After the first Mass this morning, a parishioner asked, "Who was that priest we prayed for among the deceased?" If was Fr. Jacques Hamel, the elderly French priest who was killed in his parish church by ISIS terrorists last Tuesday. Given the horrific circumstances of his death, I figured our prayers could help. Even more, I was encouraged by what I heard on the news this morning: that, all across France, Muslim men and women were attending Mass at Catholic Churches as a sign of solidarity. I couldn't help but think that I was seeing this folktale unfold in real life...
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time C
There’s an African folktale about a young man who married a woman whose brother was blind. Wanting to get to known his brother-in-law better, he invited him to go hunting. “Since I cannot see,” he answered, “I will certainly need your help, but—yes—I will go hunting.” As the two are walking together through the bush, the young man is amazed at the blind man’s knowledge of the noises of the wild. By their songs he correctly identifies every bird—and even notes their movements, based on the sounds of their wings.
When they reached their destination, the young man set two traps. He set his own trap in a well-hidden location, such that no bird would ever suspect danger. But he set his brother-in-law’s trap out in the wide open—making no effort to conceal it, since it was hot, he was tired, and the blind man wouldn’t know the difference.
The two men returned to the spot the next day. Before reaching it, the blind man said, “We have caught something! I can hear birds in our traps!” The young man went first to his own, well-hidden trap, and within it found a small, brown bird. But when he came to the blind man’s trap, he found a large, beautiful bird, adorned with all the colors of the rainbow. He knew the bird would make a fine present for his wife, who would be impressed by its colorful feathers, so he put this bird in his own pouch and handed the small, brown bird to the blind man to place in his.
On their journey home, the two men rested in the shade of a large tree, talking about many things. The young man soon recognized that the blind man was very wise, and so he said, “I would like to ask you a question that has troubled me all of my life. Why do men fight with one another?” The blind man paused for just a moment before replying, “Men fight because they do to each other what you have just done to me.” The young man was ashamed and stunned into silence. Not knowing what to say, he got up, took the brightly colored bird out of his pouch, and gave it to his brother-in-law.
Taking the bird, the blind man asked, “Do you have any other questions for me?” “Yes,” said the young man, “I have one more. How do men become friends after they have fought?” The blind man smiled and said, “They do what you just have done. That is how men become friends again.” (Based on, “A Blind Man Catches a Bird,” as written by Alexander McCall Smith and retold by Gioia Timpanelli)
This African folktale, like the words of Scripture we hear addressed to us this Sunday, seem to come to us from a far simpler time and place…and yet they speak so very poignantly to our supposedly “advanced” society. “Guard against all greed,” Jesus says, “for life does not consist in possessions.” As much—if not more—than ever, ours is a time that loves things and uses people, rather than the other way around.
We see it in our desire for cheap consumer goods—food, clothes, technology—without giving much thought to the laborers who provide them, the conditions under which they work, or how they’re being compensated. We see it in the widespread use and acceptance of pornography, contraception, and abortion—almost without question, which reduce other people to commodities or inconveniences. We see it in the degradation of the natural environment, focused more on how we want to live today rather than if our children will be able to live tomorrow. We even see it the way an 85-year-old French priest had his throat cut on Tuesday as he offered daily Mass, in the name of promoting a radical ideology.
When God created this immense and beautiful universe, when he set the human race in and over it, God did so with a particular order and plan built right into nature: that things are there to be used, and people are there to be loved. He didn’t intend his creation to be a vast moneymaking machine; he intended it to be a vast saint-making machine. The essential trajectory of our lives, then, isn’t meant to be along the road to success; it’s to be along the path to holiness, the path to heaven—which is the only sure path to happiness, both now and forever.
God has created things for us to use responsibly, and people for us to love deeply, not the other way around.
In an age that’s constantly telling us—in ways both obvious and subtle—to look out after our own interests, to build bigger barns, to store up earthly treasures for ourselves, let us make sure that what we’re pursuing are true riches: those that matter to God.