Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 31 July 2016
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Ecclesiastes 1.2, 2-14; 2.18-23; Colossians 3.1-11; Luke 12 .13-21)
Wills can bring out the worst in people. Arguments over them are often a feature in literature because they are in real life. Dickens’s famous “Jarndyce and Jarndyce” in “Bleak House,” which dragged on endlessly until it had consumed the entire estate was based on a real case. The machinations in the early chapters of “War and Peace” to do well out of the will of the fabulously wealthy Count Bezhukov as he lies dying reflected Tolstoy’s aristocratic world. Agatha Christie’s Poirot finds himself more than once investigating murders connected with wills.
People expectations of doing well out of the deceased are disappointed when their money goes elsewhere: Aunt Jean leaves everything to the cats’ home – or the parish church. Courts and lawyers are kept busy arbitrating between competing claims. In today’s gospel today, a man in the crowd interrupts Jesus’ teaching to ask him to intervene on his behalf in a family argument over an inheritance. In his day, teachers of the Law would be expected to rule on such matters.
Jesus rejects the man’s request because he will not participate in satisfying the greed that he senses had prompted it. Instead of helping the man to get his inheritance, he uses his request to point him others to a different understanding of life; one that is not to be measured in terms of wealth or possessions. “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Instead he points the man and his hearers to a deeper truth.
The man’s request introduces the story of the rich fool, which translates into the form of a parable what Jesus had said earlier in the Gospel “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?” (9.25)
Wealth was often seen as a sign of God’s goodness and blessing, and there is a version of this nowadays called the Prosperity Gospel which encourages people to think that faith leads to wealth.
But the wisdom tradition is full of warnings about the prudent use of wealth. So in Ecclesiasticus we read:
Good things and bad, life and death
poverty and wealth, come from the Lord.
The Lord’s gift remains with the devout,
and his favour brings lasting success.
One becomes rich through diligence and self-denial,
and the reward allotted to him is this:
when he says, “I have found rest,
and now I shall feast on my goods!”
he does not know how long it will be
until he leaves them to others and dies. (Ecc. 11.14-19)
Earlier references in the Gospel to the dangers of wealth and God’s reckoning with the rich (1.51-53; 6.24; 8.14) should have prepared Luke’s readers to expect a reversal of the rich man’s good fortune. If his fields have brought forth abundantly, it is a blessing from God that demands both prudence and fidelity in making provision for the whole community. Abundance requires that one prepare for the famine that will surely follow.
The parable leads us into the man’s heart as we hear him muse with himself about what to do with the bounty he has received. We hear his thoughts unvarnished; without pretense or polish for public consumption. “What will I do?” the man asks himself. He would have been prepared for the harvest, but its bounty had exceeded all expectations, and he has no place to store it.
The problem is not caused by size of the harvest, but by his insistence of gathering all of it and keeping it for his own use. The thought of giving to those in need seems never to cross his mind. He comes up with a solution. He will tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Then he can gather all his grain and goods. He imagines the future he will enjoy: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry.”
His self-centredness is reflected in the frequency of the word “my”: My crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul. The man has shut out everyone else from his life and his thoughts. There is no one else in the story – just the man and his possessions – until, that is, God speaks to him.
“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” sharply contradicts the rich man’s presumption that he has “many years.” Now God tells him that his soul will be taken from him; dramatically echoing Jesus’ earlier question, “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit his own soul?” (9.25).
God will demand the man’s soul, but the language also suggests that it the man’s goods themselves which have already taken his soul.
The rich man’s folly has several aspects.
1. His Preoccupation with Possessions. Until God’s voice interrupts his daydreaming, there is nothing in the story but the man and his possessions. His goods and prosperity have become the sole pursuit of his life, until finally the poverty of his abundance is exposed. The parable plunges us into a searching reflection on the meaning of life. It exposes the emptiness of a materialistic lifestyle.
2. His Security in Self-sufficiency. The parable pictures a man who needs no one else. He can provide for himself, and his provisions will take care of him for many years. He does not need the love of family or friends. He feels no need of a community of support or the security of God’s love. He is the ultimate extension of the tendency to think that we can make it on our own and that we don’t need anyone else.
3. The Grasp of Greed. This is the moral opposite of generosity, the thought of what he might be able to do for those in need never enters the rich fool’s head. His innermost thoughts reveal that he has no sense of responsibility to use his abundance for the welfare of persons less fortunate than he. Greed has stifled any sense of compassion.
4. The Hollowness of Hedonism. The rich fool revels in his prosperity because he imagines that it will allow him to “eat, drink and be merry.” He daydreams of spending his future indulging his desires. The greatest good he can imagine is a life of maximizing his own pleasure: leisure, recreation, freedom from the demands of work. He has forgotten the end of that saying which is “for tomorrow we die.”
5. His Practical Atheism. Although he might believe in God in theory, when it comes to managing his life, dealing with his possessions, planning for the future, he lives as though there were no God. So, the parable probes our basic commitments. It asks us what difference should faith in God make in the practical matters of life. Are we “rich toward God?”
In this past week we have been given an example of someone who was “rich toward God.” He was not a rich man in the world’s sense. He lived on his priest’s pension. Had it not been for what happened on Tuesday, he would have been remembered with affection and respect in the local community he had served until his last breath, but we would never have heard of him.
But now we know his name and something about him because he was killed while saying mass, do as someone has said what priests do. Reminding us who serve in the priesthood that ours is a calling and not a career and it does not stop when our stipend does.
And we are all reminded that what matters in life is life given and shared not hoarded and kept to ourselves.
One of the tragic ironies of the death of Pere Hamel was that he was not some crusading enemy of Islam, but someone who had worked to build relationships between the different faiths in his city; he had built bridge not walls. That is of course what the hate-filled cannot abide and seek to destroy.