The Trappist Monks, known for their strict observance of monastic life of silence, prayer, work and study used to greet one another with the greeting “Memento Mori.” “Memento mori” can be translated as “Remember death.” A translation that can have more impact is: “Remember that you will die.” In Pilipino, “Alalahanin mo, mamamatay ka rin.” This greeting is a reminder of one’s mortality and the need to live faithfully in this world. Life is short; live your life well.
The Knights of Columbus’ fraternal motto is even more explicit: “Tempus Fugit, Memento Mori,” “Time Flies, Remember Death.” According to John P. Martin, the Grand Knight of Council 14557, New Bedford, Massachusetts, “the Knights of Columbus are called to constantly reflect on the fact that we have only a short earthly existence in which to prove ourselves worthy of eternal life.” Martin traces this motto “Tempus Fugit, Mememto Mori” to the Knights of Columbus’ Founder Fr. Michael J. McGivney’s commitment to an immigrant parish consisting of hard working men and women – who died young. Fr. McGivney himself succumbed to death due to pneumonia at the age of 36.
I think this reminder is not only for the Trappists and the Knights of Columbus; it is for all of us.
“Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” All things are passing, all things are transient. Time flies, remember death. Remember that you will die. This may sound frightening, but it is true. This is not being pessimistic; it is just being realistic. Life on earth is short when seen from the perspective of eternity.
The Biblical scholar Sr. Diane Bergant says this phrase from the Book of Ecclesiastes and the other readings for today all highlight “what we all know so well from experience, namely, that everything and everyone is ‘here today and gone tomorrow.’ Thus, the author of Ecclesiastes insists that the meaning of life cannot be found in possessions that do not last.” Luke, for his part, says, “One’s life does not consist of possessions.”
This can be a very hard and disturbing warning in a world where one’s value is measured by the extent and quality of one’s possessions. In the words of Bergant, “Those who are admired are the people who have money; those who have power are the people who have money; those who set so many of the standards of society are the people who have money.”
Money per se is not the root of all evil; it is greed. Greed is the inordinate desire to possess money, wealth, goods and others with the intention to keep these for oneself far beyond the dictates of basic needs. It is the inordinate desire to acquire, possess, and accumulate more than what one needs or deserves. What is worse is when this desire is pursued at the expense of others people, especially the poor. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “There is always enough for everybody’s needs but not for the greed of a few.” It is the head of greed that we see in many of the scandals, scams and corruption cases in our country today.
The Bible clearly condemns greed. But how do we really distinguish reasonable and just profit from profit propelled by greed? How do we earn a living honestly, raise a family decently, and live responsibly in a world that values people in terms of what they have than who they are and who they can become? Is it morally okay to live luxuriously, extravagantly and scandalously, even if one’s money is hard-earned, in the midst of poverty and destitution of many people?
In the Lukan gospel passage today, Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem, the place of his passion and death. As he led them on the way to the cross, Jesus instructed them in the costs of discipleship and the demands of the Kingdom of God. Today’s gospel focuses on Jesus’ teaching on appropriate attitude toward possessions and preparedness for the coming reign of God.
Jesus’ teaching was occasioned by a request to arbitrate between two brothers. One can very well see that the reality of family members quarreling and getting divided over inheritance is not something new. It has been there since time immemorial.
According to Patricia Datchuk Sanchez, Jesus refused to act as arbiter in the family feud on possession, not because he did not have the authority to do so, but in order to correct the misplaced attention of the people… Jesus wished to align the attitudes of his disciples toward their true purpose and concerns in life. As his followers and as heirs of the eternal inheritance, believers in Jesus are called to reevaluate themselves and their possessions in terms of the new way of life he held out to them. The heart of the… story was Jesus’ exhortation to avoid greed and to understand that possessions, even great possessions, are no guarantee of life.” In other words, the disciples must avoid greed of any forms because life does not consist in possessions.
Jesus was not condemning the man who had asked him to mediate in his property feud with his brother. The man may have been justified in his claim. Nonetheless, Jesus instructed him to be on perpetual watch against the variety of ways greed operates in human life. For Jesus, greed is an attitude foreign to the coming of the Kingdom and his disciples must be free from this evil tendency. Greed results into idolatry.
To make his point more compelling, Jesus told a parable of a rich man who thought about nothing but enlarging his barns for the overflowing harvest he was expecting. The parable does not tell us that the rich man acquired his wealth dishonestly, illegally and immorally. There is also no indication that he was manipulating and oppressing his neighbors or workers. But still, Jesus considered this man a fool because he invested all of himself in a treasure which he would not carry with him when he died. There is a stark indication that although this man was rich in wealth, he was “not rich in what matters to God.”
In the Old Testament, the term “fool” is used to refer to someone who has denied or forgotten God (Psalm 13:1). Anybody who makes money or wealth above God is a fool. Anybody who forgets that everything, especially one’s life, is but a loan which God can recall at any time is a fool. And anybody who forgets the reality “here today and gone tomorrow” is a fool. For the foolish man, death would be a rude but late awakening.
The main message of the gospel resonates with the main insights of the first and second readings. The word vanity is “hebel” in Hebrew and it means “transient as a vapor” or “wisp of air.” Again, Ecclesiastes says, “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” All things are transient and are but a vapor or a wisp of air. And to be absorbed by what is transient and passing is “a great misfortune.” Indeed, what does it profit a man if, in the end, he must leave everything?
Because all things are transient and passing, we must focus our energies on those things that have lasting significance. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Colossians, writes: “Seek what is above… Think of what is above, not of what is on earth… Put to death, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.”
Lest we misunderstand the main message of the three readings today, they do not tell us that we do not need material things and possessions in this world. We are not angels. We are embodied beings with material, bodily and physical needs. But there is a big difference between needs and wants, between decent life and ostentatious life, between simple life and scandalous life, between earning to live and living to earn, between earning money to live and living for money.
The readings do not also tell us not to get involved in this passing world and just focus ourselves on heaven or the things of heaven. Far from it! In fact, we are asked to give ourselves to the task of the transformation of the earth but with the perspective that we are only pilgrims in this earthly journey.
We are asked to give our best shot in living our lives and in doing something good and beautiful for God, for others and for the world, knowing that everything is a gift from God and belongs to God, that everything must be shared, that our time and opportunities are limited and what is important is how we live godly and loving lives. We only have one life on earth to live and we must live it from the perspective of eternity. Indeed, how we live our lives and how we use, handle and share the gifts and resources that God has given us have eternal repercussions.
St. Bonaventure, follower of St. Francis of Assisi, said, “To lead a good life a man should always imagine himself at the hour of death.” In the same light, St. Alphonsus Liguori also said”…if you wish to live well, spend the remaining days of life with death before your eyes.”
St. Alphonsus Liguori said further: “…Oh! hasten to apply a remedy in time, resolve to give yourself sincerely to God, and begin from this moment a life which, at the hour of death, will be to you a source, not of affliction, but of consolation. Give yourself up to prayer, frequent the sacraments, avoid all dangerous occasions,…secure yourself eternal salvation, and be persuaded that to secure eternal life, no precaution can be too great.”