Faith Matters

Martin Henry: The truth behind the knowledge of death

With the help of Ecclesiastes and Luke's Gospel, Fr Martin Henry explores how life without God is empty and meaningless

Fr Martin Henry

Rembrandt's The Parable of the Rich Fool, painted in 1627, depicts a story of Jesus, recorded in Luke's Gospel, about the futility of pursuing earthly wealth against the reality of death

"FOOL. This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?"

These forthright words from Luke's gospel (Luke 12:20) echo a gentler reminder of a similar truth from the Book of Ecclesiastes, where the figure called 'Preacher', or 'Qoheleth', says: "Vanity of vanities. All is vanity."

In other words, life is apparently worthless, or at the very least disappointing, and always ends in defeat, or in the loss anyway of what we might have otherwise considered to be very important to us: our material wealth and our security.

The truth behind Qoheleth's despairing words is, of course, our knowledge of death.

And in the Parable of the Rich Fool, as related in Luke's gospel (Luke 12:16-21), Jesus also reminds people of the reality of death, which can strike without warning at any time and rob our plans for the future of all significance, at any rate as far as we personally are concerned.

Jesus' words are thus a reminder of the huge significance the knowledge of death can potentially have for the way we understand and live our lives.

Now, probably no-one will want to maintain that the awareness of death, and the wisdom this awareness can bring, is something superficial or inessential.

No-one will deny that the knowledge of death has, or at least can have, an important, indeed a decisive, bearing on human life.

But, at the same time, we should realise that our attitudes towards death are also full of contradictions.

Death seems ugly and abhorrent because it destroys and deprives us of what is so dear to us, especially the lives of those we love.

But, on the other hand, we might ask ourselves: "Would we ever properly appreciate the value of another human being, if there were no death?"

Jesus' words are thus a reminder of the huge significance the knowledge of death can potentially have for the way we understand and live our lives 

For frequently, it is only when we lose someone that we fully realise what that person meant to us.

The truth of the paradox that we only find life by losing it can strike home most forcefully at such moments.

But as against that, we also know that there are times when for someone life is such an intolerable burden, even torment, because, for instance, of severe illness and pain and physical weakness, that death can appear even as a kind of gentle liberator from the agony of suffering, and hence not only as something exclusively evil or negative.

Death, then, is an ambiguous reality and can be experienced in different, even in contradictory, ways by us in the course of our lives.

But even though death and the thought of death are undoubtedly such a formidable presence in our lives, and even though Christianity down through the ages has highlighted the importance of death - think of the prayer, the Hail Mary, where we ask Mary to pray for us "now and at the hour of our death" - and even though death can wear many masks, some terrible, others less so; even taking all this into consideration still does not amount to saying that death is the essential key to the understanding of Christian faith.

Oscar Wilde once said: "Death is not a god. He is only the servant of the gods."

That is to say, we shouldn't become so obsessed with death or the idea of death as to make an idol out if it.

If we truly believe in the one God, then literally nothing else, not even the overwhelming reality and majesty of death itself, can be on the same level as God.

To put anything, even as sublime and powerful a reality as death, in the place of God, is in short to commit the sin of idolatry.

An implication of this is that in the Parable of the Rich Fool Jesus is not saying that, because earthly life comes to an end in death, therefore earthly life is intrinsically worthless or meaningless or pointless.

That would be to accord to death a kind of significance that it doesn't really have.

Jesus is rather, I think, implying that human life without God - that's to say, life lived only concentrating on ourselves and thinking only of ourselves - is, in the final analysis, empty and apparently meaningless and indeed self-defeating.

But, at the same time, Jesus is also suggesting that, with the help of God's grace and lived in response to God's grace, life can be of enormous value - it can indeed be of eternal value.

A world without God, in other words, is worthless. But a world with God can be of incalculable worth.

The Spanish Jesuit thinker, Baltasar Gracián (1601-58), hinted at the same truth, in noting that in mathematics a 'zero' in itself signifies 'nothing', but taken with another number, it can be of immense significance.

We shouldn't conclude, then, from the Parable of the Rich Fool that God despises or isn't interested in human work or human effort or human love or human achievement.

On the contrary, a conclusion that can legitimately be drawn from Luke's parable is that - in a way we will never understand as long as we live on this earth, and this scepticism is the wisdom of Qoheleth - God wishes to transform what we make of our limited, but God-given, lives here on earth and to turn it into something of unlimited, eternal value in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.

Fr Martin Henry

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