About a year ago now I officially disconnected from my cable service and kicked my TV habit. It wasn’t really a difficult decision. With all the options available to stream movies and TV shows through a variety of electronic gizmos, I decided that I needed to escape from the relentless advertising that suggests, for about 20 minutes out of every hour watched, that something is missing from my life, and that happiness or health or fulfilment will magically materialize the moment I buy whatever it is they’re selling.
But all that aside, the question that arises, and the question that remains, is: Where do we find fulfilment? How do we define ‘the good life?’ And to what extent do we allow our surrounding culture to define it for us?
The gospel teachings on wealth and possessions make us squirm a bit, but I think they’re meant to do just that. Luke’s primary suggestion seems to be that possessions, which in themselves are neither good nor bad, can – if we’re not careful – become obstacles to living life gracefully….mainly because when we equate abundant life solely with material wealth, then we put all our faith and trust in things that are tangible, and invest less time and effort on the things that are intangible ….in the process potentially starving our relationships with God and with each other. St. Paul, never one to mince words, called our preoccupation with material things greed and equated it with idolatry; and St. Augustine put a slightly different spin on it when he said, “God gave us people to love, and things to use – and sin is the confusion of these two things.”
So, bearing this in mind, we turn to today’s parable….where a man, intoxicated by his good fortune, hoards more than he can possibly use, only to starve his relationship with God in the process. And God calls him a fool – because as his life ends unexpectedly, he has nothing of lasting or eternal significance to show for it. The man has equated having ample goods with having “relaxation of soul”, an indication, perhaps, that he views his affluence as an indication of God’s favour towards him. The fool believes that if God has blessed him with abundance and wealth, then surely God will also bless him with the opportunity to enjoy it – safe from ill health, or negative turns of fortune, or personal calamity.
So the inference of the story is that life holds no such bargain between us and God. The life we live, which everyone lives, is full of opportunities and possibilities – but it comes with no guarantees. And so we can’t let our wealth and possessions lull us into a false sense of security. We need balance; we need to be grounded spiritually….because in the end, our true comfort will lie in our relationship with God and our neighbour, and nothing else will really matter all that much. The choice of priority is ours to make.
The second error that is suggested is the rich fool’s emphasis on his own comfort – that he sees his wealth only in terms of how it can benefit himself – perhaps viewing his wealth as a deserved reward for his hard labour. And at some level, this is legitimate – but again, it’s a question of balance. There was a movie made sometime in the mid-1960’s, called Shenandoah. It starred Jimmy Stewart as a prosperous Virginia farmer doing his utmost to be neutral during the American Civil War, in an effort to keep his many adult sons out of the conflict. Near the beginning of the movie, there’s a wonderful scene where we see him and his family assembled around a generously laden dining room table with heads bowed while Jimmy says grace. “Lord”, he says, “we cleared this land, we ploughed it, sowed it, and harvested. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be eating it, if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel but we thank you just the same for this food we’re about to eat. Amen.”
Now, I would suggest that Jimmy Stewart’s character and the rich fool of the parable have something in common – because both of them fail to recognize that whatever prosperity we enjoy ultimately arises from a partnership of creativity that includes us and God – and that because of this, our wealth and possessions do not belong to us alone. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying our hard-earned prosperity, God also calls us outward toward responsible sharing of what our life produces – the life that is itself a gift from God.
Jesus spent a lot of time trying to convince the people of his day that there was more to life than being preoccupied with accumulating material wealth. It is true he challenged some people to give it all away – but for the most part, his teachings conveyed the understanding that earthly wealth is fleeting at best, and that compassionate concern for each other is predicated on a willingness to share what we have….ourselves, our time, and our treasure. What a different world it would be, if everyone on earth embraced this notion….and you know, I have a funny feeling that this is exactly what we pray for every time we say, “thy Kingdom come.”
Thanks be to God.
The Venerable Nancy Adams