There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!” But God said to him, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.”
Luke 12: 18-21
There is little question that one of our most basic needs is a sense of security. The basic problem, of course, is that since our lives are not our own, we can never achieve, by dint of our own efforts, the security we crave. Every attempt at making ourselves feel secure not only fails to lessen the insecurity but, paradoxically, seems to increase our anxiety about our lives.
In today’s gospel Jesus tells the parable of the rich man who has an extraordinary harvest. Instead of storing what he needs and sharing the rest, however, he tears down his barns and builds bigger ones. When that task is completed, he is at first convinced that he is secure for many years to come, and he can now just relax and enjoy life. Anyone who has seen advertisements for financial planning will readily recognize their appeal to “the rich man” in all of us. There was one such ad some years ago that pointed out that most of us fail to recognize how much more we’ll need than we think we do. This was effective because we never “feel” that we are secure enough.
The spirit of these advertisements is in stark contrast to the spirit of the social contract that was created with the advent of what we termed “social security.” Social security is a contract between generations. Its adequacy depends on the willingness of one generation to care for the preceding one, on a national scale for children to care for their parents. Its difficulties are due to a breaking of the sense of social responsibility, of the social contract. A sense of caring by the younger generation is fostered by social and political policies of the older generation that are responsible toward those who will follow them. At this moment in history, many younger people feel that the selfishness of the preceding generations have left them in no position to abide by the social contract. When policies make higher education unaffordable, leaving the young in oppressive debt, or fail to respond to a climate crisis that threatens to make the planet uninhabitable for future generations, how are the young in a position to both care for themselves and their families and be responsible for their elders? Once selfishness begins to be the cultural norm, it begins to pervade every aspect of our social lives.
Jesus’ parable of the selfish rich man is, perhaps, the scriptural emblem of our time. The richest among us insist on policies that will only enrich themselves more, at the cost of even the survival of the poorest. The United States, the richest country on earth, withdraws from the Paris Climate Accord, despite the fact that it is most responsible for the problem. It also, at a moment of extreme crisis in the plight of refugees, reduces its acceptance of them to an all time low. This morning on the news I witnessed the counter to this. A reporter embedded in the “caravan” of refugees fleeing north through Mexico reported the story of two children who had become separated from their family. They were immediately taken care of by a mother with several children of her own. In this group of poor and suffering people, in search of some minimal level of safety and possibility for their lives, there was an innate sense of human and social responsibility, a social “security” that the country blocking their entrance lacks.
As I watched and listened to this account, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that these people we are threatening to meet with military force at our southern border could be our salvation. They carry with and among them as a potential gift to our society those values that we have lost. In our selfishness we experience these good people as a threat. No matter how large our military or how “secure” our borders we shall always feel under threat, as long as we are motivated by selfishness and greed. Jesus’ response to the question “Who is my neighbor?” is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Our security lies not in fear and defensiveness but in love and hospitality.
All of this, however, speaks to the social dimension of an inner transformation. We are all anxious for our lives and our well being. The realization of our eventual death pervades every aspect of our consciousness. Ultimately it is this reality that creates in us our unyielding sense of insecurity. Jesus reminds us of this in the parable by having God declare, after the man has built his new and bigger barns, that this very night his life will come to an end. In this light, all of his possessions and efforts are meaningless.
Herein lies the connection between the personal and the social. Our life does not belong to us. It is given to us and it is a part of the whole. Somehow our security can only be found through trust and faith. It is in the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes that we are taught the only way to true security. In the account in Matthew 14: 13-21, we hear of the disciples’ concern for the people because the crowd is so many but they have only five loaves and two fish. So, the disciples at first tell Jesus to send the people away so they can find something to eat. But Jesus says to the disciples: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” (Mt. 14,16) It is the disposition of sharing, of giving away what we have no matter how meager it seems to us, that effects a sense of trust and security. As long as we trust in ourselves and in what we can possess, we shall remain insecure. When we dispose ourselves to the will of God, we experience God’s providence, that God, that Reality, can be trusted. To be “rich in what matters to God” is to be rich in faith and generosity.
In the initial vision of Theodore James Ryken for his congregation, the Xaverian Brothers, there is a clear call to his brothers, through his choice of Francis Xavier as patron, to be ready always to go out to wherever they are needed.
The name of this insatiable laborer for souls will indicate, with one word, what is intended with the Congregation. According to his example one will not listen to this voice: “You can also do good here in this country.” Rather they would listen to this one: “Go throughout the world and teach all peoples.”
Ryken describes two voices within his brothers. One is the voice of security, “You can also do good here in this country.” The other is the voice of Jesus, “Go throughout the world and teach all peoples.” The first is the voice of our unconscious need for security. It has countless rationales for why we cannot move or change We are too young or too old. The needs here are so great and we are so few that we cannot respond to the challenge from without. Our work is now completed and it is time to prepare for death. Each of these rationales is the equivalent of building bigger barns. It is a grand irony that a community whose founding vision is that of the spirit of Francis Xavier consistently tended to “hunker down” in the places of its establishment: Flanders, Louisville, Boston, Likasi, Bungoma. Yet, psychologically it is perfectly understandable. Personally, I have always been more than a bit fearful. I can “push myself” at times to move out and beyond myself, but then the needs for security begin to dominate my psyche once again. The more this happens and the older we get, the harder it is to go out of ourselves. Yet, experience continues to show me that it is in letting go, going out, giving away what I have that I know a security not of my making.
I have a close friend who reminds me that “God takes care of things.” it is good to have such friends, because I am always forgetting or doubting this. In my own way, I keep constructing bigger barns in hopes that by confining my life I will find the security I crave. There is no security, however, in confining our lives by building stronger and stronger security directives. We are only secure to the degree that we abandon ourselves to God. As the Fundamental Principles remind us:
At times you will discover
that God’s ways are not your ways,
and God’s thoughts are not your thoughts.
When this happens,
try to surrender yourself trustingly
into the arms of your Father,
who knows you,
and loves you.
You must first die to every earthly hope, to every merely human confidence. You must die to your selfishness, and to the world, because it is only through your selfishness that the world has power over you. Naturally there is nothing a human being hangs on to so firmly — indeed, with his whole self — as to his selfishness! Ah, the separation of soul and body at the hour of death is not as painful as being forced to be separated from our flesh when we are alive! Yes, we human beings do not hang on to this physical life as firmly as we do to our selfishness!
Soren Kierkegaard, For Self Examination and Judge for Yourself