all the others – desperate.

I work with some people from Iran. They came over in the 1970’s, one for college, another for a job opportunity. But when the Ayatollah took over, they could not go back. The Ayatollah put out the word to all Iranians – come back, we welcome you, we need you and the skills that you have learned. But those who went back were never seen again, never even got out of the airport upon their arrival.

So they come for opportunity, for freedom, for safety from persecution – the same things that have brought immigrants throughout our history. But now the door is closed, the ship is full. If we let them in, we will surely sink. But in they come, through that permeable membrane, and all the money we throw at it will still not make it hold back the throngs.

A different perspective, recalling the permeable membrane of science experiments: What does it take to prevent movement through that membrane? If conditions are the same on both sides, there is no net movement through the membrane. There is the occasional molecular passage, but equal in both directions. The greater the difference on the opposite sides, the greater is the movement through the membrane.

So back to the border – what can we do? Should we keep throwing money at making the barrier more impenetrable? Should we just let them all through? Should we make our living conditions and employment prospects the same as in Mexico.

I like to think that most people would rather stay where it is home, if there is not something driving them away. I have known many people from other countries, and I often ask them whether that is true for them. They have come for many different reasons, and it is not an easy question to answer. But those reasons are always the same as for generations before – something at home made them leave. If I am right, then maybe we should be helping to make conditions better in those emigrant nations.

Our government has sent lots of money to foreign governments, to buy their friendship. But, other than programs like the Peace Corps or Red Cross where we help build something or deliver food, most of the money goes to the leaders. Whether to make them richer, or buy more weapons, that money is wasted. I know this is not a popular idea right now when our own joblessness is high, but outsourcing of labor makes a lot of sense, at least if done humanely. I believe the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is still in effect.

So, how about if we stop badmouthing companies that build factories in Mexico or other places where conditions are driving the people out. After a string of American made water heaters that leaked before the warranty was out (or even when new) I am happy with my American-brand, but Mexican-made water heater. And Saturn automobiles were recently made in Mexico, until the federal bailout required GM to abandon Saturn. The key is to avoid exploiting those people for our own selfish desires. Corporate responsibility and, lacking that, public awareness and public pressure can make the difference. For example, when people became aware of the conditions faced by Chinese workers making Apple products, Apple got involved to try to make things better.

I recently read that 2/3 of the 5 ½ million jobs that President Obama bragged about creating were taken by immigrants; most of those were newly arrived. And the new Oakland Bay Bridge was built by a Chinese company. Neither of these is helping solve the unemployment problem. I would rather see companies investing in other countries than giving tax dollars to the leaders of those countries to buy influence.

What do you think?