What is Success?
What is success? How many of us think that success depends on what we possess, on how much we have? A big house, or a house down at the beach - are these signs of success? A nice fancy car, or numerous expensive cars – are these signs of success? How about a wealthy financial portfolio that secures an early retirement – does this point to success? What factors determine success in your eyes?
This is an important question to reflect upon because many people put so much time and effort, spend so much of their life in pursuit of success. Yet, maybe we need to take a step back and ask, “What exactly is success?” What does a successful life look like?
Our answer, of course, will surely depend on our worldview and what we prioritize and value. If our perspective is simply a materialistic one, success means amassing more and more possessions and things. If we prioritize our work and reputation, success may mean becoming a workaholic and making a name for oneself. If we emphasize relationships and family and friends, success looks very different. And if we take to heart the Gospel teaching of “seeking first the kingdom of God” above all else, where we emphasize loving God and loving our neighbor as the greatest commandments, then this type of success will look quite different than many forms of worldly success.
We must be on guard. A temptation for many of us is to think of the American dream as collecting more and more in our life, to never be satisfied with what we have. We see on the internet and television all the shows that flaunt the lives of the rich and famous and some of us envy their unlimited excess. We give in to not being content with what we have and always wanting more and more. Think about how our understanding of wealth has changed in my lifetime where people are no longer striving to be millionaires, but now we have billionaires. And even with this, we see people want more and more. The danger for too many is that we envy those who have what we don’t. Yet, this distorted standard of success stands quite opposite our Orthodox Christian view of life.
Jesus prefaces today’s Gospel story of the Rich Fool with the warning, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
Now the so-called Rich Fool would NOT be considered a fool by most people in our world. Actually, how many people would admire and even envy his life? He was wealthy. He planned on retiring early. He felt he had enough that he could spend the rest of his life comfortable, eating, drinking, and making merry. Wouldn’t most people love to have that type of security in retirement? Why then does God calls this man a fool?!?
Listen again to our Lord’s final words: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Now here’s a counter-cultural statement for our American mentality – “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions!” Christ warns us about this pernicious vice called greed. Always wanting more. Never feeling satisfied or content with what we have. Looking at what others possess in an envious way. Viewing success with what and how much we possess. Laying up treasures for ourselves and not acting rich toward God.
Contrast this attitude with the words of Saint John Chrysostom, who noted, “A rich man is not one who has much but one who gives much, for what he gives away remains his forever.”
Acting rich toward God is understanding that all we have is a gift from God, a loan that God gives us to use in helping others! Acting rich toward God implies giving generously to those in need. A rich person, in the eyes of God, has nothing to do with how much we have, but how we use what we do have to help others, to love others!
That’s surely a different perspective on riches and success – the standard is not one who has much but one who lives simply and who gives generously with whatever they have; one who realizes that all they have is a gift from God, a gift that is to be used to bless others, a gift that is to be shared generously with others.
A second lesson we learn from today’s story of the Rich Fool is the brevity of life. The Psalmist says, “The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off.” (Psalm 90:10). Think about it. Life is short, no matter how long we live. Three thousand years ago the psalmist thought living 70-80 years was but a brief life. For all our medical and technological advancement, today we may live to be 100, yet we all realize how transient this life is.
As another psalm states bluntly, “Our life is like a flower of the field that flourishes one moment, then the wind passes over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. (Psalm 103:15-16) Ask any 80 or 90 year old how quickly life passes by. The important question, of course, is not how many years we have - because none of us know how many or few we will live - but what will we do with the few years God gives us.
Another way to think about our life is to reflect on what will remain after our years end? God isn’t interested in what we have stored up in our financial portfolio or with our earthly possessions, but He is interested in what we have stored up for eternity. What can we take with us into eternity? Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis highlighted this with a beautiful analogy. He says that many of us are very careful in putting money away each month into our IRAs (Individual Retirement Accounts) to secure our future and our retirement years. Yet, how many of us are just as diligent and careful to put riches away in our ERAs (Eternal Retirement Accounts).
Being rich toward God implies building up that ERA not the IRA. And how do we build up our Eternal Retirement Account – through acts of love, kindness, generosity, sacrificial giving, service to others, as well as through our prayer, worship, and faith.
Saint John Chrysostom reflected on today’s story by asking, “Do you not realize that this present life is but a brief stay in a foreign land? We are not citizens in this world, but brief travelers on our way to the eternal city above. Some of us will try to carry treasures with us on the journey, but there are only certain treasure that will endure after death.” We need to understand what these treasures of faith are and what it means to be rich toward God.
In summary, as we enter into this week’s national celebration of Thanksgiving, let us gratefully reflect on all that we have. Let us do this by soberly reflecting on today’s story of the Rich Fool and honestly looking at our own lives. How do we understand success and what is our relationship with the treasures we possess?
Jesus warns us to “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Saint John Chrysostom reminds us that “A rich man is not one who has much but one who gives much, for what he gives away remains his forever.” We all know how brief our life is, thus, let’s focus and pay more attention on building up our ERA (Eternal Retirement Account) than on our IRAs.
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