A wise Israelite living some distance from Jerusalem sent his son to the Holy City to complete his education. During his son’s absence, the father became ill, and feeling that death was near, he made a will, leaving all his property to one of his slaves, on the condition that he should allow the son to select any one article which pleased him for an inheritance.
As soon as his master died, the slave, elated with his good fortune, hurried to Jerusalem, informed his late master’s son of what had taken place, and showed him the will.
The young man was surprised and grieved at the news, and after the allotted time of mourning had expired, he began to consider his situation seriously. He went to his teacher, explained the circumstances to him, read him his father’s will, and expressed his bitterness about the disappointment of his reasonable hopes and expectations. He could think of nothing he had done to offend his father and complained loudly of the in-justice.
“Stop,” said his teacher; “your father was a loving man with great wisdom. This will is a living monument to his good sense and far-sightedness. May you prove as wise in your day.”
“What!” exclaimed the young man. “I see no wisdom in the bestowal of his property upon a slave; no affection in this slight upon his only son.”
“Listen,” returned the teacher. “By his action, your father has secured your inheritance if you are only wise enough to understand it. When your father knew that his time was near, he thought to himself, ‘My son is away; when I am dead, he will not be here to take charge of my affairs; my slaves will plunder my estate and to gain time will even conceal my death from my son, and deprive me of the sweet savor of mourning.’ To prevent these things, he bequeathed his property to his slave, knowing full well that the slave, believing in his apparent right, would send you the news quickly and take good care of the inheritance, which he did and has done.”
“Well, how does this benefit me?” The son interrupted impatiently.
“Ah!” replied the teacher, “wisdom I see rests not with the young. Do you not know that what a slave possesses belongs to his master? Has not your father left you the right to select one article of all his property for your own? Choose the slave as your portion, and by possessing him, you will recover all that was your father’s. Such was his wise and loving intention.”
The young man did as he was advised and gave the slave his freedom afterward. But ever after, he was quick to say: “Wisdom resides with the aged, and understanding in length of days.”
(This illustration is from Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East: Ancient Hebrew, Vol. 3)
There are many morals to this story, but the one that struck me was that the young man was so consumed with the treasures that he thought he had not received that he was blind to the treasures that were his from the beginning. This may also be a problem for all of us, especially considering that our treasures are not limited to money and wealth. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Our treasures are whatever consumes our hearts and distracts us from God, so like the young man in the story, we can become so caught up in worldly treasures that we become blind to the true and eternal treasure that we already have. We come to believe that the present—the treasures that are here and now—is all there is and all that matters, and while consumed with it, we neglect the other.
The Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People tells the story of St. Paulinus, a Roman missionary to the Anglo-Saxons, and how he tried to convert the English to Christianity. Paulinus visited King Edwin in the year 627. Edwin and his followers worshipped pagan gods and had no concept of a better afterlife to look forward to. Edwin was impressed with the ideas of Paulinus but decided to hear the views of his advisors before deciding whether to convert to Christianity. One of the advisors spoke in favor of Christianity and put the case like this:
“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. Inside, there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears on earth for a little while, but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”
What Edwin’s advisor has come to understand is that this life, although it is all that we can truly know, is not all that there is; therefore, it should not be of the greatest importance to us, nor should we give all that we have to make this world more comfortable for ourselves be our greatest goal.
This is a part of what Jesus is talking to us about in our Gospel. The rich man wants Jesus to mediate between him and his brother over the family inheritance. Jesus’ response, “this is not my concern.” Then Jesus tells the parable of the man who had a bumper crop one year, so he built for himself storage to keep it all, and finally said to himself, “I’m set. I can take life easy from here on out.” Jesus’ response, “Fool!” Jesus calls him a fool not because he was successful and wealthy—that was not the issue—Jesus calls the man a fool because he planned as though the life he was living was all there was. To use the analogy of the sparrow that flew through the banquet hall, the man did not plan for what would happen after he flew out the other door. He had this life all worked out—his treasure and his heart were in the here and now—but he had made no plan for what would happen to him after he died.
Jesus’ concern is not a matter of treasures. Instead, it is a matter of the heart – “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We are not being asked to go off and live the life of a desert monk, but we are being asked to live our lives with the understanding that there is more to come. Like the young man who thought he had inherited nothing but had inherited it all, you and I must also recognize that our inheritance—that which makes us rich beyond compare—is not what we can see, feel, or count. Our inheritance, as St. Peter tells us, gives “us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” That is where our hearts should be, and no amount of earthly treasure should distract us from it.
We are allowed, and it is God’s desire that we have other interests and concerns. Things and occupations that give us joys and challenges and peace and more. God has blessed us with these things so that we might have an abundant life, but we must look within and ask, “Have I placed my hope in them? Has my heart been so consumed by them that I have neglected God?” If you answer yes, consider where you will be when the sparrow flies out the other door and correct your heart, so God is first.
Let us pray: Loving God, you speak to us through all of life. Please help us to trust you and to trust that what you desire for us lies in the deepest part of our hearts. May we always center our lives on you and hear joyfully your call to be your companion. Help us to follow our desires to live our lives as best we can and to serve others with the unique treasures you have given us. Amen.