Jim and the Treasure, Newell Convers Wyeth (1882–1945), 1911; published in <i>Treasure Island</i> by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York

Fr Neil’s homily at Mass on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 31 July 2022

Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on the earth.¹

A few months back, Fr Simon Dray and I did a mission day with Year 9 pupils at St Richard’s Catholic College. One of the tasks we set the students was this: they had to imagine a scenario where they were on a sinking boat. There was a nearby uninhabited island and they have enough time for each member of the crew, six in total, to grab one item and make for the island. They were given a list to choose from and then were asked to justify their decisions. A least one group from each class ended up with a rifle, knife, a bag full of diamonds and a suitcase full of cash as part of their six items. You don’t have to be Brain of Britain to speculate about what might happen as time passes in that scenario. When asked about why they had chosen the cash or the diamonds a common response was: “motivation to survive.”

Usually the threat of death is enough of a motivation to try and survive, but the logic of the students’ answer suggested that life isn’t really worth living without material wealth. In their thinking, the idea of wealth was the one thing that would give them that extra motivation. Our opening words from St Paul to the Colossians stand in direct opposition to this way of thinking. We cannot blame the youth of today: they are only reflecting the priorities of the modern world, as it filters down to them through the education system and mass media.

We are exposed to a never-ending tide that wants to direct our thoughts and attention to material things alone as providing all that we need for self-fulfilment. This materialist way of thinking is so influential that many have proposed that in reality there is nothing else that has any meaning other than us being a part of and related solely to the material world. The spiritual is marginalised, pushed to the fringes and is predominantly the domain of the freaks.

The brutal result of reducing existence to the mere material is to rob humanity of the significance of the spiritual that has enriched with such beauty our arts and culture and ennobled it with profound virtues. The materialist worldview becomes bleak and utilitarian. Yet humanity is stubbornly religious and even the materialists looks for a saviour and a god. We see this in so many people’s attitude towards the NHS. Thankful as I am for many of the services it provides, it isn’t our saviour. The ecological movement so often acts as if creation itself is our god, rather than the gift of the Creator; and the rise of woke culture is characterised by an unremitting merciless moralising, with no means of redemption for those it identifies as ‘sinners’. It is counterfeit religion and demonic in nature.

Of course the opposite view is also problematic. St Paul has been accused by some commentators of being far too Platonic in his thinking and suffers a naïve gnosticism, i.e. the spiritual is good and the material is bad. The gnostic heresy viewed the material world as evil: we should pay it no attention. It leads to one of two extremes. On one hand there is a severe asceticism that brutally punishes the body as evil. On the other, an extreme licentiousness and self-indulgence, where it doesn’t matter what you do to the body as it is the soul and spirit that you have to attend to; so you may as well experience bodily pleasure. This type of heresy is never far away and is descriptive of much modern thinking and practice.

This is not the teaching of Christ, St Paul or the Church, and never has been. The distinction that is made between the material and spiritual is its use and function. Christ’s words are not to be seen as a prompt to give up our jobs, not attend to our material needs and those of our families or plan for the future.

The words of Christ in the Gospel reading are a warning against a sole preoccupation with material wealth and possession. There is a futility that feeds a hunger for things in the hope that they will provide me with the meaning and identity that I long for. Christ simply asks the question: what use is material goods in the light of our mortality? How is it going to help me face my death? We cannot take any of it with us and the danger is that we enter death empty-handed, spiritually speaking.

With no thought for the development of the inner life of virtue, faith, hope and charity we end up in the place of futility expressed in Ecclesiastes; “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”² And the foolishness of the man who, believing he has got his life sorted says “take your ease, eat drink and be merry.” God tells him “This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”³

The truth is that the created order is God-given, it is a gift to humanity and we are called to look after it responsibly. Yet the gift was never intended as an end in itself, as if it is all there is to life. Creation fulfils its vocation when it points beyond itself to draw our gaze above and beyond it — to God, the Creator and giver of such good things. Our proper relationship with the material world is to look beyond it, to perceive the heavenly realities which we might desire: to “seek the things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father.”⁴

Christ tells us elsewhere: “do not lay up treasures on earth…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”⁵ If you are unsure about where your treasure is truly placed, imagine yourself in an extended scenario the students considered. The boat that is sinking this time represents the demise of our earthly life. As it comes to an end, what are we going to take with us from that boat?

If our identity and sense of meaning is tied to our material goods, life would have the danger of becoming meaningless. If however our life is hidden with Christ in God and we can own our true identity as children of God, then nothing in the world can take that away.

Attending to the spiritual, through prayer, mass, Biblical readings, Church teaching and the development of the virtues, and giving thanks to God for the goodness of creation, are part of the means by which we can be assured that we are storing up treasure in heaven.

¹ Colossians 3:2
² Ecclesiastes 1:2
³ Luke 12:20
⁴ Colossians 3:1–2
⁵ Matthew 6:20–21