Rich Towards God

Jesus engages in the deeply uncomfortable area of our relationship with wealth. Today’s gospel makes me feel rather uncomfortable. Because even though I donate 10% of my income to charities (this church included as part of that, of course) and even though I plan carefully for retirement, I still feel very much attached to the stuff I have acquired. I’m damming myself with this phrase, as we shall see.

Without wanting to ‘dilute’ the force of this Gospel passage, how might it challenge us in such a way that we aren’t left feeling consumed with guilt?

I shall draw upon Kenneth Bailey, a theologian who spent considerable time in the Middle East, in a culture very similar to the world in which Jesus lived. And he has fascinating insights into some of the parables and teachings of Jesus.

A man comes to Jesus and asks Jesus to side with him in the way the inheritance has been split between his brother and himself. His father has died and left the family inheritance, probably property, as a unit to his sons. Traditionally, Rabbis had stated that if one heir wanted a division of inheritance it should be granted. So the petitioner came to Jesus and said, ‘Everyone knows this. I am right, my brother is wrong. You, rabbi Jesus, you tell him so.’

There is obviously a broken relationship between this man and his brother. And this man wants the broken relationship finalized by total separation. But Jesus refuses to be a judge and rebuffs the petitioner. Jesus instead responds with a wisdom saying. Jesus asks a question that goes behind legal rights to the motivation that drives the questioner.

Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions (v.15).

Jesus insists that he has come not as a divider: he comes as a reconciler, to reconcile people to each other, not to finalise divisions between them. This requires the petitioner to gain a new perspective of himself and the situation.

In the wisdom saying, Jesus describes how this desire, this covetousness for material things will prove insatiable. That’s the thing with greed – it’s the desire to possess more than we need. It can be money, but it might also be food, fame, sex, or power. And the paradox with greed is that it's never satisfied by what it desires. Rather, the opposite is true.

Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the rich fool. This was a man who was already rich and with no extra effort he has gift of a bumper crop. And so his problem was what to do with this surplus. There is no thought of giving thanks to God for this. His only concern seems to be how to preserve his wealth.

He speaks some very revealing words… ‘my crops, my grain, my goods’, as if he owned everything. And he builds larger facilities to deposit his goods. This wealthy, self-confident man has made it in life. All that he has longed for has been realised. In today’s terms, he doesn’t just want one yacht or one private plane, but a whole fleet of them.

So, he’s made it in life, and he must surely celebrate. Who’s available? In a closely knit community there is bound to be someone. Family? Friends? Servants and their families? Village elders? Fellow landowners? It seems no one but himself. Verse 19, ‘And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’

Into this scene comes the thundering voice of God. God speaks and calls the man a fool. ‘This night your soul is required of you’ (v.20). The phrase ‘is required’ is used for the return of a loan. In other words, his soul was on loan. And the owner (God) wants the loan returned. At the beginning of the parable the goods, the bumper harvest, were a gift. It’s now clear that his life also is not his own. The sting in the parable is not so much that the man must die, but rather the real poverty of his life: the fact is that he is lonely and friendless in the midst of wealth. And as Mother Theresa has said, ‘The most terrible poverty is loneliness…’

As so often the case with Jesus’ parables, it finishes open ended. There’s no tidy and happy resolution. We aren’t told the rich man’s response. His silence leaves each listener to think about their own situation.

Then Jesus concludes with another wisdom saying: ‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.’

Like the parable, the encounter between Jesus and the petitioner also ends open-ended. There’s no response from the petitioner. He is being pressed to affirm: The real problem is not the division of inheritance, but the will to serve self rather than serve God. And serving God means serving others, including the brother.

The Gospel passage offers various challenges to us. Why is it that Londoners are the least philanthropic people compared to other global cities? What are we to do with our greed, my greed? Battling greed is no easier for a monk (who can be consumed inwardly with covetousness), or more difficult for an investment banker (who might be abundantly generous). Jesus's call to renounce greed is for all of us, not just a spiritual elite.

Lastly, it’s not just how wealthy we might or might not be; it’s how generous we are with what we have. It’s about being generous towards others. And this isn’t purely restricted to money. It can be much easier to throw money at a ‘problem’ rather than actually give one of the most precious commodities in London… time. Giving of our precious time to help a person who might have difficulty changing a light bulb, or to listen to those experiencing distress. Being with someone, or attentively listening to someone, might be the most valuable, expensive thing you can give.    Giving in such a way changes us. It changes us from inward-focussed people to outward-focussed ones. Abundant life doesn’t consist in the accumulation of more and more material stuff. Abundant life, being rich towards God, is living a life of generosity towards others.

James Heard