Most people recognize the name Ebenezer Scrooge. He is one of those main characters in Charles Dickens' story, "A Christmas Carol." His fame is associated with two things -- wealth and greed.
Scrooge had more money than he could ever need. He spent most of his time counting it. On a financial statement, all of that money would have been listed as an asset. Within the day-to-day business of living, that was not necessarily true. For most of his life, Scrooge was a very rich and very miserable man. His so-called assets turned out to be liabilities.
Here is another name you may recognize, Giovanni Casanova. He was an Italian who lived in the 18th century. His family is connected mainly to his many escapades with women.
Casanova was apparently a very handsome and charming man. Both of those qualities are commonly considered assets. People with natural good looks have an advantage over the rest of us. It is easier for them to gain acceptance. And if they also have a charming personality, that is a double advantage. Casanova had both of these qualities.
But, in this case, they turned out to be liabilities. His good looks and charm were mostly wasted. At the end, he had nothing to show for them but a succession of brief romantic liaisons.
There is a Gospel reading where a young man approached Jesus and asked him what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus told him, "Give all that you have to the poor and come follow me." The man just couldn't give up what he had, and so he left. His assets became his liability. If we see what he did as a sign of personal merit, they become liabilities.
The story doesn't tell us that, but odds are that he did feel that because of his assets, he was being rewarded by God because he lived a good life. The prevalent thought was the rich were going to heaven and the poor were being punished so they were going to hell.
We must remember that our wealth does not mean that we are more deserving than the poor. It only means that we are more responsible. But that's not how most of us think. Those who enjoy good health are tempted to see it as a sign of their personal merit. Those who are born free somehow conclude that they deserve freedom. It isn't clear why they deserve it. But they obviously do, otherwise they would not have it.
We have enshrined that kind of consolation and convoluted thinking in a Mother Goose rhyme. Do you remember Little Jack Horner? He is the boy who "sat in the corner, eating his Christmas pie." That sounds like a normal thing for a boy to do. But then the story takes a bizarre twist. He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said, "Oh, what a..."
He might have said "What a Good cook is my mother," or "What a good provider is my father " or "thank God for the farmer who grew the ingredients that went into the pie." Any of those things would have made sense. But instead he said, "What a good boy am I."
Here he sits, eating a pie that was given to him. And from that, he concludes that he, himself, is a good boy. This makes no sense at all. And it is just as unreasonable for us to see our assets as signs of our own merit. They are not -- our assets become liabilities.
A few weeks ago, we mourned the anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa. She had devoted most of her life to helping the poorest of the poor. The people of Calcutta called her "the saint of the gutters."
Money meant nothing to Mother Teresa except a chance to help.
Fr. Andrew Greeley some years ago wrote an article about Mother Teresa for Newsweek magazine. He told of riding in a cab with her one hot day in June. The ride lasted about an hour. And the two of them just chatted about various things.
Looking back at that hour, his most vivid memory is the radiance of Mother Teresa. He said, "She was the happiest human being I have ever met." Who says you can't buy happiness? It all depends on how you spend the money.
The man in our story was rich. But his wealth became a liability, because he kept it all for himself. How sad. If he had given it away as Jesus instructed, his assets would have remained assets for all time and eternity. Don't let your assets become your liabilities.
Msgr. Frank C. Wissel, D.Min., is pastor at St. Mary Church in Greenwich and the founding director of the St. Maximilian Kolbe House of Studies for boys in Bridgeport. You can reach him at 203-869-9393 or firstname.lastname@example.org.