18th Sunday – ‘Who Made me Judge?’

Ecclesiastes 1:2,2:21-23, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

The Old Testament is divided into three sections. The Pentateuch or Historical books comes at the beginning, the Prophetic books come at the end and in the middle are a group of books grouped as Wisdom. The Pentateuch talks about creation and the beginning of God’s call and Covenant with Israel – they are the most important books for the Jews in their Scriptures. The Prophetic books announce the will of God to Israel, his good plan for their lives. The Wisdom books on the other hand, explore what it is to live the good life. We are God’s people and God has a plan for our lives, but how do we live in the present, this life everyday, connecting our beginning and end?  They start with Proverbs and end with Ecclesiastes, from which we read our first reading.

Proverbs is a sublime work, well worth reading. It starts by describing the Wisdom underlying Creation, which God also gives to all who ask him. It goes on to explore what it means to live in this world ordered by God’s wisdom. It has a lots of advice. On the value of knowledge: Wise men lay up knowledge, but the babbling of a fool brings ruin near (10:14) and acquired skill: Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings (22:29) and hard work: learn from the hardworking ant or you’ll end up in poverty! (Prov 6:11). There’s advice on business ethics (Proverbs 11), dining habits (Prov 23), friends (Prov 22), the value of a good wife (Prov 31) and more. But having made your way through all of it, right at the end comes Ecclesiastes to make a mockery of Proverbs. We heard it in our first reading: 

‘…a man who has laboured wisely, skilfully and successfully [the ideal of Proverbs] must leave what is his own to someone who has not toiled for it at all …what does he gain for all the toil and strain…?’ All is just vanity (Eccl 2:22) 

What are we to make of this tension? One whose life has been relatively comfortable, who subscribes to the American Dream, would find it easy to go with Proverbs: those who work hard will prosper – Ecclesiastes is just pessimistic. On the other hand, someone whose life has been filled with injustice and suffering might identify readily with Ecclesiastes – everything seems meaningless. But both the books are the Word of God, which means both are true. And they highlight something common in our lives. Our lives are full of contradictions and paradoxes. The resolution of the tension between these books will come much later, when the Word of God will take on flesh in Jesus Christ: it is in him that the contradictions of our own lives will be resolved. We see this again in the gospel. There is a man who comes and asks Jesus to judge between him and his brother.Most of us would know from our own lives or others, the damage that property disputes can bring to a family. We naturally cry to God and ask him to resolve this. But Jesus, strangely, refuses to take a stance: Who made me judge between you and your brother? Isn’t God the final judge of everything? But the accent Jesus puts on it is important: have you made me your judge?

We all have a hierarchy of values in us, whether we are aware of them or not. It is what allows us to function on a day to day basis. We judge everything based on these values. They could be values like what Proverbs says: to acquire skills, succeed in my career; work hard, make good money – not bad in itself. To make sure my family has everything they need, to spend enough time with them, enjoy time with friends, what not. But these values, even good ones, are always in competition with each other. They all make demands on us. The value that sits at the top of our pyramid has a unique place: it takes the place of God in our lives. This is what the Bible refers to as an idol. This topmost value also has a privileged function: it acts as judge on all others. The OT is full of the disasters that come upon those who worship idols. In the NT, these idols move inward: we see this in the second reading. Paul says, you must kill …[w]hat belongs only to earthly life: fornication, impurity, guilty passion, evil desires and especially greed, which is idolatry. We all have our idols. Most times we are unaware of them. 

Our idols give us security. If making money is my highest value, I’ll do everything to arrange my life, my time, my activities to maximise it. Remember, these values are always in competition with each other but the top value judges everything else. I want to have God in my life, but only if he doesn’t interfere with my money making. I want to spend time with my family, but that time is dictated by my work and my boss. During my working days, in an investment bank, I always saw people spending far more time than they needed to at their work. Sometimes, I asked them about it and they would say they were doing it for their family, so it didn’t matter. No. They were really doing it for themselves; it is what fed their ego. They never got to see their children or have a relationship with them. I was recently talking to a friend who spoke of how so many youngsters put their aged parents in old age homes without caring for them. They were told from very young by these same parents that money was the most important thing in life. Their children were now applying the same logic: their parents did not have value because they were a drain on their money. Our values finally judge us. Finally, we end up miserable. We are torn in all sorts of directions. And Ecclesiastes asks, ‘what’s the point?’

The spiritual life is the process of eradicating these idols, these false gods from our life. When God is at the highest place, every other value comes into its proper place. Because, God is not in competition with them or us. Jesus doesn’t need what we can do for him – he only wants us. We tend to think that we are free, and giving our life to Jesus means, we will lose our freedom. The opposite is true. These things in our lives are our real lords, our masters: we are their slaves. When Christ becomes our Lord, he sets us free. When Jesus takes the top place, every other value takes its proper place. We can enjoy the good things of life that Proverbs proposes without being enslaved by them or being threatened by their possible loss. And we can have peace and joy, even when we go through suffering, as Ecclesiastes challenges. What is at the top of your pyramid? Invite Jesus to be the absolute Lord of your heart. Allow him to bring judgment on everything that is not of himself – and set you free.

1 Comment

  1. Another great reflection Fr Rajiv…. A clear explanation of the Biblical text and then a necessary challenge to respond to the Word and a call to deeper conversion of heart! Thank you 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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