St. Luke’s account of the industrious farmer who crowned his agricultural success by building bigger barns to store his remarkable produce is not the first Biblical story to note humanity’s bent for celebrating its achievements through the erection of monumental buildings. In the book of Genesis, ancient mankind proposed, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves.” The human race was just beginning to understand its own potential. Man was newly involved in settlements, agriculture, construction – all sorts of communal endeavors. God discerned however that humanity’s eagerness to build was not entirely noble: “If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach.” Before mankind could replace God and do anything they wanted from their tower “with its top in the sky,” God confused their tongues and humanity was scattered about the world. Men and women would have to await another opportunity to make a name for themselves.
At Babel, mankind had employed worthwhile talents to build their heavenly tower. “They said to one another, “Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire.” They used bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar.” There is nothing wrong with being a good bricklayer, mason and plasterer. Nor was there anything wrong with the chap in this Sunday’s Gospel passage being a good farmer. “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones.” This man was certainly doing nothing wrong. He employed wise planting techniques; he took advantage of the weather; he monitored his crops during the growing season; he readily gathered his harvest when the produce was ripe. This farmer knew his business. Nonetheless, God in his infinite wisdom perceived that the eager bricklaying at Babel and the zealous harvesting in the Gospel account would camouflage humanity’s limitations and lead mankind to assume the place of God. “Nothing…will be out of their reach,” God thought to himself. And rightly so.
Modern man’s tower with its top in the sky is found in the laboratories and clinics, the court rooms and legislative halls, the classrooms and newsrooms, where the traditional Judeo-Christian values of the Western world are regularly disregarded, redefined, misrepresented and misunderstood. Today much of science, government, education and the media favor a secularized individualism which leads to a practical atheism and to religious indifference embracing the legalization of suicide and various forms of euthanasia, the denigration of marriage through surrogacy, sperm banks, cohabitation and divorce, the redefinition of marriage that excludes male/female complementarity, an ambivalence toward sexual roles, the celebration of gender confusion, the termination of unborn life, the frustration of the reproductive process, fetal experimentation, and a casualness toward drugs. Sadly this shameful harvest is bountiful.
Certainly, like the builders at Babel and the happy farmer, modern science, government, education and the media have produced some admirable results. Many lives have been saved, most homes are quite comfortable, much information happily abounds. Yet, like Babel and like the farmer, modern society is ever in danger of overstepping its limits. Winston Churchill acknowledged mankind’s refusal to accept limits when he spoke in 1931: “It would be much better to call a halt in material progress and discovery rather than to be mastered by our own apparatus and the forces which it directs. There are secrets too mysterious for man in his present state to know, secrets which, once penetrated, may be fatal to human happiness and glory. Without an equal growth of Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, science herself may destroy all that makes human life majestic and tolerable.”
Indeed, the contemporary world has erected many wonders and has experienced many abundant harvests. Many diseases have been vanquished and today’s list of creature comforts is quite impressive. But America’s religious and cultural values which were an authentic source of strength in the past are gravely endangered today as experimentation replaces experience and novelty supplants knowledge.