There’s a lot in our readings today about divine judgment, the firesof Gehenna and worms that never die. There is always a temptation todisregard these passages, and preach about something more pleasant.But divine judgment is a recurring theme in scripture, and demands ourattention.
I find today’s reading from the letter of James particularlycompelling. We are all familiar with the cliche; “You can’t take it withyou.” James, today, appears to contradict this piece of conventionalwisdom. His view seems to be that we have to take it with us, and thatthat should worry us. He contends that the treasures we accumulate inlife trail behind us to testify for us, or against us, at the final judgment.James warns the rich that their silver and gold will condemn them. It’snot that there is something intrinsically evil about precious metals. Whatmatters is the way they are acquired, and how they are used. Jamesrefers to wages unjustly withheld from farmhands, and wealth hoardedwhen it should have been used to help victims of war and famine. It iswealth like this that we drag after ourselves to the Day of Judgment. Oneis reminded of the ghost of Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’s A ChristmasCarol, who comes back to haunt his old partner Scrooge. Marley’s ghostdrags behind him rusty old money boxes, and loan ledgers — the treasureshe cherished in life.
Now we might find all this irrelevant to our own situation. We arenot greedy Victorian merchants, and few of us have farmhands todefraud. But there are plenty of victims of war and famine in the world.We ignore them at our peril. Unlike Scrooge and Marley, we do not revelin driving the poor into workhouses for our own profit. But many of usare driven by some form of peer pressure to commit hurtful acts that weotherwise would never consider. We might work for companies ororganizations that have corporate cultures that can coerce us into actingunjustly. For example, if you owned a small business, would you fire acapable family man who had been working for you for twenty years, inorder to hire a twenty year old at half the salary? Of course youwouldn’t. But would you fire a dozen middle-aged heads of householdsand replace them with cheaper young workers if it were required as partof a corporate restructuring? This kind of thing happens all the time.Wages drawn for such actions might cry aloud to God for justice. And itis easy enough to imagine analogous situations in other walks of life,including my own. It seems that often we are only as moral as thecircumstances of our lives allow us to be without our taking too muchtrouble without our risking anything really important. Christ expectsmore of us.
The treasures we gather in the course of a lifetime tell a lot aboutus. They form a kind of resume of the way we have invested the life Godhas given us. Of course, the best treasures are those which are immuneto rust and tarnish — acts of charity and compassion motivated by lovefor God and our neighbor. These are treasures that will offer eloquenttestimony on our behalf when Christ comes in glory.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”