Pentecost 11: 31 July Luke 12:13-21
The passage begins with the exchange about inheritance which serves as an introduction to Jesus’ warnings about greed (12:13-15). We might imagine that the reasons for attacking greed are because it deprives others. These are reasons enough. Here, however, the focus is what makes for a meaningful life. What is abundance in life?
The parable (12:16-21) continues the theme from a slightly different angle. Again the focus is not on depriving others, but on the behaviour of greed and its consequences for the person. It is attacking an assumption that storing up resources is a guarantee of life into the future. It states the well known reality: death can come at any time. What are all those resources worth then? You cannot take them with you to the grave. It is at one level straightforward secular wisdom with God as the tutor, as it were. There is nothing about judgement in the life to come, reward or punishment. We find that in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, but not here.
This secular wisdom has many parallels in literature of the time. Such advice frequently takes the form of recommending a lifestyle which is comfortable and not constantly stressed by wanting more and more. It seems sensible. Why die of a heart attack, work all hours of the day and night, only to find oneself burnt out? It is too late then to have time for the children. They have grown up and flown the nest. At most you may have energy for the grandchildren, but your life has left you very limited in what you can do and give if, that is, you have not already succumbed. This kind of madness plagues our society. For ourselves and for others we need to take control of the options and not be caught up blindly into the rat race of success and profit.
Much of the above needs to be said over and over again. It is all true, but it is not all the truth. Our society may be harmed just as much by people withdrawn into self-satisfying low stress lifestyles as it is by those driven by the pursuit of gain. Yet it may seem almost offensive that the discussion leaves out of account those who suffer as a result of greed and has God only at the margins of the story. This focus returns somewhat in the closing declaration that the man was ‘not rich towards God’.
‘Rich towards God’ could mean having credit in one’s God account which will pay off any misdemeanours and ensure a place in the divine rest home. More likely it means living the kind of life which God values whether there is reward in or not – or which is its own reward. The passage assumes that ‘life’ (12:15) and ‘being rich towards God’ (12:21) coincide. If we listen to the passage in the context of the whole story, it is clear that ‘life’ means God’s life, sharing God’s life, being what we were made to be. When the lawyer asked about ‘eternal life’ and pressed the point he heard a parable about a Samaritan. Such life is life towards God because it is life lived in the spirit of God. It is breathing the life breathed into mud model of human existence in the beginning.
Or is ‘life’ to be equated with happiness? Western society abounds with seductive invitations to happy lifestyle, usually promoting new products and promising that ‘good feeling’. Markets manipulate the modes so that regular dissatisfactions can be exploited as people just must have the latest. For some the problem is blindly building bigger barns. For others it is building bigger wardrobes, possessing fancier gadgets, sporting flashier cars.
It is easy to miss the point by focusing on the extremes. There is a deep human anxiety about being worthwhile which reaches to the heart of the self. Many products are designed to sedate that fear. It is nevertheless real. The Christian claim that true contentment comes only in service is probably spurious. It is simply not the case that people without Christ are all very unhappy and vice versa. It is also not the case that we are to make ourselves happy through service. That is secular justification by works and becomes a tyrant for us and those around us - and those whom we ‘serve’. Sometimes it has to be a kind of Christian defiance which says: only in life towards God, a life participating in God’s life is peace. That will be a peace that weeps, knows anguish, sometimes does not know and does not have answers, but keeps believing in the worth God wants us to have and wants us to give and live towards others.
‘Is my life worthwhile?’ is for many a fearful question. It is no answer to moralise and command. Ultimately the answer is an act of healing. People need preaching which identifies the pain very clearly - and gently - and offers healing.
Epistle: Pentecost 11: 31 July Colossians 3:1-11