Thursday, June 01, 2006

Under the Fields

“Short is man’s careless enjoyment of earthly goods; match him with the brute beasts, and he is no better than they” (Psalm 48/49:21). We live in a time and a nation in which material abundance is regarded as one of the chief goods and goals of life. To be prosperous is to be happy, and even if you have to step on somebody on the way up the ladder, so be it—every man for himself.

The message of the Gospel is quite the opposite, for in the eyes of Christ it is the poor and the powerless who are blessed, while the rich and mighty go the way of the man whose gluttonous opulence led him to the place of torment (Luke 16:19-31). Even though there was higher regard for wealth in the Old Testament—it was considered a divine blessing, since there was no reward, so they thought, awaiting them after death—they still had a healthy awareness that it was foolish to pursue it for its own sake or at the expense of others. They were wise enough to acknowledge the brevity of life and the inescapability of death, which wrests all possessions from the hands of men: “No man can deliver himself from his human lot, paying a ransom-price to God… never will the means be his to prolong his days eternally and escape death” (vv 8-10).

A trenchant commentary on this point occurs in verse 12 of the psalm, but it is most clearly expressed in the Knox translation: “Their riches will go to others, and the grave will be their everlasting home. Age after age they will live on there, under the fields they once called their own.” That is why the verse quoted at the beginning is kind of a refrain in this psalm. A wealthy landowner might be enjoying the vista of his extensive acreage, wholly unaware that, sooner than he thinks, his decaying body will be providing fertilizer for the meadow flowers.

Nobody wants to think about such things these days, though the Scriptures and the writings of the saints, especially the monastic fathers, are full of them. It is a common teaching that we ought not cling to anything that will not survive death. That means that the only thing we can take with us when we die is our relationship to God. And if someone does not have that, then he has nothing for all eternity. You can’t take it with you; you can’t call the fields your own. Even if one could take all his money and possessions with him, where he’s going it will do him no good, bring him no happiness anyway.

The wisdom of the saints is to seek the joy that cannot be taken away from us. All temporal joys that come from wealth or possessions or power or pleasure can and will be taken away, but the joy that comes from living in a communion of love with God will not only not be taken away, it will continually increase for all eternity. It’s the only thing that will survive death.

So, while we’re still walking on top of the fields, let us be free from all greed and attachment to things that quickly pass away. Soon our bodies will be under the fields, but may our souls rise to Him whom our hearts have loved during this ephemeral life. We’ll be all too glad to rid ourselves of the heavy burdens of earthly attachments—“God will rescue my life from the power of that lower darkness” (v 16)—as we enter into our Master’s joy, a joy that no one will ever take from us.