Store Up for Yourselves Treasure in Heaven
It would be difficult to forget the day my house burned down. I was walking home from middle school with my friend Jeff when we turned the last corner to my neighborhood and saw the fire engines lining the street. My first reaction was excitement. Nothing ever happened on my street! I was curious to know what was going on. Foolish 12-year-old excitement turned to fear as I got closer and saw that it was my house on fire. Windows were broken and smoke was pouring out from the second floor and the roof. My dad was out front, looking on helplessly, and my Uncle Paul was there as well, but I didn’t see my mother anywhere. I remember that was my first question as I reached my father: “Where’s mom?!” She was next door, it turned out, inside the neighbor’s house, not wanting to stand outside on a cold, but clear December day to watch her house be destroyed by fire.
That morning a repair man had worked on the furnace. Whatever he did wrong, it resulted in an explosion in the basement just after noon. My parents were home with my two youngest brothers who were 2 and 4 years old. My dad was vacuuming the living room downstairs when he heard and felt the explosion below. He yelled up to my mother to get the kids and get out, which she was already doing because she could smell the fire before any alarm had yet gone off. She described having one child in each arm as she reached the stairs leading down to the front door. Already, a wall of black smoke was creeping up the stairwell. How do you tell two toddlers to hold their breath as you go through the black smoke? Instead, she grabbed the wet towels that were right at hand from our morning showers and covered their heads as she escaped with them to safety. Everyone was out of the house, safe and sound. Thank God.
By the time I arrived just after 2 p.m., it was clear that the house was a total loss. Our family of ten was homeless. I can’t even begin to imagine the stress on my parents at this point. With just a policeman’s salary, they had to start over with eight boys who ranged in age from 2 to 16. Yet, despite whatever fears and anxieties they might have had, they reassured us, reminding all of us—and themselves as well I imagine—that “God will provide.” Their faith impressed me. Jesus says in today’s Gospel not to worry about what to eat or what to wear: God will indeed provide. On that day in December, the only clothes I owned were the ones I wore to school that day. We had no food left in the cupboards to eat. Money was about to become extremely tight. Nonetheless, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”
What I witnessed in the days and years following the house fire helped form me in the Catholic faith. My parents were entirely correct: God did provide. God reminds us through the prophet Isaiah of the depth of divine fidelity: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.” It would have been great if God had reached down from heaven and performed a miracle of rebuilding our house and restoring our possessions; but God doesn’t work like that. God is not a magician. God works through people who say yes to His invitation. Working through and with our freedom, God remains faithful, and God does provide.
Today’s Gospel makes it very clear that money cannot be our god. Possessions cannot be our god. There is only one God worthy of all our trust and all our fidelity. Jesus said simply, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” And so the psalmist proclaims: “Only in God be at rest, my soul, for from him comes my hope. He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be disturbed.” This God—worthy of our trust and manifest in His followers through our good works of love and mercy, charity and justice—gives us infinitely more than money can buy. When our house was destroyed, the community came together. When money was tight, generosity was wide. When we “lost everything,” we grew in faith, hope, and love.
I took two lessons from the house fire as a young adolescent. First, I saw my parents’ faith, their trust in God, and their lack of mourning for the loss of mere things. Their confidence that “God will provide” continues to inspire me. Second, I witnessed my uncle move out of his two-bedroom apartment so that all ten of us could move in, while he moved back in with my grandparents. I witnessed the church take up collections to help support us. I witnessed friends and neighbors donating clothes and making meals for our family. I witnessed businesses putting people before profits to help ease the financial burden on my parents. I witnessed, in short, that God does provide, and that not one of our real treasures had been destroyed by the fire.