Who wants to live forever?
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) | Fr Richard Conrad explains that divine love elevates the fulfillment of natural law morality.
Our first reading declares: ‘All is vanity!’ Not ‘vanity’ in the sense of pride in one’s appearance, but in the sense of ‘a little breath of wind’: ‘Everything is a passing breeze.’ The Book of Ecclesiastes, ‘The Preacher’, was probably written two or three hundred years before Our Lord’s time: God’s mightiest deeds seemed a thing of the past, and the future resurrection of the dead had not been clearly revealed. It was obvious to the Jewish People that some pagan ideas about life after death (such as reincarnation) were rubbish; they knew the human soul’s immortality doesn’t mean much just by itself, since if the body is dead the organs of sense and imagination no longer nourish the mind. So human experience raises deep questions. Of course God exists, and we must serve him – but it is hard to see his justice at work in all that happens. Wicked people sometimes do well; good people can be oppressed, wise people are often unrecognised. As today’s first reading points out, we do not always benefit from our wisdom and our work in the way we hope. Life is limited; the day of death is uncertain.
What Ecclesiastes recommends, it seems to me, is realistic Natural Law morality. Recognise, he says, how fulfilling it is to work sensibly, to live out your marriage, to be polite and devout. If you can manage it, study is good – but hard work – and can benefit many people. But human fulfilment is temporary, and precarious: it depends on good health and a well-run society. On the other hand, pursuing unbridled pleasure doesn’t fulfil; an unbalanced pursuit of wealth is bad for us (for our health, for our relationships) and no guarantee of true and lasting happiness.
Jesus said he had not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I take this to mean that the Natural Law morality found in the Old Testament remains valid for all time. St Paul tells us not to violate the Natural Law. The Catholic Church says the same, and applies Natural Law principles to new moral issues as society and technology develop.
Soon after Ecclesiastes’ time, most Jews began to hope for a final resurrection and a final judgment. Jesus affirmed that hope by himself passing through death to Resurrection, as the Pioneer for us to follow. His Resurrection is the Prototype that will make everyone else’s resurrection happen. He predicted his own return as Judge. In the light of Jesus’ Resurrection and his Return, everything looks different.
When, in the words of today’s Gospel, the demand is made for our soul, the bodily organs of sense and imagination no longer nourish it – but it faces God! The judgment that will be made public on the Last Day becomes clear to the individual soul at the moment of death: ‘For what, for whom, have you lived?’ St Paul warns us in our second reading that if we prize wealth (or pleasure, or power, or revenge…) as our greatest good, we worship a false ‘god’. Such a soul, in misery, must await a resurrection to everlasting disgrace.
But we have the opportunity to die with Christ, by sharing his self-giving love. In Baptism, St Paul tells us, we both die with Christ, and begin to live in the power of his Resurrection. This new life crafted by the Holy Spirit ‘is hid with Christ in God.’ Its full greatness does not yet shine out. But our share in Christ’s love is expressed in our priorities and our actions. Much of our day-to-day activity is still a matter of Natural Law morality, whether living out marriage, working diligently, studying carefully, managing finances justly, pactising good citizenship – but transformed and deepened by our friendship with God, our greatest Good. The love worked in us by the Spirit affirms and purifies, orders and divinises the fabric of human life. We love ourselves, our families, our colleagues, and all those we encounter not only with a human love – but also with a share in God’s own love for us and for them. If in that love we die, the soul faces God with joy and (after love has been fully purified) awaits a resurrection to everlasting glory.
If we commit to living as God’s friends, we begin to judge everything from our divine Friend’s perspective; we tune in to his wavelength. Today’s Gospel begins with a man asking Jesus to help him claim his due inheritance. Sometimes, of course, the Natural Law demands that we do claim our rights, or defend other people’s rights. But Jesus invites this man to ask: ‘In the light of eternity, should I let this go? Is peace in the family more precious than the money?’ How often does Jesus ask us this kind of question? May the Holy Spirit make us wise enough to give the right answer.
In the light of Christ, not everything is ‘a passing breeze.’ As St Augustine reminds us, in all the affairs of this life that pass away, we can ensure that that divine love prevails which endures for ever.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the World War II Memorial in Washington DC.