(Ecclesiastes 1, 2 & 12-14 & 2, 18-23; Colossians 3, 1-11; Luke 12, 13-21)
When we take our daily walk around the area where we live, we see constant rebuilding, extensions and renovation work going on. Bungalows are transformed into 2 or 3-story houses, garages become living accommodation, rooms are gutted and refurbished. Often we notice what looks like perfectly good bathroom, kitchen and bedroom equipment being thrown out – basins, sinks, worktops and cupboards being thrown into a skip. It seems such a waste of equipment, to add to the waste of time and money in altering what seem to be quite adequate houses already!
I was reminded of all that building work when I read the parable of the rich fool in today’s Gospel. This is one of the many parables in which Jesus addresses our use of money – a subject he talked much more about than prayer or sex! The idea that religion is about spiritual things was foreign to the Hebrew mind. There is no division between body and soul, the material world and the spiritual. As Genesis teaches, the world was made by God, God judged it to be good and human beings were given stewardship over it. So God cares about how we use our money and we are accountable to God for what we do with it.
So what is this Gospel reading saying to us?
Luke sets the parable in the context of a question from someone in the crowd following Jesus. The question gives us an indication of how Jesus was regarded by people who were not in his inner circle; he was a teacher, and expert in the Jewish law, and could therefore be approached to settle little local disputes.
Jesus firmly rejects that role, addressing the questioner rather abruptly as ‘Man’ ( though some modern versions translate it as the kinder ‘Friend’). He wisely avoids getting involved in a family dispute about who gets what after someone dies; we probably can all think of situations where families have been split over an inheritance, and know how destructive it can become. Jesus builds on the question to make a more general point about the problems with wealth, and how destructive it can be to our relationship with God, as well as with each other.
The relationship of the man with his wealth is revealed in the dialogue he has with himself. He is already wealthy when, with no effort on his part, he becomes even richer. The increase comes about from good weather and the efforts of his workers. It is a gift of God. He doesn’t recognise this, though.
The dialogue reveals that his wealth has isolated him. As so often happens, the more money and possessions he has, the more he withdraws from everyday human contact. He has no family or neighbours with whom to discuss his course of action. He is alone in the middle of what he considers his land deciding what to do with what he considers his wealth.
The dialogue reveals how self-centred he is. It is with himself and about himself. No-one else gets a look-in.
He assumes that preserving his possessions is all he has to worry about – and there is no-one, family or friend, to point him towards deeper wisdom. He assumes that human beings are not much more than animals – their bodily wants are all that need to be met for total satisfaction. He quotes a single verse from the same part of Ecclesiastes that our Old Testament reading comes from “Eat drink and be merry” (Eccl.2.24) but because he only quotes part of the passage, he actually misses the point of it.
The denouement comes when God speaks. The divine voice reminds the rich man of his lack of awareness, particularly that his riches and his life are both only on loan to him. God calls him “fool’ and some of the commentaries point out that involves a word play in Greek. The word the rich man uses for ‘make merry’ ‘ephraino’ comes from the same root as the word for ‘fool’, ‘aphron’.
God reveals that before he can rebuild storage for his possessions, the man will die and be called to account for his use of them. The language used is that used for the repayment of a loan. Finally God says what the writer of Ecclesiastes says constantly: “the things you have now, who will enjoy them then?”
The parable starts with the rich man, but ends with God. Then Jesus draws the moral from the story: the accumulation of earthly possession is not what is important; what is important is investing in your relationship with God. And that is really his answer to the questioner who was getting so worked up about the division of his father’s property.
So how do we apply this story to our lives today?
The Bible does not condemn earthly riches – in some places prosperity is seen as a sign of blessing from God – but it does warn of its dangers in the lives of the faithful. It does not condemn individual property – Jesus was no a communist! It doesn’t say we should all be poor; it recognises that without a certain level of income, people are so concerned with how to exist from day to day that they have no time to think about anything spiritual. What the Scriptures and Our Lord emphasise is that human beings can destroy themselves fighting over wealth. It becomes a problem when people invest their trust in possessions rather than in their relationship with God and their neighbour. What matters is not how much we have, but whether we use it as God wants us to.
A proper Christian attitude to money is neatly summed up in John Wesley’s Sermon 44 where he summarises it as: “Gain all you can; save all you can; give all you can”.
Wesley declares that money is not evil, but should be regarded as a gift from God for the benefits it brings to civilisation and the opportunities it gives for doing good, in the right hands.
He argues that we should make, or earn as much money as we can, using all the talents and time God gives us – but within limitations. We should do nothing that harms our own bodily, spiritual or moral health, nor that of any of our neighbours. Today that would certainly exclude working for pay-day loan companies such as Wonga, criticised by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the excessive interest rates it charges; or working in a company that employs people on zero-hours contracts. It would raise questions about working in certain industries, such as those making and selling chemical weapons. Perhaps nowadays, we would also add to that ‘Do nothing that causes environmental damage to God’s world or God’s creatures”.
Second, we should save all we can, and not waste God’s precious gift of wealth on trivialities, self-indulgence or luxuries. He urges his hearers to be content with a simple life, and not to indulge in conspicuous consumption. He also warns agains using your wealth to indulge your children, and provide them with an easier life, because he thinks that is damaging to them. He wouldn’t approve of the elaborate schemes people indulge in nowadays to avoid inheritance tax! He thinks children ought to be left only enough to keep them from need.
Any surplus should be distributed to bring glory to God. Which brings him to his third principle: Give all you can.
He doesn’t approve of storing money in banks, which in his day, were only for the rich anyway. He wants it to be given away to benefit those in need. Like the Parable of the Rich Fool, Wesley teaches that we have material wealth on loan from God, and as good stewards we should use it for the benefit of ourselves (within limits), our families, and our fellow human beings.
He ends: “Give all that you have, as well as all that you are, to him who did not even withhold his own Son for your sake.”
The way we use money is not irrelevant to our faith. It demonstrates as clearly as anything our attitude to God. All of our readings today contrast those who seek security in wealth with those who seek security in doing God’s work. The writer of Ecclesiastes is depressed because he can’t keep control of what happens to his money after his death; he concludes that life is therefore meaningless.
In contrast Colossians and the Gospel recognise that an obsession with wealth leads to much of the suffering and injustice in the world, to wars, and divisions between people based on race or creed. Both Colossians and the Gospel teach that true human fulfilment comes from a life based on heavenly values, not on human greed.
“You can’t take it with you when you go” they say. St. Ambrose put it more elegantly: “The things we cannot take away are not ours”. That’s true of money and possessions; but it’s not true of the spiritual capital you build up if you use money as Wesley and Jesus recommend, for the building of community and the welfare of all. That enables us to become citizens of heaven and inheritors of eternal life, both in this life, and the next.