Year C    Proper 13

Just about ninety years ago the social historian R.H. Tawney published his analysis of the economic situation in the aftermath of the First World War. He called it The Acquisitive Society. Nowadays we are less polite about ourselves and we speak of ours being a ‘must have society’ - a society characterised by greed and grab.                                                                                                     

We have no means of knowing with certainty how it was with us as a species at the beginning of our social evolution but, however it might have been then, we seem to have become over the millennia the kind of creatures for whom status and identity and our sense of self-worth are defined by what we possess. We assume that our belief in ourselves and our self-confidence are in large measure provided by what we own. So we suppose that the more we possess the more we can believe in our own worth, our own value.  Jesus’s response to this assumption is uncompromising and blunt. ‘Take care!’ he warns us, ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’.                                                                           

The context in which he gives his warning, recounted for us in today’s Gospel reading, is of a brief exchange with an aggrieved individual in the crowd who has appealed to him to arbitrate in a family dispute about an inheritance. Rabbis were often asked to adjudicate in such matters. However, Jesus points to a deeper issue - an issue which applies to every human being. What is it we want for our lives? What does it take to be truly human?

He tells a story. It is the story of a Man who is already rich but whose land unexpectedly produces a bumper crop. The Man does not seem to have worked significantly harder for this to have come about - the bounty is absolute gift, totally gratuitous and undeserved, sheer grace. So what will he do with this unexpected, unlooked for, bonus. ‘What should I do’, he asks himself, ‘for I have no place to store my crops?’ His good fortune presents him with a problem.                                                                    

There is something rather sad about the picture of this individual as Jesus presents him in his story. Despite all his affluence and good fortune he seems to be a lonely isolated figure; there appears to be no one whom he can consult, no one with whom he can take counsel - no family members, no friends, no colleagues. He is on his own. There is only himself to whom he can turn. So he asks himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’                                                                              

It is striking that he shows no awareness that this unexpected abundance might be considered to be a gift from God, or that he has a responsibility to use it for purposes beyond himself; he simply assumes that it belongs to him for him to deal with as he chooses.                                                                          

So, having taken counsel with himself he decides to pull down his barns and build larger ones which will provide adequate storage space for all that he possesses. There is no mention of those who will be working on his behalf to make this possible. He speaks of ‘my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods’. He views his situation with complacent satisfaction, ‘I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years, relax, eat, drink, be merry’. Enclosed in his own self-regarding, self-indulgent little world, his self-congratulation appears to echo a verse from the book Ecclesiastes, where the Preacher, ‘the son of David, King in Jerusalem’, contemplating the vicissitudes and futilities of human existence, says ‘I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of their life that GOD gives them under the sun’. (Eccles.8.15)                                                                                                     

It is hardly an heroic sentiment, the kind which stirs the blood - enjoy yourself while you can, ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying’. Like the poet Robert Herrick and many others across the centuries, the Preacher is aware that 'the days of life’ are limited and that they are a gift from God. The Rich Man in the Parable shows no such awareness. He remembers the first part of the Preacher’s advice ‘to eat and drink and enjoy’ himself but he is not at all mindful of the latter part which speaks of the transitoriness of mortal existence - ‘the days of life which God gives’ to all human beings ‘under the sun’.                                                                          

The Rich Man is satisfied with food for the body and is secure in the knowledge that he has ‘ample goods laid up for many years’. So for him the self’s highest pleasure and the greatest form of satisfaction is simply to attend to the needs and appetites of the body. He profoundly misunderstands the nature of his being and misjudges what is needed truly to sustain his existence.                                                                                      

It is at this point that the voice of God breaks in. ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you and what you have prepared, whose will they be?’ Brief and to the point, it is a moment of dramatic intervention, the time of reckoning has come, an account is due. The Man has totally miscalculated his situation. He had assumed that he was in control, that he made the decisions and pulled the levers, that his destiny was in his own hands. Suddenly he is made to realise that this is not so, that he is not an autonomous self-authenticating being, that his soul, his self, his life, is not his own but is on loan, on loan from God, who has the right to demand its return at any time. ‘This very night your life is required of you’. The account is to be settled, the loan returned.

It is probably true to say that all religious traditions teach this. Our life is not ours as of right. It is a gift; not ours to keep but to hold in trust as a loan and to handle as wisely and as responsibly as we can.

The Rich Man in the Parable assumed that he was an autonomous, self-determining being; that he owned himself and that his well-being consisted in the free exercise of his autonomy and in the acquisition, extension and care of his possessions. Indeed he might have said of himself that in doing so he was behaving and acting in an entirely responsible manner. 

However, Jesus tells us that that is not enough; that is not how we truly flourish as human beings, that is not the condition in which genuine development and growth and newness can take place.                                                                                                       

For us the temptation may not be the acquisition of material goods on a grand scale but there are other goods, other ‘treasures’, other achievements which attract us and which may subtly come to possess us - the desire for prestige, for recognition, for significance, for influence.

What are the things which we take as certitudes but which in fact are false and so should be cleared away? Are there assumptions, habitual attitudes, which should be identified and dealt with, in order that a larger, truer world may be revealed?

What is human life meant to be about? What are its true values? Jesus tells this story of the Rich Fool in order to encourage us to consider what are the conditions for the true flourishing of our human nature. Each night at Compline we pray with the Psalmist that we may be kept from running after false idols. 

Jesus spoke of the eye of the needle and of the narrow gate; he talked of the necessity of being born again. These are images which speak of contraction, of diminishment, of focussing on the one thing necessary and choosing it. Eliot called it the condition of complete simplicity, which costs us not less than everything.    

We are to ‘Take care’ - Jesus’s warning is solemn: we are to be on our guard against all kinds of greed, against storing up treasures for ourselves and not being ‘rich towards God’.

Eric Simmons CR