About the Real Purpose of Earthly Life


        Brothers and sisters!

        Today we heard the Gospel lection from Saint Luke telling about the foolish, selfish rich man who stored all the grain his estate produced, and about how, when his barns proved insufficient to hold it, he decided to build more, rather than share it.  This story is a parable, so its meaning is much wider than one might think at first hearing.  The rich man symbolizes everyone who has more than enough to meet his immediate needs, and his abundant harvest stands for an adequate salary, a substantial inheritance, a profitable business, and material prosperity in general.  In the parable, the rich man used part of his wheat to finance a pleasurable lifestyle, and part to secure himself against whatever difficulties or misfortunes life might present in the future; but he gave no thought to helping the poor or to any of the other charitable purposes for which God provides us with material means.  As it turned out, his earthly pleasures did not last long and his stored grain was left for another, because that very night he died unexpectedly.

        Thus, brothers and sisters, this parable teaches us to share our wealth with God, Who gives it to us in the first place; it teaches us also not to live lavishly -- not to be a “conspicuous consumer,” as it is said nowadays -- nor to save every extra penny for a “rainy day” that might or might not come.  Instead, Christ instructs us to live modestly, to give His Church and His poor everything due to them and, most important of all, to remember that this life is brief, while eternity is forever, and that the very best use we can make of our abundance is to employ it to help secure ourselves against the one rainy day that will most certainly come:  the day of death and judgment.

        The preacher can easily find much to say about all these points, for in this parable the Lord has revealed many important truths in just a few words.  However, for brevity’s sake, let us choose only one, the last and most important:  the inevitability of death and judgment.  Having heard the parable and understood the other points, we have only to consider seriously this last for it to be certain that we will fulfill everything else the Lord is urging upon us.

        Once, in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution, a certain noble youth visited a great ascetic, a man experienced in the spiritual life, and with much joy told him of his success in passing the examinations for entrance into Law School.  Soon, the young noble said, he would begin a new, higher phase in his education.  The holy man responded with the question, “And then what?”

        The youth replied, “Then I will study hard, and hopefully win a scholarship.”

        “And then what?” said the elder.

        “Then I will graduate and make a name for myself as a lawyer,” said the youth.

        “And then what?” repeated the elder.

        “Then I will marry and have a family,” said the young man.

        “And then?”

        “Then I will make plenty of money and enjoy a good life.”

        “And then?”

        At this, the young man paused and began to think, and the elder repeated the question, to which the youth answered quietly, “I will get old and die.”

        “And then what?” asked the holy ascetic.

        This time the young man understood, and fell completely silent.

        By his very nature, man usually acts in accordance with a purpose.  Unfortunately, we all suffer from a strange shortsightedness.  We see only what is nearest, and are blind to the ultimate purpose of our earthly existence, to our final challenge, after which there will be no subsequent “and then what?”

        Thus, one person spends his time and expends his energy in the quest for sensual pleasure, thinking only of how he will spend tomorrow more enjoyably or excitingly.  Tomorrow passes, then another tomorrow.  One day, he realizes he has reached old age and that his health is breaking down.  “And then what?”  He dares not answer, because he has wasted his whole life pursuing self-gratification. 

        Another seeks to advance himself in his career, and to make as much money as he can.  This feeds his self-esteem, and allows him to consider himself a success.  But “then what?”  Death comes, and it all turns out to be a mirage, illusory and fleeting.  Everything he has gained, everything he has achieved, blows away like dust, for in death all are equal:  rich and poor, high and low.  Money and esteem, whether self-esteem or the esteem of others, are equally useless for a corpse.

        Yet another has a better goal:  a happy family life, a loving relationship with his wife, and the rearing of well-adjusted children.  But even these things cannot follow him into the grave.  Then, there are those who dedicate their lives to science or scholarship … These can be noble pursuits, but in the end they turn out to be just as ephemeral and insubstantial as the others.  For unless a person devotes himself first and foremost to the salvation of his own soul, death comes:  “and then what?”  No one has ever answered this question better than Christ, Who did so by posing another:  What is a man profited, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?[1] 

        There are many different things that men pursue, some baser, some nobler, but in the end, only one really matters.  If you do not concern yourself with it, what real good have you accomplished in the face of eternity?  Sooner or later -- and when the time arrives, it will surely seem that it was sooner -- you will come up against that final “and then what?”  Then you will no longer be able to escape the chief, the overriding reason for which God gave you life.

        Our earthly life is said to “pass in a flash,” yet that brief time lasts long enough for us to answer the question “and then what?” repeatedly with “later.”  But what will most certainly come “later,” yet much sooner than we imagine, is death, and then we shall realize how pitiful, how pointless was our almost exclusive concern with things temporal.  Then we shall understand how pointless it is to expend almost all of our very limited time and energy on attaining what we must certainly lose tomorrow.

        When we die, there is only one thing which does not vanish like smoke.  That one thing is our immortal soul, about which we are so little concerned during this fleeting life.  But death itself is not the whole answer to the final “and then what?”  As death approaches, we are faced with another related, gnawing, agonizing question:  “What will become of me now?”  Because the hereafter is eternal, and it does turn out that attaining wellbeing, happiness, and blessedness in it is the chief purpose of the present existence.  This is what we must mainly strive for during our earthly life, what we must pursue throughout our days, by means of our thoughts, words, and deeds, and by making use of all the helps to salvation which Christ provides through His Holy Church.  Life beyond the grave is the second half of the answer to the final “then what”; it is the very last thing that confronts every one of us.

        And so, brothers and sisters, fear God and struggle for the salvation of your soul, and you will enjoy happiness, fulfillment, and blessedness, not just beyond the grave, but in this life, too.  For the restless human soul finds its true purpose only in living for God, and when it begins to live entirely for and in God, then it discovers what real happiness and fulfillment are.  But beware, because the sinful flesh and the worldly mindset will always drag you down to vain temporal concerns and into the abyss of sin, causing you to forget what alone ultimately matters -- unless, that is, you continuously remind yourself of the all-important question:  “And then what?”  Amen.


[1] Matt. 16:26