Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Gaining the Whole World at the Cost of Your Soul: The Lesson of Abram and Lot

Yesterday's First Reading was from Genesis 13:2, 5-18:
Now Abram was very rich in livestock, silver, and gold. [...] Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them if they stayed together; their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together.

There were quarrels between the herdsmen of Abram's livestock and those of Lot's. (At this time the Canaanites and the Perizzites were occupying the land.) So Abram said to Lot: "Let there be no strife between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land at your disposal? Please separate from me. If you prefer the left, I will go to the right; if you prefer the right, I will go to the left."

Lot looked about and saw how well watered the whole Jordan Plain was as far as Zoar, like the LORD'S own garden, or like Egypt. (This was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) Lot, therefore, chose for himself the whole Jordan Plain and set out eastward. Thus they separated from each other; Abram stayed in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom. Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked in the sins they committed against the LORD.

After Lot had left, the LORD said to Abram: "Look about you, and from where you are, gaze to the north and south, east and west; all the land that you see I will give to you and your descendants forever. I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth; if anyone could count the dust of the earth, your descendants too might be counted. Set forth and walk about in the land, through its length and breadth, for to you I will give it." Abram moved his tents and went on to settle near the terebinth of Mamre, which is at Hebron. There he built an altar to the LORD.
Some time ago, I heard a great homily preached on one line of this passage: "their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together."  There's so much which can be mined from that punchy little statement.  The wealth and possessions which we're told will bring us happiness divided the family of Abram and Lot. It lead to their herdsmen in-fighting, and it ultimately resulted in them separating. Again and again, we see this happen, that those things which we expect will make us happy just tear us away from those we love.

But there's something else which the priest yesterday pointed out.  Lot wants the best for his family, and he's unashamed to take what he believes is the better half, as a result.  But look at the factors Lot considers when deciding which half of the land to take:"Lot looked about and saw how well watered the whole Jordan Plain was as far as Zoar, like the LORD'S own garden, or like Egypt."  He then proceeds to settle near Sodom, despite the fact that "the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked in the sins they committed against the LORD."  He's so caught up with making sure his family is taken care of financially that he's not looking after their immortal souls.

Father mentioned that we often do this today, particularly with education. We want the best for our families, so parents will save up to send their kids to the most expensive and academically prestigious schools they can find, or they'll encourage their kids to attend a top-rated school.  But while imaging their kids as wealthy and successful, they too often don't give enough consideration to whether those kids will be strong Catholics.  I know that St. Mary's in Alexandria particularly has this problem, since many of the kids are from pretty wealthy families, who have high ambitions for their kids. One consequence is that the kids in these families are so busy with sports and other extracurricular activities to bolster their college resumes that the parish has been unsuccessful in getting a high school youth group going . They've tried both before and after school, but nothing seems to work.

It's worth remembering how this plays out for Lot's family.  They settle in to Sodom, and Lot's daughters marry two of the locals.  But were it not for his uncle's constant intervention on his behalf, Lot and his family would have been killed numerous times: first by the neighboring tribes (Genesis 14), then by the wicked men of Sodom themselves (Genesis 19:1-9), and finally by the wrath of God raining down fire and brimstone upon that town (Genesis 18:16-33; Genesis 19:23-25).  As it is, Lot still loses his wife, when she looks back (Gen. 19:26), as well as his two faithless sons-in-law (Genesis 19:14).  Their attachment to what they mistook as the good life devastates the very family Lot is trying to protect, and but for the grace of God, they would all have been dead.

Jesus remarks on this desire to put financial security above everything, including the spiritual formation of our families: "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Mt. 16:26).  Instead, He offers a superior way: "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Mt. 6:33).

Abraham is wealthy, but he isn't married to his wealth.  He willingly, even voluntarily, takes the seemingly-worse half of the land.  But he makes it the better share, because what's the first thing he does?  Upon arriving at his new home, "he built an altar to the LORD." Abraham seeks God first and prospers. Lot misses the big picture, and is barely saved.

8 comments:

  1. This topic is perfect for today's feast, as well. St. Thomas More left it all for God. He did the exact opposite of Lot, looked at all the riches and at the salvation of his soul and decided that the latter was much more precious than the former. I continue to draw inspiration from this great saint.

    Happy Feast Day to all lawyers, bureaucrats and members of the Diocese of Arlington, VA.

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  2. I was thinking about that during noontime Mass, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out it was his feast day, but that's no surprise.

    Two things come to mind about how Thomas More is like Abraham: first, I was thinking about how he wore a hairshirt under his regal clothing, so he'd never get lost in wealth and forget what was most important.

    And second, while it's a fictionalized version, there's his classic remark to Richard Rich from Man for All Seasons. After Rich perjures himself to get More executed, in exchange for a position as Attorney General for Wales, he says: "Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... but for Wales?"

    Joe

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  3. You'll be happy to know I've got no beef with this article!

    However, I was wondering what kind of law you currently practice?

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  4. Litigation. I'm paid to deal with people who have "beefs" day in and day out.

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  5. Very well and wisely written.

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