Psalm 49:1-12, Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14, 2:18-23, Colossians 3: 1-11, Luke 12: 13-21
‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God’ – with Jesus’ warning still ringing in our eras, the parable in today’s gospel reading seems, in a way, almost too easy to preach to. What do we have here? A rich man who busies himself accumulating material things. He then worships those things rather than God. And as a result he’s punished by God. The moral of the story: worship God, not things, or as today’s epistle puts it more eloquently:
‘ set your minds on things that are above – not on things that are on the earth’.
But that’s not where this morning’s scripture readings begin. The first reading was from Ecclesiastes, one of the 3 books of the Bible belonging to a genre of writing called wisdom literature, the collective sayings of generations of godly people inviting us to consider the complexity and simplicity of living wisely. The words of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes ( sometimes called the Preacher) reminds us that there are no easy answers to the dilemmas of life and faith. Ecclesiastes invites us to see all things in long perspective of the ages. The sun rises and sets again, the seasons change. What has been will be. There is nothing new under the sun. Nothing I do or cannot do will change these facts. The Teacher concludes with the extract we have before us this morning – that our days are full of pain, work is vexatious and sleep is ruined. What a dismal tone!
Perhaps the Teacher had hoped to discover in his work, wealth and pleasure, something that would satisfy his longing for purpose and meaning. Death has the final say for all of us ( as Jesus parable for this Sunday illustrates and summed up in the stark warning: ‘ This very night your life is being g demanded of you’.
So our frantic attempts to ward off death and its companions ( meaningless, despair, fear and more is doomed to fail from the start’
It seems that this is a lesson that we need constantly to be relearning: that for which our hearts long can never be satisfied with our self-indulgence and consumption. So perhaps we should content ourselves with Ecclesiastes well-known advice: ‘ Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’
But today’s gospel reading offers a very different response. It’s the teaching of Jesus in the form of a parable. Jesus often taught with parables. They can infuriate because they don’t always makes easy sense. But this is the point. They were not intended to make easy sense but to make us, or rather re-make us, by way of an often puzzling but resonant story that reconfigures the heart by way of the mind. This parable, of the man building more storage for yet more stuff is eerily relevant. It is similar to parables about storing up treasure on earth, and about the splendour of the lilies of the field, which are interpreted quite often as implying the inferiority of material things compared to spiritual things. This has ancient roots. Many early Christians as well as many since regard the spiritual as more perfect than the physical, material world, seeing the world around us as simply a shadowy, imperfect reflection of the ideal world ( which is classic Platonism. But this emphasis on the superiority of the spiritual ignores a basic belief about God- the very thing that makes Christian faith unique – it ignores the incarnation. It ignores the fact that our God came amongst us and lived on earth. God is not just spirit, he also became flesh. Jesus came to redeem a world, a humanity that, to be sure damaged, disorder, fallen, sinful, if you will, but a physical world which the Father had lovingly created, and he wished to restore once more. And in this physical world, generally things don’t happen on their own. We have to make them happen. So we must work to grow food, to make clothes, to build houses. To fulfil God’s will for the world, as he intended it, we must work. We shouldn’t hold a dualistic view of work versus worship, of the material versus the spiritual – it’s both – prayer and work , ora et labora, the motto of the Benedictines.
To return to our parable. If it, in any way makes us doubt the value of work, or despise the making of material things, then I think we have drawn exactly the wrong conclusion from it. What this parable is really about is how we, as humans take good things- gifts from God, and turned them bad. It’s actually good to produce food. Even better to produce still more food which can feed still more. And it’s rather sensible to build barns to protect crops. But what has happened here is that the rich landowner has taken a good thing and turned it bad. He was blessed – not cursed-but blessed with abundance. Yet it was his attitude to it – refusal to accept it came from God, a refusal to view work as a form of worship, something due to God rather than himself that led to his downfall. The blessing of plenty turned into the curse of greed, hoarding – and the relentless acquisition of stuff.
It’s nothing new – and it always seems to have a de-humanising effect, as the stories of some Big Lottery winners reveal.
Whatever you’ve been blest with – be prepared to share it out, not store it up.
All the things that matter most in this life – love, relationship, trust, wisdom, justice, compassion – these increase as you share them. If others win, so do I. Unlike wealth and power, where if you win, I lose, the qualities of the kingdom that allow us to relate more deeply to God, ourselves and other people are all so rich that both the giver and receiver benefit in an exchange of spiritual significance. To live within this economy, teaches Jesus, is to live as citizen of God’s kingdom and not just as a consumer of the world.
A simple aphorism makes the point:
What I spent I had; what I saved I lost, what I shared I have….’
Rev Canon Nick Darby
Cover image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay