Have you ever thought: "If I won the lottery, I’d give a lot of the money away?" I know I’ve thought that. And maybe we would give a lot away if we ever struck it rich. We are Christians, after all, and we know it’s our responsibility to share our blessings with others.
On the other hand, maybe we wouldn’t give too much away if we found ourselves flush with cash, even if we had intended to do so in the first place. I say this because studies have shown that having money can easily blind and desensitize us to the needs of others, and turn us into very selfish people. We don’t even have to have money for it to affect us in this way. Simply being preoccupied by the thought of money, and wanting to use it for power, control, or to acquire things beyond our basic needs, can have the same negative effect.
In today’s gospel, Jesus warns us against falling into this trap. In a parable, he spoke of a rich man whose farmland had produced a rich harvest. He had far more than he needed for himself. "So many good things stored up for many years," he said. But he made no mention of wanting to share this with those who had less than he did. Instead, his intentions were purely selfish- to "eat, drink, and be merry." Some people might have considered this man to be fortunate! But in God’s eyes, to use Jesus’ exact word, he was a "fool."
This man never did "eat, drink, and be merry," because he died before he had the chance. But had he lived, one wonders if he truly would have been "merry." He thought that his wealth would translate into future happiness. But whether it would have remains an open question. Money and happiness don’t always go hand in hand.
It’s true that not having money can lead to unhappiness. Poverty brings with it terrible stresses and frustrations. But study after study has shown that, after a person has enough money in order to meet his or her basic needs, increases in income and wealth do not automatically lead to increased happiness and life satisfaction.
Just consider the United States since World War II. The standard of living has increased dramatically. Inflation adjusted income has nearly tripled, and size of the typical house has almost doubled. Nevertheless, we’re not a happier nation as a whole. In fact, clinical depression is several times more common today than it was thirty years ago.
Part of this has resulted from rising expectations about what we think we should have in terms of possessions. As the people around us have more and more, we ourselves want and expect more and more. We judge what we have, not by asking if our needs are met, but by comparing ourselves to those around us. We tend not to ask, "Does my house meet my needs?" but "Is my house nicer than my neighbor’s?" Psychologists call this "reference anxiety." The rest of us call it "keeping up with the Joneses."
And keeping up with the Joneses, who themselves are trying to keep up with other Joneses, can take a terrible toll on us. For instance, we stop feeling grateful for what we have, because we’re too focused on getting the things we don’t have. We work longer hours, making us tired and stressed, and keeping us from the things that really will make us happy, like family, friends, positive leisure activities, helping others, and developing our relationship with God. In an ironic way, our high standard of living in the US may actually be a barrier to finding real happiness. Mother Teresa once stated the problem very well. She said, "When the desire for money comes, with it comes the desire for the things money can provide: superfluous objects, beautiful rooms, luxurious food on our table, more clothes, admirers, etc. Our needs increase, and, because one thing leads to another, the consequence is endless dissatisfaction." Her assessment was echoed in today’s first reading from Ecclesiastes, which spoke of the futility, or "vanity," of spending one’s life by chasing after wealth.
But how might we, as Christians, approach the subject of money in a way that’s consistent with our faith? To begin, we should never forget that while money makes a good servant, it makes a very poor master. When money becomes a preoccupation or all-consuming passion, we’re headed down the wrong path. That’s why St. Paul had to warn against what he called the "idolatry of greed" in today’s second reading. But how might money be a servant, instead of a master? Mother Teresa answered this question when she said, "Money is useful only if it is used to spread the love of Christ." That may sound rather "pie in the sky," especially when we’re paying our utility bills. But it’s really a very practical outlook which can radically shape our every purchase or financial decision. It leads us to ask questions like, "Why are we doing this?" "What purpose will this serve?" "What would Jesus do?" or "Will this help build the kingdom of God?"
How we answer these questions will vary, depending on our needs and circumstances. In addition, our answers won’t necessarily lead to our living spartan, destitute lives. Instead, these questions should force to reconsider our attitudes toward money, our motives when using money, the distinction between our wants and our needs, and how our money might help meet the needs of others. And hopefully our answers will lead us to use our money in a way that is pleasing to Christ, and for which he will be pleased with us. As St. Basil the Great once wrote, "Your reward for the right use of the things of the world will be everlasting glory, a crown of righteousness, and the kingdom of heaven. God will welcome you; the angels will praise you, and all men who have existed since the world began will call you blessed."