Editor’s note: The following homily was preached on March 13, 2018, by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., for the Lenten sermon series on “divine questions” at the Church of Holy Innocents in New York City.
Why are you anxious about clothing? (Mt 6:28)
Which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? (Lk 12:25)
Why are you afraid? (Mt 8:26)
The Divine Questioner presents us with three hard-hitting, bottom-line queries today. All three of them challenge us to confront the multi-headed monster of materialism. We moderns are wont to smile condescendingly on the ancients (whether Greeks or Romans or Hebrews) for their worship of false gods: How silly of them. Who could be so gullible? Yet our age has fashioned gods every bit as foolish and ineffectual as those which inhabited the pantheons of old.
One of the more amusing Old Testament passages regales us with the story of how Aaron handled the golden calf debacle (cf. Ex 32). Of course, the first interesting point is that he says he doesn’t know how the calf got made (even though it was he who had collected the jewelry to make it!). Moses, on the other hand, comes up with a fascinating punishment for the people: The idol is ground to powder, which he mixes with water and forces the people to down the commixture! An early version of “you made your bed, now lie in it.”
The contemporary obsession with designer clothing is absurd. Since the sin of Adam and Eve, we all need clothes, but they serve a purpose, which can be rather easily fulfilled in a functional, economically sensible and even attractive way. When a pair of jeans with holes in them costs $150 or a pair of sneakers sells for $500, something is wrong with the culture and any who are lured into it. When a couple who, together, earn $150,000 decide to buy a house for $600,000 and expect to meet the mortgage payments, we find that the greed on Wall Street is actually fed by the greed on Main Street.
After asking these leading questions about material things, Jesus acknowledges that He knows we need clothes and a house, but we must be the masters of these things and not be mastered by them. When we value things more than people; when we confuse needs and wants; when we prefer a Caribbean vacation to the Catholic schooling of a child; when we live beyond our means, we have created idols, which need to be smashed like the golden calf of Aaron.
St. Augustine had a tremendous insight into the human personality when he prayed, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.” We are never satisfied. Even as children, greed begins to take hold of us as we always want more. The tricycle that thrilled us at three is a bore at four, so that a bicycle is needed, and that is useless compared to a ten-speed only a few months later. And the problem just worsens as time goes by. And so, the vicious cycle goes on.
“The Necklace”, a short story by Guy de Maupassant, illustrates the vanity and tragic futility of materialism in a most dramatic way. A Parisian woman was never satisfied with what her husband could provide on a government clerk’s salary and constantly nagged him for more. One night he came home with two tickets to the inaugural ball; he was sure he would make her happy with these. Her response was, “What good are they? I have nothing to wear to such an occasion.” The husband offered her money he had been saving so she could buy a new gown. She was pleased but soon realized that she had no jewelry worthy of so beautiful a dress. She then “borrowed” a wealthy lady friend’s piece of jewelry – a magnificent necklace. In the course of the evening, she lost the necklace and only became aware of this on her return home.
Her husband immediately suggested that she call her friend. She refused. Instead, she went to a jeweler the following day to find a replica at the cost of several thousand dollars, for which she obviously needed a loan. It took ten years of real drudgery to pay off that loan, in addition to the loss of her so-called friends. One day she met her old friend from whom she had borrowed her necklace, only to learn the friend no longer recognized her, so much had the years of labor aged her. Finally, she told her all about the lost necklace, its replacement, the loan, and the hard work. “$5,000 for that necklace?” questioned the lady. “But, my dear, it was only paste jewelry and worth $100 at most.”
What do I spend my whole life working for? In the end, will I have time to enjoy it? Or, is it even worth the effort to begin with?
Which leads to yet another question proffered by Our Lord: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Lk 12:20). I have a most vivid recollection of this line from the Gospel according to St. Luke. It was October 19, 1987; I had just finished celebrating Holy Mass in my parish and got into my car to head to Seton Hall University for the day’s teaching. Turning on the radio, I learned that the stock market had just crashed. Could the wheelers and dealers have gotten any better counsel than that verse of Sacred Scripture? Had they ever heard it? If they had, had they even thought about heeding it? Black Monday, indeed.
I live in an area which is flooded with “senior citizen” villages – which my mother dubbed “Death Valley”! Many of these elderly Catholics are exemplary; however, not a few have been sucked into the vortex of materialism and consumerism. Having been survivors of either the Great Depression or the experience of rationing during World War II, they think they are somehow or other entitled to do whatever they want and to get whatever they want, whenever they want. Pastors of such parishes used to be edified by the propensity of their golden-age parishioners who left considerable bequests to the parish school and for the offering of Holy Masses in suffrage of their souls. That is no longer the common scenario. It is quite common, however, to see a bumper sticker that proclaims, “I am spending my grandchildren’s inheritance!”
So, if Our Lord tells us He knows what we need and that we should not worry – and if we are not materialists – then, what still causes us to worry? It can only be that we lack trust in Divine Providence. Does not a dispassionate review of our lives cause us to conclude that, even in the darkest moments, the grace and presence of a loving and caring Father could be perceived, even if only dimly? The difficulty seems to be, though, that when things are going well, we pat ourselves on the back for being wise, prudent and intelligent; it is only when things go badly that we shift responsibility to God. And it is precisely here that we should take as a model holy Job, who refused to question the goodness of his Creator, even under the most distressing circumstances. Job passed the test with flying colors. As a result of his humility, he got back all that he needed, all that he had, and much more in abundance.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman noted that, the older he got, the more he became convinced of the all-pervasiveness of Divine Providence. And so, in an 1833 poem on St. Paul’s missionary endeavors, he counseled: “Christian! Learn to do thy part and leave the rest to Heaven.” The Cardinal knew of what he spoke because his own father’s business ventures went belly-up in Newman’s youth and he himself, upon his conversion, went from the heights of esteem and comfort to near-penury. Perhaps Newman’s greatest contribution to urging us on to confidence in God’s Providence is his meditation on why we were created, in the first place. I leave you with this powerful reflection – which should indeed inspire a profound peace and filial trust:
God was all-complete, all-blessed in Himself; but it was His will to create a world for His glory. He is Almighty, and might have done all things Himself, but it has been His will to bring about His purposes by the beings He has created. We are all created to His glory – we are created to do His will. I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name.
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his – if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me – still He knows what He is about.
O Adonai, O Ruler of Israel, Thou that guidest Joseph like a flock, O Emmanuel, O Sapientia, I give myself to Thee. I trust Thee wholly. Thou art wiser than I – more loving to me than I myself. Deign to fulfil Thy high purposes in me whatever they be – work in and through me. I am born to serve Thee, to be Thine, to be Thy instrument. Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see – I ask not to know – I ask simply to be used.
Mother of Divine Providence, Blessed John Henry, pray for us that we may always trust in the promises of Christ.