October 19, 2020
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” (Luke 12:13-21)
Homily originally delivered in July of 2016 at St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis:
I want to share a fascinating thing I have discovered about the homeless population: When offered food, blankets, or other basic necessities, they do not take more than they need. It would certainly be justified if they did. Why not grab a second sandwich? Who knows when they will get another chance to eat?
I noticed this phenomenon in my very first encounter with homeless people, on a trip to San Diego years ago.
Carol and I walked from our hotel through downtown San Diego one morning to attend Mass at a nearby church. There were homeless people everywhere – sleeping on every park bench, in the doorway of every place of business, leaning up against every trash can or dumpster, in the alleys, in the little park in the center of downtown – everywhere. We saw literally hundreds of homeless on our 10-block walk to the church. This was a completely new experience for us.
After Mass, we stayed in church for a short time, praying about what our response should be. We felt like we had to do something. On our walk back to the hotel, we stopped at a bakery. We gathered what money we had and bought as much as we could from the bakery display case.
We assumed it wouldn’t last long – assumed the first few homeless people we encountered would grab whatever they could. I guess we were picturing a piranha feeding frenzy of some sort.
That is not what we experienced at all. The first person we approached took one item and thanked us. We extended the bag toward him and asked if that was all he needed. His response: “There are lots of folks out here. You go help them.”
The next person kindly declined the offer of food: “I had a good meal last night. I know some of these people haven’t eaten for days.” Then he pointed to a family nearby and said, “I know they need food.”
We went to the family. It was a husband, wife, son, and baby daughter. The husband was so gracious and appreciative. He took a bagel and handed it to his son. He took another and tore it in half, giving half to his wife and hungrily biting into the other half himself. He waved me off when I held the bag in front of him to take more, thanking me again.
It went on and on like that. No feeding frenzy. No squirreling away more for later.
I have worked with the homeless population in Indianapolis for nearly ten years now. My experience over those ten years has been the same. The homeless take only what they need at the time. Not a week’s worth, but only enough to make it through another night.
I couldn’t help but think of my homeless friends as I read today’s gospel.
Gospel writers often included descriptors that allow us to get a sense of a person’s motive or intent when he or she approached Jesus. They identified the person as a Pharisee, a widow, a Gentile, a tax collector, and so on.
However, on occasion the evangelists wrote generically about nameless people who were present at the time. They wrote, “A man approached Jesus…” or “a crowd gathered around Jesus.”
I like it when that happens. Those nameless people often hold the key that unlocks the message that God has embedded in scripture.
And while I can’t relate to being a Pharisee or a tax collector, I can relate to being an everyday man or part of a crowd. So when the gospel writer gives me the opening, I climb inside the gospel and become that unnamed person. I want to live that experience.
The gospel passage I read moments ago began with the words, Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.”
If I’m that guy – that “someone in the crowd” – what was I doing? What in the world was I talking about?
Jesus was not known as a mediator, so I was not really asking Him to help negotiate with my brother over an inheritance, was I?
What I think I was doing was looking for an outlet for my frustration. I was trying to mask my frustration, but Jesus didn’t bite. He dismissed my phony request by saying, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?”
He read between the lines. He understood my frustration and knew even before I did what I really wanted to say.
What I wanted to say was, “It’s just not fair! Why do other people have more stuff, better stuff? Why does God choose favorites? Why are there Haves and Have-Nots’? More importantly, why am I one of the Have-Nots?”
Maybe you find yourself asking those same types of questions. Not out loud, of course; we hide our frustration like I did in the gospel. If we do complain out loud, it is behind closed doors with others who share our frustration. Misery loves company so together we gossip. We jealously criticize those around us who have more money, own bigger houses or newer cars, and take exotic vacations.
As that “someone in the crowd,” I wanted Jesus to affirm me. I wanted Him to tell me I was right. Then, after affirming me, I wanted Him to fix it. I wanted Him to arrange for me to get a bigger piece of the pie.
However, Jesus didn’t bite on that either. Instead, He saw my request as a teaching moment. He told a parable that offered a “get over yourself” message. He told of a man who was preoccupied with acquiring wealth, building a bigger barn in order to warehouse his surplus grain and store away more than he could possibly ever use.
The parable ends with God telling the man that he had wasted his time. He was going to die that night and all that grain would do him no good.
God’s message to the man was similar to the familiar phrase, “You can’t take it with you.”
This focus on self, this desire to acquire things to satisfy one’s own desires, is the vanity to which the first reading refers.
Vanity is the single-minded focus on self. However, vanity is also the frustration I felt as the “someone in the crowd.” I may not have been focused on acquiring things, but I was obsessed with what others had. It was me-centered thought.
Obsession and jealousy are examples of vanity too: “All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest. This also is vanity.”
You only have so many hours in a day. If the majority of your time is spent on acquiring temporal things, or obsessing over what others have, how much time do have you left for God?
Tell me how a man spends his time, and I’ll tell you what he values.
The familiar saying is, “You can’t take it with you.” However, when it comes to heaven, perhaps we should say, “You don’t need to take it with you.”
You’ll have everything you need; there are no feeding frenzies in heaven.