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Psalm 49 [48]

Catechesis by John Paul II

"Vanity of riches" - v 1-13

Vespers (Evening prayer), Tuesday Week 2 - in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

1. Our meditation on Psalm 49 will be divided into two parts, just as it is proposed on two separate occasions by the Liturgy of Vespers. We will now comment in detail on the first part in which it is hardship that inspires reflection, as in Psalm 72. The just man must face "evil days" since he is surrounded by "the malice of [his] foes", who "boast of the vastness of their riches".

The conclusion that the just man reaches is formulated as a sort of proverb, a refrain that recurs in the finale to the whole Psalm. It sums up clearly the predominant message of this poetic composition: "In his riches, man lacks wisdom: he is like the beasts that are destroyed" (v13). In other words, untold wealth is not an advantage, far from it! It is better to be poor and to be one with God.

2. The austere voice of an ancient biblical sage, Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth, seems to ring out in this proverb when it describes the apparently identical destiny of every living creature, that of death, which makes frantic clinging to earthly things completely pointless: "As he came from his mother's womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil... For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other... All go to one place" (Eccl 5: 14; 3: 19, 20).

3. A profound blindness takes hold of man if he deludes himself that by striving to accumulate material goods he can avoid death. Not for nothing does the Psalmist speak of an almost animal-like "lack of understanding".

The topic, however, was to be explored by all cultures and forms of spirituality and its essence was expressed once and for all by Jesus, who said: "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Lk 12: 15). He then recounts the famous Parable of the Rich Fool who accumulated possessions out of all proportion without a thought of the snare that death was setting for him.

4. The first part of the Psalm is wholly centred on this illusion that has the rich man's heart in its grip. He is convinced that he will also even succeed in "buying off" death, attempting as it were to corrupt it, much as he had to gain possession of everything else, such as success, triumph over others in social and political spheres, dishonest dealings, impunity, his satisfaction, comforts and pleasures.

But the Psalmist does not hesitate to brand this excess as foolish. He uses a word that also has financial overtones: "ransom": "No man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. The ransom of his soul is beyond him. He cannot buy life without end, nor avoid coming to the grave" (Ps 49: 8-10).

5. The rich man, clinging to his immense fortune, is convinced that he will succeed in overcoming death, just as with money he had lorded it over everything and everyone. But however vast a sum he is prepared to offer, he cannot escape his ultimate destiny. Indeed, like all other men and women, rich and poor, wise and foolish alike, he is doomed to end in the grave, as happens likewise to the powerful, and he will have to leave behind on earth that gold so dear to him and those material possessions he so idolized.

Jesus asked those listening to him this disturbing question: "What shall a man give in return for his life?" (Mt 16: 26). No exchange is possible, for life is a gift of God, and "in his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind" (Jb 12: 10).

6. Among the Fathers who commented on Psalm 49, St Ambrose deserves special attention. He extends its meaning to a broader vision, starting precisely with the Psalmist's initial invitation: "Hear this, all you peoples, give heed, all who dwell in the world".

The Bishop of Milan commented in ancient times: "Let us recognize here, from the outset, the voice of the Lord our Saviour who calls the peoples to the Church in order to renounce sin, to become followers of the truth and to recognize the advantage of faith". Moreover, "all the hearts of the various human generations were polluted by the venom of the serpent, and the human conscience, enslaved by sin, was unable to detach itself from it". This is why the Lord, "of his own initiative, in the generosity of his mercy promised forgiveness, so that the guilty would be afraid no longer and with full awareness rejoice to be able to offer their offices as servants to the good Lord who has forgiven sins and rewarded virtues."

7. In these words of our Psalm we can hear echoes of the Gospel invitation: "Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you" (Mt 11: 28). Ambrose continues, "Like someone who will come to visit the sick, like a doctor who will come to treat our painful wounds, so [the Lord] points out the cure to us, so that men may hear him clearly and hasten with trust and promptness to receive the healing remedy.... He calls all the peoples to the source of wisdom and knowledge and promises redemption to them all, so that no one will live in anguish or desperation."

JPII - General Audience, 20 October 2004 - © Copyright 2004 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

"Human wealth does not save" - v 14-21

(Evening prayer, Tuesday, Week 2) - in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
General Audience - 27 October 2004 - © Copyright 2004 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

1. As it gradually develops, the Liturgy of Vespers presents to us the sapiential Psalm 49, whose second part has just been proclaimed. This section of the Psalm, like the previous part on which we have already reflected, also condemns the illusion to which idolizing riches gives rise. This is one of humanity's constant temptations: clinging to money as though it were endowed with some invincible power, we allude ourselves that we can even "buy off death" and keep it at bay.

2. In reality, death bursts in with its ability to demolish every illusion, sweeping away every obstacle and humbling our pride, ushering into the next world rich and poor, sovereigns and subjects, foolish and wise alike. The Psalmist has sketched a vivid image, showing death as a shepherd firmly driving his flock of corruptible creatures. Thus, Psalm 49 offers us a realistic and stern meditation on death, the unavoidable and fundamental destination of human existence.

We often seek to ignore this reality in every possible way, distancing the very thought of it from our horizons. This effort, however, apart from being useless, is also inappropriate. Reflection on death is in fact beneficial because it relativizes all the secondary realities that we have unfortunately absolutized, namely, riches, success and power. Consequently, Sirach, an Old Testament sage, warns us: "In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin" (7: 36).

3. However, here comes a crucial turning point in our Psalm. If money cannot "ransom" us from death, yet there is One who can save us from that dark, traumatic shadow on the horizon. In fact, the Psalmist says: "God will ransom me from death and take my soul to himself" (v16).

Thus, a horizon of hope and immortality unfolds before the just. The response to the question asked in the first part of the Psalm, "why should I fear", (v6) is: "do not fear when a man grows rich" (v17).

4. When the just person, poor and humiliated in history, reaches the ultimate boundary of life, he has no possessions, he has nothing to pay as a "ransom" to stave off death and remove himself from its icy embrace. Here is the great surprise: God himself pays the ransom and snatches his faithful from the hands of death, for he is the only One who can conquer death that human creatures cannot escape.

The Psalmist therefore invites us "not to fear" nor to envy the rich who grow ever more arrogant in their glory since, when death comes, they will be stripped of everything and unable to take with them either gold or silver, fame or success. The faithful, instead, will not be abandoned by the Lord, who will point out to him "the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand happiness for ever".

5. And then, at the conclusion of the sapiential meditation on Psalm 49, we will be able to apply the words of Jesus which describe to us the true treasure that challenges death: "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Mt 6: 19-21).

6. As a corollary to Christ's words, in his Comment on Psalm 49, St Ambrose reasserts firmly and clearly the inconsistency of riches: "They are all perishable and go faster than they came. A treasure of this kind is but a dream. On waking, it has disappeared, for the person who rids himself of the intoxication of this world and acquires the sobriety of virtue will despise all these things and attach no importance whatsoever to money."

7. The Bishop of Milan therefore invites us not to be ingenuously attracted by human wealth and glory: "Do not fear, even when you see the magnification of some powerful family's glory! Know how to look deeply, with attention, and it will appear empty to you unless it contains a crumb of the fullness of faith". Indeed, before Christ's coming, man was decadent and empty: "The ruinous fall of that ancient Adam emptied us, but Christ's grace has filled us. He emptied himself to fill us and make the fullness of virtue dwell in human flesh". St Ambrose concludes that for this very reason, we can now exclaim with St John, "And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace" (Jn 1: 16).