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Meditation on Psalm 48(49)

Pope Comments on the Vanity of Riches

VATICAN CITY, OCT. 21, 2004 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the address John Paul II gave today at the general audience, which he dedicated to comment on Psalm 48(49).

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Our meditation on Psalm 48(49) will be divided in two stages, exactly as the Liturgy of Vespers does, which proposes it to us in two moments. We will now comment in an essential manner on the first part, in which the reflection starts from a situation of hardship, as in Psalm 72. The just man must face "evil days," as he is "surrounded by the iniquity of persecutors," who "boast of their abundant riches" (see Psalm 48[49]:6-7).

The conclusion the just man comes to is formulated as a sort of proverb, which appears again at the end of the Psalm. It synthesizes clearly the prevailing message of this poetic composition: "For all their riches mortals do not abide; they perish like the beasts" (verse 13). In other words, "great wealth" is not an advantage, in fact! It is better to be poor and to be united to God.

2. The proverb seems to echo the austere voice of an ancient biblical wise man, the Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth, when he describes the apparently equal fate of every living creature, death, which renders all together vain the frenetic attachment to earthly things: "As he came forth from his mother's womb, so again shall he depart, naked as he came, having nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand" (Ecclesiastes 5:14). "For the lot of man and of beast is one lot; the one dies as well as the other. Both go to the same place" (Ecclesiastes 3:19,20).

3. A profound blindness takes hold of man when he believes he will avoid death, being determined to accumulate material goods: In fact, the Psalmist speaks of a "lack of understanding" that is almost bestial in character.

The topic has also been explored by all cultures and all spiritualities and was expressed in an essential and definitive manner by Jesus, when he said: "Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions" (Luke 12:15). He then recounts the famous parable of the foolish rich man, who accumulates goods inordinately without being aware of the trap that death is setting for him (see Luke 12:16-21).

4. The first part of the Psalm is totally centered precisely on this illusion that conquers the heart of the rich man. He is convinced that he will succeed even in "buying" death for himself, trying to corrupt it, as he has done with all other things he has acquired, namely success, triumph over others in the social and political realm, lying with impunity, avarice, comfort, pleasures.

But the Psalmist does not hesitate to brand this pretense as foolish. He takes recourse to a word which also has a financial value, "ransom": "One cannot redeem oneself, pay to God a ransom. Too high the price to redeem a life; one would never have enough to stay alive forever and never see the pit" (Psalm 48[49]:8-10).

5. The rich man, attached to his immense fortune, is convinced he will succeed also in dominating death, just as he has lorded it over everything and everyone with money. But no matter how great the sum that he is prepared to offer, his ultimate fate will be inexorable.

Like all men and women, rich and poor, wise and foolish, he will have to go to the grave, as has happened to the powerful and he will have to leave on earth that much loved gold, those material goods so idolized (see verses 11-12).

Jesus will insinuate to his listeners this disquieting question: "For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?" (Matthew 16:26). It cannot be exchanged for anything as life is a gift of God, who has "in his hand the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind" (Job 12:10).

6. Among the Fathers of the Church who have commented on Psalm 48(49), St. Ambrose merits particular attention; he enlarges its meaning with a wider view, beginning precisely with the Psalmist's initial invitation: "Hear this, all peoples! Give ear, all inhabitants of the world."

The former bishop of Milan commented: "Let us recognize here, precisely at the beginning, the voice of the Lord Savior that calls the people to the Church, so that, giving up sin, they become followers of truth and recognize the advantage of faith." In fact, "all hearts of the different human generations have been contaminated by the poison of the serpent and the human conscience, slave of sin, was not able to extricate itself." Because of this the Lord, "on his own initiative, promises pardon with the generosity of his mercy, so that the guilty one will no longer have fear but, with full awareness, rejoice to be able to offer himself as servant of the good Lord, who has forgiven sins and rewarded ...

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