Whenever I read this Gospel I am reminded of the wonderful movie made years ago by Sidney Poitier. In it, he plays a young man, just recently discharged from the Army. He is a Christian -- a Baptist if my memory serves. He has learned how to operate heavy equipment in the service, put aside some money from his Army pay, and is on his way to make his mark on the world.
But then he encounters a small group of German nuns who are intent on establishing their order in this country. They have a small piece of property on which they are farming, and they are convinced that God has sent this man to build them a chapel. The movie is a wonderful study in contrasts: man-women, black-white, Protestant-Catholic, pragmatist-optimist, and so on. There is a great scene in which Poitier has a lively discussion with the German (only) speaking Sister Superior by referring to verses in their respective bibles: hers, in German, is enormous; his, in English, fits in his pocket. In the end, of course, they learn something from each other, the chapel gets built, and the young soldier's likeness is used as a model for a painting of Saint Benedict the Moor, for whom the chapel is dedicated.
The contrasts in the story are interesting -- more than just a literary device -- they serve to point up the difference we read about today in both the epistle and the gospel. They serve to make us consider what our Lord meant, exactly, by saying that it is not possible to serve both God and the enticements of the world.
It may help to understand that our Lord is speaking with a sort of exaggeration that we call "hyperbole." He does this often enough that we ought to be familiar with it. For example, in another Gospel text He says, "put ought your right eye if it is an occasion of sin to you" or "cut off you hand" if it is the problem. Clearly, our Lord presents such a gruesome example, not because He wants His people to be blind or maimed, but because He wants them to have some appreciation of just how horrible sin is. He doesn't mean to say, "blind yourself" or "maim yourself" -- He means to say "stop sinning!&" -- "stop sinning, because the consequences of sin are every bit as bad as losing an eye or a hand or a foot; you can lose your soul!
Similarly, our Lord is not advocating that Christians do nothing to take care of their material needs. The way He created us, we must provide for our shelter, and clothing, and food. Our Lord is clearly not suggesting that we live on worms and berries, or that we put on no more than what the flowers put on! He is, again, teaching by hyperbole, or exaggeration.
What, then, does He mean to say? First of all, if we assume that He is speaking to people who have adequate food, clothing, and shelter, He is telling us that our further aspirations ought not be directed to acquiring more of the same, to the point of extravagance. Our aspirations ought to direct us to God in eternity, rather than to obtaining worldly goods that will be of no use to us in few short years or decades. How many cars can you drive? how many suits or dresses can you wear? how much food can you eat? In how many rooms can you live? Aren't there better things that you can do with what is left over after you have taken care of necessities? Aren't there better ways to spend your time and your energies? And might not life be just a little more comfortable if we put aside the worries over things that are meaningless in eternity?
Saint Paul seems to be focusing on this last aspect in today's epistle. "Look," he is saying, "at what happens to those who are overly concerned with the things of the world." They become predators, fighting with each other to have the lion's share (or at least more than the people next door). They wind up doing all sorts of things that have no long term meaning, are at best only fleetingly pleasurable, and may have downright harmful, disgusting, or dangerous results. Life ought to be more than just "dying with the most toys."
Then Saint Paul has us compare such worldly behavior with the alternative. Those whose sights are on God, whose aspirations are eternal, can live in this world in relative peace and contentment.
Our Lord doesn't ask it directly in today's parable, but might also infer that there is some particular merit to be gained by accepting our lot in life, even if sometimes we do not have as much as we like, even of the necessities -- or, perhaps if we cheerfully accept the difficulties that come our way. And surely, we know that He will be pleased if we give of our substance to those who do not have what is adequate -- maybe even to the point of depriving ourselves once in a while. "Those who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires" -- another example of hyperbole, perhaps, but a good way of showing us how to unite with Christ by carrying the small crosses of this life.
There must be people in this world to operate the heavy equipment and to raise the crops -- just as there must be people to pray. For most of us, life is necessarily a combination of both. The lesson today is one of attitude and direction: "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His justice" -- the other things will then come along in due proportion -- a means, rather than an end -- being an aid to our eternal salvation rather than a source of condemnation.