I once had a conversation with a man, upset with the pro-life movement, who said, “Father, I have a right to die.” Without missing a beat, I replied, “Don’t worry. You won’t miss out on the experience.”
Jesus said something similar in today’s Gospel. “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you…” (Lk 12:20) Death is not an event we can measure. It measures us. The past two Sundays I have referred to the beginning of our human existence. Today’s readings focus our attention on the end.
We should keep the end of our life before us – always. I’d like to tell you about four men who did this in an extraordinary way. They were World War II Chaplains on a ship called the “U.S.A.T. Dorchester.” None of course wanted to die, but as chaplains they spoke to soldiers about preparation for the eternal life.
On February 3, 1943, as they crossed the North Atlantic Ocean, a torpedo from a German U-boat, struck the Dorchester. In panic, the soldiers scrambled from their beds to the main deck leaving their life-jackets below. Only a few of the lifeboats worked and as the shipped listed, some fell into the icy water.
One of the survivors talked about landing in the water near the ship. Realizing that the ship would soon sink and could drag him under, he swam for all his might. His life preserver had a small red light, which a life boat saw and hauled him aboard. He told about looking back at the ship and seeing other small red lights “like a Christmas tree.” At the bow of the ship stood four dimly outlined figures – none of them showed the characteristic red light. It was reported the four chaplains had given their life jackets to others.
Above the noise of the waves, the soldiers began to hear music. It came from the direction of the four figures. The Jewish rabbi was chanting a prayer in Hebrew. Then a soldier heard a Latin hymn – the Catholic priest, he said, had a beautiful Irish voice. The Protestant ministers sang a soft Gospel hymn. The four chaplains had locked arms. They sang and prayed to encourage the others. Of the 904 men aboard the Dorchester, over six hundred died that night – including the four chaplains. These chaplains were Methodist minister George L. Fox, Reformed Church in America minister Clark V. Poling, Roman Catholic priest John P. Washington and Rabbi Alexander B. Goode
Some people say they would prefer to die in their sleep. My dad died that way – no sign of struggle when we found his body the next morning. But there is much to be said for the way those four chaplains died – fully awake, opening their hearts to meet God. My grandmother died that way – receiving Holy Communion as Viaticum, minutes before she died. I personally pray for that kind of death.
But, to be honest, none of us knows how or when he will die. Jesus reminds us to be prepared: Of any person – of you or me – this very day, this very night, God may call one’s soul.
Many wish control over their own death. A few years ago, our southern states passed laws allowing physician-assisted suicide. What started out as the right to die quickly morphed into the obligation to die. According to the Oregon Health Division, 63 percent of those who looked for and received physician-assisted suicide gave as their reason that they feared being a burden to their family.
That fear springs from how we define human value. In our culture we see our worth in two ways. First by our ability to enjoy life – and a terminal disease effectively destroys that ability. Secondly by productivity. A dying man does not do things for other people. Instead, he often consumes an enormous number of resources.
But is our worth solely in terms of ability to produce and enjoy? Gilbert Meilaender challenges that utilitarian philosophy with a delightful essay: I Want to Be a Burden to My Children! People chuckle when I mention the article, but it holds a deep truth. I have friends who say that caring for a terminally ill loved one was the most profound experience of their lives. It prompted them to ask, why are we here? What is the source of my value?
The author of Ecclesiastes addressed those questions without flinching. He was a man who had everything: wealth, intelligence, admiration of his colleagues – not to mention attractive women. Yet, speaking in the third person, he declares:
All his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation, even in the night his mind does not rest. (“Ecclesiastes 2:23 RSV)
These words do not come from a man down on his luck. Like the Buddha, the author of Ecclesiastes belonged to the upper class. Qoheleth possessed a fine intellect, which he devoted to studies. His fellow men esteemed him. But also, like Gautama, he recognized this world cannot satisfy human longing. The more we strive, the more we suffer. No matter how carefree one might be at any moment, we cannot avoid aging, sickness and death.
When feeling dejected, I gain a strange comfort from reading Qoheleth. Perhaps the experience is something like that of a Buddhist meditating on the Four Noble Truths. That kind of resignation holds a deep attraction. Jesus himself calls for it in today’s Gospel. Still, he invites us to one further step: Instead of storing treasures for oneself to grow “rich in what matters to God.” (Lk 12:21)
Once an elderly lady approached a priest. She told him that her husband had recently died, and she was going to make a significant donation to the parish. She then revealed her plan to give the bulk of her estate to the Church. The priest was grateful, but also curious. He mentioned that most people usually will everything to the children. “I know they do,” said the woman. Then she smiled, “but I want my children to be sad when I die!”
Each person of course has to decide what to do with their estate, but one thing is clear. As Jesus points out today, none of us can take it with us. I have done a few funerals, but I have never seen a hearse with U-Haul following it. As Job said, “naked I came into this world and naked I shall depart.”
That is a simple, obvious truth – yet so hard for us to really believe. In the parable Jesus speaks about a man who thought that his riches could bring him security. You and I may not be particularly rich, but we could say things like, “Well, I have my home paid for. I’ve got social security, a small pension. I guess I can relax and enjoy myself.” Jesus might say to us, “tonight your life will be demanded of you.”