In the Gospel parable, the Rich Fool obsessed over his extravagant possessions. The thought of sharing his crops with those less fortunate apparently never crossed his mind. It was all about him. So he says to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.” (cf. Luke 12:19)
Most of us would agree that it’s a good idea to save for retirement and hope for reasonable comfort in our twilight years. Provided we don’t overdo it, it’s pleasant to “eat, drink, and be merry.” It’s also the stuff of friendship. But the Rich Fool didn’t just aim to eat, drink, and be merry. He allowed his ample goods to instruct his soul to “take [its] ease.” He directed his soul to retire in self-absorbed comfort.
As we get older, many of us get flabbier because we increase our caloric intake and lose muscle fiber with decreased exercise. Use it or lose it, as the saying goes. So it is with Christian virtue.
Christian virtue begins with the cornerstone cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. As the queen of virtues, prudence identifies Christian principles and applies them to the concrete circumstances of life. Prudence requires a sharp sense of morality, correctly informed by conscience, and an accurate assessment of conditions. A prudent man assembles the possible alternatives, immediately dismisses the evil and selects the best remaining morally-correct choice.
An excessive attachment to the things of this world distorts the virtue of prudence. One of the roots of imprudence is a life of extreme comfort. The internet provides countless stories of the rise and fall of the rich and famous, exhibiting shocking displays of reckless imprudence.
There’s nothing new under the sun. When King David relaxed in his palace while his soldiers went off to war, his affection for the comforts of life caused his eyes to roam beyond the walls of his compound. His gaze settled on Bathsheba – a bathing beauty – another man’s wife. The rest of the story is as predictable as lighting a match amid gas fumes.
The virtue of justice renders unto others their due. But we’re inclined to think of justice in terms of what others owe us. In our self-centeredness, we are quick to claim victim status. It begins as children: “It’s not fair! She received more ice cream than me!” The pattern continues into adulthood: “It’s not fair! He received a raise, and I didn’t.” When we recognize injustice, we usually overlook our own inequities such as ingratitude and failing to give an honest day of work. Jesus diagnoses the flaw: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Mt. 7:3)
When we have an excessive attachment to the things of this world, we easily redefine justice. Not only do we conveniently claim victim status, but the vice of envy also consumes us, and we demand reparations as a matter of “justice.” We see a hint of this envy in the question that led to the Parable of the Rich Fool. “Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.’ He replied to him, ‘Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?’” (Luke 12:13-14) Envy is petty and ugly. It usually succeeds with the help of powerful patrons (law firms, political parties) who use the envious as pawns to advance their own selfish agenda.
Of course, sometimes we really are victims of injustice – and we need the services of powerful advocates. We need prudence for the appropriate evaluation. But worldly attachments easily disguise the sin of envy – and our own desire for the certainty of personal comforts that others can provide – with exaggerated claims of injustice.
When we have an excessive attachment to the things of this world, we damage the virtue of temperance. Temperance is the virtue that regulates our desires for food and sex. Of course, under the rule of reason, these tendencies are normal. But the desires can become easily distorted when we allow selfishness to crowd out self-control and generosity.
The Bible warns, “Let neither gluttony nor lust overcome me, and do not surrender me to a shameless soul.” (Sirach 23:6) A shameless soul is oblivious to the wreckage caused by one’s selfish behavior: from drunkenness and disease to “unplanned” pregnancies. Many tragedies can be averted through the exercise of self-restraint freed from the oppression of the lust for escapist comforts.
When we have an excessive attachment to the things of this world, we undermine fortitude. Fortitude is courage, and courage regulates the volatile emotion of fear (as well as anger). The trials promised by Christ are indeed fearful: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. … a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt. 10:34-38)
When we place the comforts of family relationships ahead of a faithful relationship to God, we are quick to purchase peace within our families with an unholy spirit of “non-judgmentalism,” a cowardly self-serving indifference to evil.
Spiritual indolence is a constant threat. So occasionally it is helpful to be reminded, “‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’ Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” (Luke 12:20-21)
If we desire the heavenly prize, there can be no retirement in the spiritual life. We need to work hard to cultivate, with God’s grace, the beautiful virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude – spiritual treasures rich in what matters to God.
Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.