Sermon for Trinity 7 High Mass Sunday 4 August 2019
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
TRINITY 7, 2019 HIGH MASS
Readings: Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14; 2.18-23; Psalm 49.1-9; Colossians 3.1-11; Luke 12. 13-21
“I, the Teacher,…..applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under the heavens…”
Ecclesiastes is one of Old Testament books called the ‘Wisdom Literature.’ These have much in common with similar works in neighbouring cultures of the time and may have borrowed from them. They draw on observation of the world, “all that is done under heaven,” to provide maxims for the good life: follow this advice and you will prosper.
The Teacher or Preacher, the author of Ecclesiastes, has also used wisdom to learn from the nature of the world and human life, but he has come to a very different conclusion: “it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun, and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”
Dr. Harry Bramma, our former Director of Music, who had read divinity as well as music at Oxford, told me that his Old Testament tutor had summarized the message of Ecclesiastes as, “Life is just one damn thing after another – and then you die.”
“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
The root of the word our Bibles usually translate as ‘vanity’ is related to the word for wind. It suggests the impermanent, something that blows away. Translators suggest that ‘futility’ would be another way of putting it.
What are we to make of this most downbeat and pessimistic of scriptural books which, standing alone might reduce us to the same despair the author feels?
Today’s passage has been chosen because, like the gospel, it speaks of an inheritance. The Teacher’s observation about his heritage is characteristically pessimistic: “I must leave it to those who come after me -and who knows whether they will be wise of foolish.” Many a family has seen the fruits of one generation’s labours blown away by the profligacy of the next.
Our Gospel passage, too, begins with an inheritance and a Teacher: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” It was common practice to ask teachers of the law to rule on such matters. The father, following the old Israelite practice of family ownership, has left his farm as a unit to his two sons, but one wants the property divided. This suggests that the relationship between the brothers is already broken by the desire of one to possess property on his own. Family solicitors will tell you that there is nothing quite like a will to bring out the worst in families!
Jesus refuses to be drawn into this family quarrel. Instead, he responds with a wisdom saying, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed ; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then, he tells the Parable of the Rich Fool.
Jesus tells two parables against the rich: the story of Dives and Lazarus is about the sinfulness of consuming wealth at the expense of the poor; while the parable of the Rich Fool, is about the folly of accumulating wealth. The first is in the tradition of the prophets’ denunciation of the exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful. The second is in that of the Wisdom writings (cf. Sirach 11.14-19 & James 4.13-16). These two streams of Jewish religious teaching flow together in Jesus. In the wisdom tradition, foolishness is not just stupidity, but an obstinate disregard for God that is the opposite of the wisdom that flows from the fear of God.
Jesus goes behind the question of legal rights to the motive and misunderstanding that drive the questioner. Insatiable greed for material possessions comes from, and reinforces, the illusion that the more we have, the better our life will be. This delusion continues to rule modern life in the consumerism whose creed is: “I possess, therefore, I am; the more I possess, the more I am.” This myth persists, even though disproved by studies of happiness levels among people of varying standards of living.
In Jesus’ story an exceptionally good harvest makes a rich landowner even richer. What is he to do with all this abundance? It never seems to occur to him to do anything other than hoard them; rather than to give them away to the less fortunate. So his problem is where to store them. The solution is a building project. His conversation with himself shows his total self-absorption, his isolation from anyone for whom he might have any concern. He anticipates the security he will enjoy, having all he needs for a good life, defined in his own terms, for years to come.
His folly is suggested by his application to himself of a common saying found in both Jewish and Greek thought: “relax, eat, drink, and be merry” – but he forgets its conclusion, “for tomorrow we die”. Then God intervenes to remind him: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will be they be?”
The story until then has only one character. He lives in a world of his own. He makes plans for his future as though his wealth makes is his to control. He can write his own story.
But this is an illusion. We see that from the way he acquired it: there just happened to be a good harvest. His wealth in fact was given to him. The same applies for all of us. To a limited extent we make our lives for ourselves, but only on the basis of what is given to us. Even the most entrepreneurial among us rely on talents we owe to God; on what we owe to family, friends, circumstances, occurrences which simply happen to us – good fortune, bad luck, or however we choose to interpret what we cannot engineer or control for ourselves. We can only write a little of the story of our lives by ourselves. Most is done by other people, by what happens to us, but ultimately by God. It is the well-off who most easily forget this. People living on the edge of destitution are naturally aware of how dependent they are on what happens to them. But the seduction of wealth is the illusion that it gives us of control over our lives.
The shock for the rich man is discovering that it is God who really writes his story. Not only his wealth, but life itself, have been given him on loan and so can be taken back; “demanded” or “required” of him. And God’s interruption of his plans has a sting in its tail: “the wealth you have stored up for the future – whose then will it be?” Psalm 49 speaks of the foolish “wickedness of those who put their trust in their goods, and boast of their great riches….For we see that the wise die also; like the dull and the stupid they perish and leave their wealth to those who come after them.” Less selfish people might take pleasure in passing on their wealth to their children or giving it to charity but this man’s wealth has no value except for himself.
The passage ends with another wisdom saying which spells out the moral clearly: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.” Accumulating wealth cannot give the security people expect from it. It is powerless in face of the most basic certainty of life, the inevitability of death. It is often said that the two things in life which are unavoidable are death and taxes. Well the mega-rich of our age have proved quite adept at avoiding taxes by storing their wealth, not in bigger barns but in offshore tax havens. But even they cannot keep death at bay for ever. The parable suggests that true wisdom is to be found in trusting God for the only real security we can have.
So true wealth, – what really gives security – is being ‘rich toward God”. This is the wealth we acquire when, trusting the future to God, we use what is given us unselfishly. This is what Paul means when he urges the Colossians to “seek…to set your minds on the things that are above.” This means ordering our life on earth according to the values of the kingdom of heaven, so that we give up that “greed (which is idolatry)” which drives us to possess and exploit both things and people for our own ends.
This applies not only to material possession, but to our lives and ourselves. The parable points us to that saying that lies at the heart of Jesus’ attitude to life: “Whoever wishes to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” If we direct our efforts to gaining more for ourselves what we think will make life good and make sure of it, then security will elude us. The way to real life is to give our lives away. If we expend ourselves and our possessions in the service of God and others, giving away what has been given to us, then we find real life with God. Even in death, the ultimate disaster for the rich fool, we find life with God. “When Christ, who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
Our society is gripped by the rich fool’s delusion: that life consists in what we can get and keep and spend on ourselves. Even when we discover that what we have acquired so far brings no real fulfilment in life, the rich fool’s philosophy encourages us to think that we just need a bit more. In affluent cultures with their endless production of novelty and excitement, there are always other things we will soon be able to afford and to which we can attach our desires for fulfilment and security.
To learn that this is “a striving after the wind” takes the wisdom of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes. For fools in a foolish society, the awareness that security lies entirely beyond our reach in God must come as a shock of divine intervention in our lives. When this parable speaks directly to us, breaking into the plans we make, it can end our foolish attempts to write our stories for ourselves.
Those of you who were here last Sunday morning may recall me saying that one of the sources of inspiration for preachers is the response of their audience; in conversation, comments and questions afterwards which, in the case of parish clergy preaching to a congregation week after week, feed into what they will say in the future.
Last Sunday proved the point. If you were here, you may recall that I spoke about the difficulty of translating the rare Greek word epiousion in the Lord’s Prayer. Our word “daily” serves to mean both material bread in the here and now and the spiritual food of the messianic banquet at the end of time; shared in anticipation in Holy Communion. In conversation at the church gate with one of our parishioners, Charlotte Roueche, who as the Professor Emerita of Digital Hellenic Studies at King’s College has forgotten more Greek than I have ever known, she reminded me that one of the possible meanings of the Greek word is ‘sufficient’; that is enough for now. That seems an apt link between the parable we have heard, the offerings we will make, the prayer we will pray, the sacrament we will receive, the life we are to live and the death we must die. The wisdom we learn from the saints is that those who are “rich towards God” are able to, like St. Francis, to welcome rather than fear “Sister Death” because she leads us to eternal life..