Fr. Michael preaches on the lesson of finding happiness in God, both during times of wealth and times of poverty.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,
so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
The person who is trustworthy in very small matters
is also trustworthy in great ones;
and the person who is dishonest in very small matters
is also dishonest in great ones.
If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth,
who will trust you with true wealth?
If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another,
who will give you what is yours?
No servant can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and mammon.”
The Pharisees, who loved money,
heard all these things and sneered at him.
And he said to them,
“You justify yourselves in the sight of others,
but God knows your hearts;
for what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God.”
The Secret to Happiness
We have two readings today have that coalesce on the theme of money. The gospel that I just proclaimed from Luke chapter 16: Jesus saying, ‘Use money for good purposes so that when it fails you, your account in heaven will be high.’ St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, says that, ‘I know how to live in abundance and I know how to live in poverty. I can enjoy a good meal, I can enjoy good circumstances but it’s not going to stress me out if I have to go hungry or I’m living in a hovel.’
St. Ignatius, in the Principal and Foundation of The Spiritual Exercises says that God gives us all of these gifts and we’re to use those gifts insofar as they help us draw closer to the Lord. But, if they become the center of our life then they become a distraction and they prevent us from achieving the goal of our life, which is union with God. That’s where our happiness is. That’s where our peace comes from.
St. Ignatius has a litany there in the Principal and Foundation and he says use it or don’t use it to the extent that it’s helpful. Some of us are blessed with good health. Praise God and use that health, but if you are not blessed with good health that doesn’t mean that God isn’t loving you. Some are blessed with wealth. Use that wealth for good and honest purposes to make of this world a better place. But, if you’re not blessed with wealth, and you struggle to put two nickels together to pay your bills that doesn’t mean that God loves you less. Those are the circumstances in which God is calling you to holiness.
The use of alcohol is not a bad thing but, if alcohol gets in the way then it needs to be pushed to the side and say, ‘No that’s not something I can deal with in my life.’ The Catholic Church for years made money on bingo. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a little bit of gambling, but if gambling becomes a center of your life than it has to be pushed out and to say, ‘No, I can’t deal with that.’ It’s a question of being honest enough with ourselves about what helps me and what distracts me from the goal of deeper union with God.
As I mentioned last night, I just got back last week from leading a pilgrimage of 28 people over to Greece walking in the footsteps of St. Paul. One of the cities that we visited was Philippi. It’s a city in northeastern Greece, then what they called Macedonia. Paul visited the Philippian community twice and he writes this letter to them to thank them because they were a prosperous Roman seaport town—they were wealthy town—and they didn’t ignore Paul and his need. They were grateful for what Paul did and as he goes over to Thessalonica—another Greek city to the west of Philippi—they send him a contribution for his ministry. When Paul writes his letter to the Philippians—most scholars say it’s probably around the year 61 A.D.—he’s in house arrest over in Rome. He’s not in chains, people are able to come and go freely and he’s able to write letters, and he writes this letter to the Philippians. But, he can’t make any money; he’s under house arrest and the Philippians send him a contribution and he writes back to say, ‘Thank you. You’re the only people that remembered me and my need and I’m grateful for that.’
Paul’s letter and Jesus’ gospel coalesce in terms of saying, ‘Use the money for good purposes but don’t let it become the center of your life. Don’t let your life be about accruing money.’ I have a friend in Cincinnati, Roger Grine who is a CPA and he invested in tech stocks a number of years ago and he went from being a wealthy man, to a multimillionaire when the tech stocks soared. At the time I had a young adult ministry in Cincinnati and I went to Roger and asked for some contributions and Roger was very generous. He gave to all kinds of charities but he realized that his money—wealthy as he was—wasn’t unlimited and he started a program called Magnified Giving and he would give scholarships to high schools with the understanding that the high school would form a philanthropy club and then the kids would come together and they would decide—with this chunk of money that Roger gave them—how they would solicit grant proposals and then the kids would decide what was worthy of the contribution. It was a way of teaching philanthropy to the high school kids and Roger funded that out of his largesse for several years.
Then, when the stock market crashed a number of years ago, Roger lost virtually everything. He wasn’t poverty-stricken. He was a CPA. He still had his own firm. He could provide for himself but, he no longer had the ability to make large donations. I got a kick out of that. For years I had come to him and asked for contributions for my ministry then he had to humble himself and he sent out letters to all these people saying, ‘I have this foundation called Magnified Giving.’ He wrote me a letter saying, ‘Hey Fr Michael, would you contribute to to this foundation.’ He wrote to so many people that he used to give money to, who were wealthy friends of his. I talked to Roger about that and he said by all means share his story.
He said, “When I was a very wealthy man, I gave generously but there was a sense of pride in my giving of, ‘I am Roger and I’m wealthy and I’m giving you this money, use it for a good purpose.'” Then when he lost everything, he had to be the beggar and he said, “I want kids to learn the importance of giving. Would you help me help others? Can you give a contribution to this cause?” And he said, “I learned more in my poverty than I ever did in my wealth.”
Roger was happy as a wealthy man and he’s happy as a man of modest means. He’s echoing what St. Paul is saying in the letter to the Philippians, “I can be wealthy. I can be poor. I can live in luxury. I can live very, very simply. I’ve learned the secret not to be thrown off course. Most of us haven’t learned that secret. When things are going well and there’s money in the bank and everybody loves us, then that’s a life of sobriety, a life of serenity, a life of happiness. But when our stocks go down, when a marriage is on the rocks, when our relationship with the kids is difficult, when we’re struggling to put two nickels together to our name, many of us start to feel sorry for ourselves and then we turn to all kinds of bad, addictive behaviors. Whether it’s drugs or alcohol or gambling or sex or whatever it is, something to say, ‘I’m still a worthwhile person. Even though I got these struggles in my life.’
St. Paul says that’s backwards. We’re always loved by God and what we want to do is discover the secret of happiness which is believing that in all the circumstances of our lives, God is calling us to holiness and happiness and health. Health. especially, spiritually so that we’re not blown about by the winds of fortune. Roger Grine learned that. St. Paul learned that and it’s the lesson that Jesus calls us to in today’s gospel.