In today’s gospel reading Jesus calls us back to the one essential matter. What does it mean to be rich towards God? We might say today, “What feeds the soul”? And more directly today he is responding to the unnamed question of what shrivels the soul. Jesus is urging us to ask and respond to our own answer so we do end our lives with a gracious, fresh, joyful soul, but not a shrivelled, hardened, mean and self consumed soul?
Your soul is your deep inner you. Who you are when you are on your own with your innermost thoughts, urges, desires, secrets. Mostly our souls are shaped by the daily decisions and habits we have taken years to develop. The scary thing is when we are seldom fully conscious of just what practices and attitudes we have grown in our souls. We can be blissfully unaware that we have grown mean spirited, self consumed, angry, passive, aggressive, insecure, or greedy.
One of the things I had never really noticed before in this parable is that he guy who is appealing to Jesus about the inheritance has just had his own father die. That is what has prompted this exchange between Jesus and the guy. Now in my own personal experience when parents die, and with many of the people who have been through a bereavement or a health scare themselves one thing they will often say is, “It has put things in perspective for me. I am determined from now on I will re-order my life. It has been a wake up call. It has reminded me of the what really counts in life”. That sort of stuff. But this guy, no way. And further, no sense of the big picture and his own place and mortality within that picture. A guy who seems isolated from everyone else, talks to himself, answers himself…
And greed prompted by skewed priorities is the issue today. Greed is one of the 7 Deadly Sins. We do not hear much teaching on the 7 Deadly Sins nowadays. Jesus says Watch out and guard yourself from every kind of greed. A person’s life is not made up of the things he/she owns, no matter how rich.
How important is stuff to you? What if someone was observing you and somehow found a way to judge your priorities and values not from what you say are your priorities and values, but how you actually live your life?
A guy is walking down the street, when suddenly from out of nowhere a mugger leaps out in front of him, points a gun at him and yells, “Your money or your life”. The guy pauses, shocked. The robber impatiently demands, “come on, come on hurry it up” and the guy says, “Hey, back off buddy, I’m still thinking about the options you gave me”.
Today’s story is yet another family dispute – we have been noticing of late how frequent these appear in the bible. And this is one of the most common of family disputes – over a will. Over who gets what slice of the pie that is left when (usually) our parents die and their assets are distributed. I heard just this week on the lawyer advice segment on Jon Faine on 774 when a guy rang to say he and his brother had been financially supporting their elderly mother who was in a nursing home for many years – to the tune of around $90,000. Now she had passed on and the brothers and an adopted sister had been left equal shares. The brothers were making a claim to recover the $90,000 from the estate before it was split equally in to three parts. The sister was saying the brothers had made a gift of this money that supported their mother and it should not be reimbursed out of the inheritance. Money, conflict, family, I mean can it be entirely a coincidence that on one side of that dispute are two brothers and on the other an adopted sister. I do not know…. But….
And Jesus again repeats what we have all heard many times, and probably all believe sincerely but we are products of the most aggressively materialistic culture that has ever appeared upon the face of the earth. Jesus says, “Riches in life do not consist of money. Be rich towards God” and another time the confronting truth, “Where your treasure is, there your heart is”.
And when we come to the issue of money, well we lift the lid on a murky, seething, world that goes far far deeper than the conventional teaching of “learn to share” and “don’t be greedy”. It would have been a bit like a woman and her son I once heard about who after ten years putting in $20 each to buy lottery tickets each week actually won $4.2 million. But the son immediately claimed that he’d bought that ticket with his own money, so the mother, who said that their relationship had previously been “loving and close” sued him for her half. “Teacher, tell my son to divide the family winnings with me!” Once you bring in the lawyers to resolve a family dispute, you might win the dispute but you’re unlikely to still have a family.
How do we know when we’re being greedy? Jesus does not say not to prepare for a rainy day or for retirement but that your life is not equivalent to your possessions. The rich farmer appears to be a shrewd businessman whose land produced abundantly. He plans for the future by building larger storage units as his possessions grow. He tells himself that he has “ample goods laid up for many years.” He’s set for retirement so he can “relax, eat, drink, [and] be merry.” He’s worked hard. He’s run no scams. He’s not a thief nor does he mistreat his workers. He is not unjust but according to Jesus he is a fool. “He lives for himself, talks to himself, plans for himself, congratulates himself”(Fred Craddock), appearing only to live in the orbit of his own universe. “He thought to himself, “What should I do?” He said to himself, “I will do this: I will….I will…And I will say to my soul.” He’s in his own individual world, his own liturgy of abundance and no one else is in attendance. He is an audience of one.
No, something immediate and personal is at stake here – and it is your own soul.
Biblical teaching on this area goes further than most of us are prepared to go. To be dominated by things, no matter how good any of them may be in themselves is to commit idolatry. It is to give to objects the devotion and worship that belongs to God alone. It is a spiritual matter.
Biblical teaching on money, wealth and possessions does not start from the view that these are passive and lifeless objects. It treats them as spiritual powers that demand an allegiance that will ensnare us. The NRSV (and all other translations) similarly render v 20 “But God said to him, “You Fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The words put into the mouth of God however when translated literally say, “Fool! In this night they demand your soul from you. But the things you prepared, whose will they be?”
Who or what are the things that demand the foolish rich man’s soul? It can only be his possessions. The way Jesus is telling this parable “they”, his possessions, own the man, not the man his possessions. And so when we come to talk of the man being cut free from his possessions you could almost begin using the language of exorcism. Unless you grasp that this is at the heart of how the Bible regards things you will always struggle to make sense of teaching and parables about money.
And the overthrowing of idols that demand allegiance consists in the naming of them, and denouncing of their power. As Martin Luther said, there are 3 conversions necessary of the heart, mind and purse.
And once we have met the full force of the liberating Spirit of God, been freed from the ensnaring allure of things to prop up our otherwise spiritually impoverished life, ( and for all of us that is a life time’s work isn’t it) then we are ready to embrace the good and spiritual things money and stuff can achieve. Because make no mistake there are many many godly purposes towards which money can be put, both within the life of the church and beyond. Many life enhancing long term projects that will benefit many people to come for generations when a godly vision is acted upon.