What do we truly value? I'm sure if most people were asked that question, they would say the things they most value are family, friends, health or integrity. Religious people would no doubt say they valued their relationship with God the most. As well we should. But instead of answering that question with words, what if we answered that question with the way we live our lives? Would our answer be the same?
We do give our answer to that question, every single day. We are each only given so much time and talent in this world, and how we choose to invest those gifts is illustrative of what we truly value. St. James, in today's second reading, tells us of a wealthy man who valued material riches above all other things. We are not told if this man was a Christian or not. Perhaps he went to Mass every Sunday, we do not know. But even if he gave God lip service, his life gives testimony to what is truly important to him.
St. James tells this rich man, "You have stored up treasure for the last days." But what kind of treasure, and at what cost? "Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one."
This man gained his wealth by treating those in his employ unjustly. He made his profits by not paying his harvesters their due wages. He was able to live in luxury because he allowed others to suffer. St. James says this man has stored up treasure for the last days, but what treasure? Not his silver and gold, for they "have corroded." Not his fine clothes, for they, "have become moth-eaten."
None of these physical treasures will be with us when we face judgment. They are nice while they last, but they are temporary. In the end, the only thing we truly have is our person. And this man has allowed his person to become as corroded and moth-eaten as St. James describes his other treasures. He spent his life trading in the only thing he had of eternal value for things which will soon pass away. Not a wise investment.
So what awaits this rich man? St. James speaks of weeping and wailing, impending miseries, and flesh being devoured by fire. Not a cheery prospect. Jesus, too, warns us of where we may end up if we continue down that unrighteous path. In today's gospel reading he speaks of "Gehenna, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched." Jesus is speaking of hell. Gehenna was a huge garbage pit outside of Jerusalem in Jesus' time, where the refuse and waste of society was burned. There was always fire there, always a stench. Not a pleasant place at all, but that was the closest thing on this earth that Jesus could think of to compare with the eternal destiny of those who lived lives of sin.
A pastor was once asked by a parishioner if he believed Hell was real. The pastor replied, "I can tell you this from reading the Gospels. Jesus wants us to believe that Hell is real. And he wants us to be afraid of going there."
People say that fear is not a good motivator, and perhaps they are right in certain respects. But Jesus speaks of Hell far more often in the Gospels than he speaks of heaven. And it's never pleasant. When Christ speaks of Hell it is as a warning. He loves us, and desperately wants us to turn our lives away from any path that would lead us to damnation. How desperately? Just look at what he tells the Apostles in today's reading.
"If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna."
It is tempting to think here that Jesus is just speaking metaphorically, or using a bit of hyperbole (ask your local English major). He's not serious, is he?
Let's get one thing straight. Our hands, our feet, our eyes -- our bodies are pretty important. They are gifts from God. God did not make us pure spirits, only trapped in these physical bodies for a short while in this life. No, God made us body and soul, part material and part spirit. We are composite beings. This is why we should respect our bodies, care for them, and treat them well. Physical mutilation is wrong because we are maiming this gift from God.
Our bodies are good. What Jesus is doing in this passage is underscoring just how bad sin really is. Sin always gives us some temporary pleasure. If there were no pleasure in sin, no one would be tempted to do it. What Christ is saying is simply this -- it's not worth it. No matter what thrill or joy you may gain from your sin, it's not worth the price of eternal suffering. It's not worth the loss of heaven. Is your hand causing you to sin? Not worth it. Cut it off. Detach yourself from it. Is your eye causing you to sin? Not worth it. Pluck it out. Detach yourself from it.
Is your desire for wealth or comfort causing you to sin? It's not worth it. Detach yourself from it. How about your need for dominance and power (maybe not globally, perhaps just among your friends)? Not worth it. Detach yourself from it. Or is your desire for a good name causing you to put down others? That's a sin, and it's not worth it. Detach yourself from it.
What do you truly value? God gives you many gifts, but the principle one is your very self. He created you and sustains you in being by his love. When your life ends the only thing you will truly have is what you began your life with -- your self. The best investments, then, are those things which cause us to grow in holiness, humility and integrity. Our goal is a lofty one -- heaven, where we will see God face to face and be united with him forever. Are we preparing ourselves for that in this life? Or are we putting that off for another day, while we continue to invest our time in things which bring us, step by step, away from God and toward Gehenna?
Whatever those distractions are, they are not worth it. Detach yourself from those things. Remember the end game, and keep God always before you.