Dear People of our Parish,
Who am I trying to enrich? Who am I trying to benefit in this life?
The readings for this Sunday ask some uncomfortable questions. Why would we be so obsessed with possessions, when we can’t bring them with us when we die? And then on the other side, why would we feel entitled to an inheritance when we didn’t work for the inheritance?
Studies looking into the relationship between happiness and income say that our happiness increases right along with our income increasing. Other studies are more nuanced, and point out that that’s only true up to a certain point. I’ve heard it said that our happiness starts to plateau right around $75,000 to $95,000 a year. If we make more than $95,000, we don’t feel any better about our lives. Bigger barns, more stuff stockpiled, greater ‘security’—none of these things actually help us feel more fulfilled.
A friend of mine recently told me that more research has been done, and they found that there’s a key to increasing one’s happiness if we make more than $95,000 a year. It’s completely counterintuitive, though: we’ll feel happier the more we give away.
But this ‘key’ doesn’t take much research—no matter what level of income we’re at, when we live in such a way that we can be truly generous to those around us, we know that that will make us happier in a truer sense. We don’t need a six-figure salary to experience the joy of generosity.
We can look around at our stuff, and see what we need, what we wanted, and what we got just because other people have been getting it, and start paring down our possessions now. There’s an incredibly difficult quote from St. Basil the Great that calls me out every time I hear it: “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.” This is a radically different position toward having stuff than the secular world offers.
But there’s even a movement in the secular world toward simplicity, because I think people in our culture are growing wise to the experience of the author of Ecclesiastes—our possessions, so often, are expressions of vanity and don’t do for us what we hope they will do. And when we look to the future, instead of having experienced the joy of generosity, we hold on to things until we literally are taken away from them in death. The toys of our lives as well as the more meaningful tools will be ‘given’ away to our heirs after we passed on our opportunity to actively give them away ourselves.
I’m not calling for everyone to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow Jesus with a vow of poverty (though if that’s what God is placing on your heart, there’s probably a reason for that: pray for more vocations to religious life!). I am calling for us to live lives that aren’t touched by the vanity and emptiness that Solomon experienced. I am calling for us to live lives that are known by our generosity of spirit. I am calling for us to let go of more of our possessions lest they begin to possess us. I am calling for us to ask the question: how can I enrich the people around me today? Can I give of my time, my talents, and my treasure in a meaningful way?
And how do we know if it’s meaningful? Not if it changes other people’s lives; we just are not given to know if our gifts ‘work’ like that most of the time. The real test is if it’s enough to change our lives.
Because, fundamentally, that’s where following Christ really starts: our willingness to let Jesus change us.
Joseph Gruber, MA
Parish FOCUS Missionary