Today’s Gospel encounter is a good corrective for all those of us who think that the world is getting greedier, and darker, and who hunger for a time in the distant past when everyone was nicer and kinder and fairer to each other. The encounter reminds us that those things that we wish were different in our current society (the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer) are nothing new, and are part and parcel, for all times of the experience of living as humans in a world in which generosity and selfishness jostle together for pre-eminence.
Right back at the start of it all, in the depiction of that beautiful garden where everything was as we would like it to be today, the first man and the first women mess it all up because of their greed and disobedience, and that has – by and large – been the experience of every society and community down through the ages. We might think that it is worse now because we have much more rapid and graphic exposure to the inequalities in our world through radio, television and the internet, and it may cause us greater anxiety because we actually have more power to change the way things are than any civilisation has had before us, but the inequalities that come from greed and disobedience to the way that God desires us to live so that everyone can thrive and not just ourselves – are not a new reality for us, they have been a recurring experience throughout human history.
The world is not getting worse, all of the good and all of the bad in our experience of living is the same as it has been for those who have gone before us. Just as is the experience and motivation of so many today, so in this Gospel encounter from 2,000 years ago, Jesus tells a story about a man who is trying to cram as much as he can into his barns in order to have as much as he possibly can for himself, without thinking of others.
Jesus tells this story in response to a brother who comes to him and asks him to sort out a family dispute that he is having about his inheritance. We did not hear it in the Gospel that we gather around today, but Jesus has just been warning his followers about the consequences of following him, of the persecution that will follow, and of all that they will have to give up, and clearly this brother hasn’t been listening to a word that Jesus has been saying, because he interjects with his own concern for securing his wealth. And he asks Jesus, who is recognised as a wise Rabbi and teacher to solve the legal dispute that we was having, hopefully of course, in his own favour. It was quite common for Rabbis, who were skilled in knowing the laws of the Old Testament, to make these kinds of determinations. But as Jesus does so often, he bypasses the question the man was asking on the surface and gets to the root of what he is really asking inside.
“Take care!” Jesus says, “be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Which of course challenges directly the common wisdom both then and now, which says that life does, and that we should measure our achievements by the size of our house, the possessions within it, and the funds in our bank account. Jesus says, no matter what the prevailing view, this is not the kind of script that our life is supposed to have. To say it as simply as possible: there is much more to life than having lots of stuff. Then, to take things deeper, Jesus tells this parable.
There was once a very wealthy man whose crops had such a good year that he couldn’t even store the harvest. So he says to himself, “I will tear down the barns I have, build bigger ones, and store up all my grains and goods. That will be perfect! I will say to myself, you are doing just fine. In fact, after you build those big new barns and fill them up with the harvest, you will have it made for the next several years – so sit back relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” He thought he had it all sewn up, but there was one variable he had not taken into the equation. God came to him that very night and said, “You fool! This is the night that you are going to die! Now who is going to get all of the things that you have in storage?” Jesus ends the story by saying, “That is the way it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich in the things of God.”
That is Jesus’ response to those who are worried about their inheritance. We know other stories, don’t we, of those cultures in which people were buried with all of their possessions in the hope that they would be able to take them with them. Think of the great pyramids of Egypt in which the dead bodies of the pharaohs were laid to rest with all of their wealth, only of course to be plundered thousands of years later by treasure hunters and archaeologists.
None of us are so foolish as to think that we can take our possessions with us when we go. And yet ‘fool’ is the word that Jesus uses to describe this man, and the word ‘fool’ is not a word that is used lightly in the New Testament. In fact it is only used twice in this Gospel, the Gospel of Luke – compared to nearly seventy times in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs. The foolish person is always talked about in contrast to the person who exercises the wisdom of God. In the Bible, the word ‘fool’ refers to those people who live their lives as if God does not exist, and that is what this man is doing, that is the problem. And yet, if we are honest, our first reaction to the story might be to say, he is only making the best of his good fortune, it isn’t that he has got this harvest from dishonesty, or that he is stealing from anyone, he is just being prudent. That may be true, but Jesus’ parable reminds us that we will never get the formula for our lives right unless God is at the very centre of them. But notice, that the man in the story never stops to think about how he can share his good fortune with others, like Joseph in the great Old Testament story, who stores away the crops in the years of plenty in order to feed the people during the years of drought.
Jesus did not believe that wealth or possessions were evil in and of themselves and neither are the people who have them; Jesus simply knew that wealth and possessions offer us a great temptation to put our faith and trust in them rather than in our loving heavenly Father. When we hear encounters such as this one, we need to remember that – although there were radical exceptions – most of the first Christians lived in their own homes, and had their own jobs and possessions. When Saint Paul visits the first Christian communities he often meets with them in homes that can fit 30 or 40 people in them, perhaps more. There is no suggestion that these wealthy Christians were somehow second-class because they had large houses, although there are strong admonitions for them to use their wealth wisely and generously. So being a pure Christian, or a real follower of Jesus is not about giving away all that we have, although Jesus does challenge at least one of those who wanted to follow him to be willing to do so.
What Jesus is pointing out as being wrong with this farmer, in his story, is that he has calculated the value of his life without including God in the equation. That brothers and sisters, is the ongoing, recurring challenge for each of us as well.
The Psalmist writes, “if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.” The compiler of the Book of Proverbs says that, “those who trust in their riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like green leaves.” There is much more to life than being focused on what we have accumulated.
All this reminds me of the story of a priest who preached along these lines and tried to emphasise to his congregation that everything, including our possessions, belong not to us, but to God. So the story goes, an old farmer skeptically sat in the congregation, listening to – but not agreeing with – the sermon. That afternoon he invited the priest to Sunday dinner with him and his family. After dinner they walked outside, the farmer made a point of showing the priest around his house, barns, and tool shed, and pointed to his beautifully kept farm. Then he asked the priest half jokingly, “Father, I worked all my life on this land. Do you mean to tell me that it’s not my land, that it is God’s land?” The priest reflected for a moment and then quietly said to the farmer, “ask me that same question in a hundred years time.”
There is an old rhyme that begins, “God is the only landlord to whom our rent is due, he made this world for everyone and not just for a few.” The only things we can take with us are those things that ultimately first belong to God. Our faith and trust in him, the love that he has given us and that we share with others, the good that we do for our neighbours in the name of Christ, the devotion we have to him, the sacrifices we make for the sake of God’s Kingdom, and the time we spend carefully and quietly asking God’s Holy Spirit to guide us in our lives. These are the things that are sacred, these are the things that last, these are the things that make us rich in the eyes of God.
Martin Luther, the great Continental Reformer, put it this way, “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands – that, I still possess.”
Do not be rich in the eyes of the world. Be rich in the eyes of God.