Trust in God Rather Than in Earthly Treasures
Pope John Paul II warned about the vanity of riches during his general audience with 19,000 people in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 20. His teaching was based on the first part of Psalm 49 and was part of his ongoing series of teachings on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours.
The first part of Psalm 49 describes the situation of the just man who is forced to confront a difficult situation where he is surrounded by the malice of his foes, who boast about the vastness of their riches. This experience leads him to conclude that great wealth is not an advantage. Indeed, the Holy Father noted, it is better to be poor and to be united with God than to be rich, successful and distant from the Lord.
“Profound blindness takes hold of man when he is under the illusion that he will avoid death by striving to accumulate material goods,” Pope John Paul II said. “He is convinced that he will even succeed in ‘bribing’ his way out of death by trying to corrupt it, a little like he has done in order to possess all other things, namely success, triumph over others in the social and political spheres, unpunished abuse of power, eating to his heart's content, comforts and pleasures.
“The rich man, who is attached to his immense fortune, is convinced he will also succeed also in having dominion over death,” John Paul said. “But no matter how enormous is the sum that he is prepared to offer, his ultimate fate is inevitable… Indeed, like all men and women — rich or poor, foolish or wise — he will have to go to the grave.”
The Pope pointed out that the Gospel revisits this theme when it teaches us that even the rich and powerful cannot avoid death. “Jesus poses this rather unsettling question to those who listen to him: ‘What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?’ No exchange is possible because life is a gift from God: ‘In his hand is the soul of every living thing, and the life breath of all mankind.’”
Our meditation on Psalm 49 will be divided in two parts, just as the Liturgy of the Hours’ evening prayer divides it into two parts. At this time, we will comment mainly on the first part, where the starting point for the reflection is a rather difficult situation similar to the one found in Psalm 73.
A just man is forced to confront “evil days” as his “wicked pursuers ring him round” and “boast of their abundant riches” (see Psalm 49:6-7).
The just man comes to a conclusion that is formulated as something akin to a proverb, which appears once again at the end of the psalm. It synthesizes in a clear way the predominant message of this poetic composition: “For all their riches mortals do not abide; they perish like the beasts” (verse 13). In other words, “abundant riches” are not an advantage. On the contrary, it is better to be poor and to be united with God!
Death Is Unavoidable
This proverb seems to echo the austere voice of an old wise man in the Bible, Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth, when he describes the apparently equal fate of every living creature — which is death — that renders the frenzied attachment to earthly things altogether vain: “As he came forth from his mother's womb, so again shall he depart, naked as he came, having nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand” (Ecclesiastes 5:14). “For the lot of man and of beast is one lot; the one dies as well as the other … Both go to the same place” (Ecclesiastes 3:19,20).
Profound blindness takes hold of man when he is under the illusion that he will avoid death by striving to accumulate material goods. It is with good reason that the psalmist speaks of a loss of “good sense” that is almost like that of an animal.
However, every culture and spirituality has explored this topic and Jesus expressed its essence in a definitive way when he proclaimed: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions” (Luke 12:15). He then went on to tell the famous parable of the foolish rich man who stored up his goods to an excessive degree without being aware of the trap that death was setting for him (see Luke 12:16-21).
The Foolishness of Wealth Indeed, the first part of the psalm is completely centered on this illusion, which has conquered the heart of the rich man. He is convinced that he will even succeed in “bribing” his way out of death by trying to corrupt it, a little like he has done in order to possess all other things, namely success, triumph over others in the social and political spheres, unpunished abuse of power, eating to his heart's content, comforts and pleasures.
But the psalmist does not hesitate to brand this pretense as foolish. He makes use of the word “ransom,” which also conveys some financial overtones: “One cannot redeem oneself, pay to God a ransom. Too high the price to redeem a life; one would never have enough to stay alive forever and never see the pit” (Psalm 49:8-10).
The rich man, who is attached to his immense fortune, is convinced he will also succeed in having dominion over death, just as he has dominated over everything and everyone with his money. But no matter how enormous is the sum that he is prepared to offer, his ultimate fate is inevitable.
Indeed, like all men and women — rich or poor, foolish or wise — he will have to go to the grave, as has been the case for even the most powerful, and he will have to leave his beloved gold on earth, along with the material goods he worshipped so much (see verses 11-12).
God Gives Us Life
Jesus poses this rather unsettling question to those who listen to him: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Matthew 16:26). No exchange is possible because life is a gift from God: “In his hand is the soul of every living thing, and the life breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10).
Among the Fathers of the Church who have commented on Psalm 49, St. Ambrose merits particular attention because he broadened the scope of its significance, beginning with the psalmist's opening invitation: “Hear this, all you peoples! Give ear, all who inhabit the world.”
The former bishop of Milan made the following comments: “Let us recognize here, precisely at the beginning, the voice of the Lord our savior, who is calling people to the Church, so that they will give up sin, become followers of the truth and recognize the advantages of faith.” After all, “all hearts of the various generations of man have been polluted by the poison of the serpent, and the human conscience, a slave of sin, was not able to extricate itself from it.” For this reason, the Lord, “on his own initiative, promises forgiveness in the generosity of his mercy, so that the guilty one will no longer have fear but, with full awareness, will rejoice in having now to offer himself as servant of the good Lord, who has forgiven our sins and rewarded our virtues” (Commento a dodici salmi, No. 1: SAEMO, VIII, Milan-Rome, 1980, p. 253).
In these words from the psalm, we hear an echo of the invitation from the Gospel: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you” (Matthew 11:28). Ambrose goes on to say: “As one who goes to visit the sick, as a doctor who comes to take care of our painful wounds, in the same way he prescribes a cure, so that men will listen to him and so that all will run confidently and speedily to receive the remedy of healing … He calls all people to the source of wisdom and knowledge and promises redemption to everybody, so that no one will live in anxiety and so that no one will live in despair” (No. 2: Ibid., pp. 253 and 255).
- Oct. 31-Nov. 6, 2004