For those of you who were alive in the 1970s, what do you remember most of all? For those of you who were not, what comes to mind when you think about that decade? Disco? Waiting in long lines for gasoline? The end of the Beatles? The Partridges and the Bradys? Long hair? Plaid polyester? I myself remember the first television miniseries I ever binge watched. It was called Rich Man, Poor Man and it was only the second time such a series had been produced. The first was QB VII, which I never saw, and you’ll remember the one that followed right after as it was a cultural phenomenon called Roots.
In Rich Man, Poor Man, I recall being captivated by the life story of two brothers, one named Rudy and played by Peter Strauss and another named Tom, played by a young Nick Nolte. Rudy became well educated and eventually, extremely successful, building an impressive financial and political empire. Tom had a much harder life, turning to boxing to survive. Spoiler alert here, but wouldn’t you know it – the rich man, Rudy, encountered a series of personal challenges and ended up quite unhappy. Eventually, the poor man, Tom, found great satisfaction in the little things in life and became fulfilled. The rich man was actually poor in other ways and vice versa. It’s the first time I ever really thought about that idea.
Of course, there’s nothing new about this story line. Going back in time, it’s also the story of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Going much further back in time, it’s the story of the rich farmer from today’s Gospel from Luke.
Let’s be honest here: there is nothing at all surprising about this notion. You and I know that there’s much more to life than material possessions. That chasing money doesn’t guarantee happiness… or salvation… or really anything worthwhile in the long-run. Movies and books have been telling us this for years. Jesus has been telling us this for centuries.
Why do we so often forget this? Why do we so often act as though we have never seen this movie or read this book before? It’s as though Jesus’ often repeated message about the true riches that await us and the fact that the first will be last and the last will be first is one that doesn’t seem to stick? Why do we have to learn this over and over again?
The rich man in today’s Gospel focuses on the here and now, on building up wealth, his treasure, in this life. But Jesus is very, very clear in his reaction, making a sharp distinction and noting that: There is the treasure we build up for ourselves and then there is the treasure that matters to God. Which do you build up? Treasure for yourself or treasure that matters to God?
If you want to build up treasure for yourself, then work hard, spend your money wisely, save carefully, maybe get a little lucky, even steal from others – hey, why not? – and build larger barns to store it all just as the man in the Gospel story did. If your primary goal is to build up treasure for yourself, then that is exactly what you should do.
But… if you want to build up treasure that matters to God, then care about others, always try to put love first, stop judging, consider all those who you encounter as equal members of the Body of Christ, and forgive as much as you possibly can.
Today’s Gospel is a reminder – it’s the wake up call we seem to need again and again.
I’m asking myself this question: “In the end, the very end… will I be the rich man or the poor man?”