When we die, what do we take with us?
Reading this weekend’s Gospel reminded me, oddly enough, of a story I once saw on one of those whimsical signs on the wall of a Jimmy John’s. I’ll recount it briefly for you. A man was on vacation at a sandy beach somewhere. He came across a poor looking fisherman sitting in a chair on the beach. The fisherman was sipping a beer while he fished for his family’s dinner. The man explained to the fisherman how he could work a bit harder, sell some more fish and buy nets. Then he could work a bit harder, sell more fish, and buy a bigger boat. Eventually, with a lot of hard work, he could one day be a fish magnate, selling fish all around the world. The fisherman asked the man, “what would I do then?” The man responded, “Well, then you could retire to the beach, sip a cold beer, and do whatever it is that you enjoy for the rest of your life.”
I think the fisherman had it figured out. The story gives the impression that his family was happy and that they were able to fulfill their needs. They did not have to worry about all sorts of extra things like whether the boat would make it back safely, how to pay the hired hands, where to sell their fish. So what if they didn’t have an enormous house, in which they could store many things? So what if they didn’t have much to pass down to the next generation? The author of Ecclesiastes asks the question, “what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun?” The Lord answers it in the Gospel, asking if our life was demanded of us this very night, to whom would our riches belong? If we store up the riches of this earth, “but are not rich in what matter to God,” then what can we expect God to say to us when we meet Him? Jesus makes it fairly clear that the Father will not be congratulating us based on the size of our bank account or how many cars we have. What will he be asking us? How have you allowed Christ to live within your heart?
The answer to that question is the most important one we will ever give, and we are answering it every moment of every day of our lives. With every action, we bring Christ closer to our hearts or push him further away. With every action, we answer God’s question.
Let’s return to our fisherman from the wall of Jimmy John’s. Say that he thinks about it, talks to his family, and he decides to become a fish magnate after all. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Let’s say this fisherman is Catholic, but not too concerned about his faith. One day, he reads St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians and is convicted by the words, “Put to death […] the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry. Stop lying to one another.” The fisherman has a change of heart, and he decides to live his life by these rules. He starts to learn his faith, and he begins to live it. He treats his employees fairly, paying them a living wage and ensuring they aren’t in undue danger. He cares for the environment, not just because he has a vested interest in ensuring he will have somewhere to fish, but also because it is good to care for God’s creation. He might even give everybody Sunday off so that they can worship God and spend time with their families. Instead of opening more bank accounts to hold his profits—the modern equivalent of building a bigger barn—he establishes a scholarship fund for disadvantaged youth to attend college, he helps fund various charitable organizations, he gives generously to his parish’s Glory and Praise initiative, and he might even go beyond the standard 10% in his tithing.
Whichever path—remaining a simple fisherman or becoming a fish magnate—the fisherman chooses can lead to him inviting Jesus closer to his heart every day, just as most paths open to us are capable of doing. Each path has different challenges. Each path will stretch us and our families in a different way. What is absolutely critical, though, is that we seek to follow our Lord in every situation. If we does that, with honesty, then we will never go wrong.
Note: This was written and preached for the weekend of August 3-4, 2019. It was published online on August 14, 2019.
August 4, 2019
18th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23; Psalm 90; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21