Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

Possessions that Possess

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I am forced again to talk about context, because the parable we heard today has been deprived of its context. Here is the context, in Luke 12:

13 One of the multitude said to him, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Then comes the parable:

16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Perhaps the church fathers who gave us our Gospel readings in the Liturgy thought the context was irrelevant and just wanted us to hear a parable to scare us into giving money to the church! Okay, I’m being a little facetious. But how does the parable end? With the words “rich toward God.” Now don’t get me wrong. I hope you do support our church. Stewardship pledge cards are going out to your homes and I pray that you will respond prayerfully and appropriately. But I don’t have to scare you into supporting our church. You are doing it with very little push. I congratulate you and I thank you for your support.

As I said, the church fathers may have removed the context in order to make this parable about you being rich toward God = rich toward the church. But I don’t think that was the case, really. So often we hear in Liturgy parables without the immediate context, probably just to make a parable a form of absolute teaching unrelated to what was going on around Jesus. That can be very helpful for us who are not there with Jesus, but it’s also dangerous because we can misinterpret what was Jesus’ intention. And I don’t know about you, but I really care about what were the immediate circumstances for everything Jesus spoke. Jesus never spoke from an ivory tower; he spoke in the midst of life among real people with real problems.

So the parable of the rich fool was prompted by someone who wanted Jesus to resolve a family inheritance squabble. Jesus refuses to get involved; it’s not his place to judge or divide inheritances. Jesus indeed will be judge, but in a completely different sense. And Jesus will decide on matters of inheritance – but not the inheritance this man had in mind. Jesus will give inheritance to all who believe in him, an inheritance that will be beyond human measure, in a different life, in an eternity where there is no conflict or greed. Instead of dividing the inheritance he gives them spiritual advice: “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Then he tells them the parable we heard in our Gospel reading this morning. The parable illustrates the teaching that life does not consists in the abundance of our possessions. Life is so much more than possessions. But here is a problem with the parable and with our translation: “This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” This clearly sounds like a threat. Tonight you will die and what will happen to all your possessions, who will possess them? Clearly he is addressing the man with the inheritance problem.

The problem is in the translation: “This night your soul is required of you.” The Greek text says: ταύτῃ τῇ νυκτὶ τὴν ψυχήν σου ἀπαιτοῦσιν ἀπὸ σοῦ. “This very night they are demanding your soul from you.” Who or what are “they” who are demanding his soul? Is it God? Then we wouldn’t have had a plural form of the verb ἀπαιτέω. Is death the threat? Certainly that is the most direct interpretation. Or is it something else; an interpretation that goes deeper, perhaps?

Could it be the possessions who are demanding his soul? The minute you find satisfaction and fulfillment in things, they possess you. If you allow possessions to define your life, you’re not living. God does not ask for our wealth. God asks for our hearts. However, our money and possessions easily destroy love and affection. That is true in human relationships. How many families, business partnerships, marriages and friendships are destroyed by money? God does not need our money; but our money and how we use our money do define who we are and where our affections lie. In the final analysis if the church asks for your support it’s to help you define your priorities.

You’ll laugh at me and say perhaps, “Sure, sure, so you say. But the church needs money to pay the bills, to maintain the buildings, and to pay for your salary!” Yes, you do pay me a salary. Yes, the buildings needs maintenance and the bills need to be paid. But it’s only because we’re not perfect, and because we need to gather here and you need to have a priest to lead you in worship and to teach the gospel. If we were all perfect, there would be no need for the church – ANY church! But we’re not perfect.

Icon of the Entrance of Mary in the Temple (click to enlarge)

Icon of the Entrance of Mary in the Temple

As I was working on this sermon, I had it in mind that I would somehow tie the Gospel parable to tomorrow’s wonderful feast of the Entrance of Mary in the Temple. My sermon ended in a different place than I had envisaged. But Mary is still our teacher, even in the matter of stewardship and being rich toward God. Mary was poor, yet no one was more rich toward God than she was. As a little girl she was taken to the Temple – something very unusual in Jewish society of that time. But spiritually that was where she belonged. That’s where her heart was filled with God’s presence and she was prepared to receive in her body the full presence of God in the birth of her son, our Lord Jesus Christ. So we also enter into this place, into this house of worship, to receive Christ in our being. You support this church because you need it in your lives. Here it is more God who is rich to us, rather than we are rich toward God. By sharing our wealth with the needs of the church, we experience the joy of God’s richness to us. Being rich toward God is not such an impossible thing after all.

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