Year C NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENECOST (PROPER 13) AUGUST 5, 2001
Heavenly Father empower us to use our wealth to help others in need and for good causes. Amen.
Title: “Closet Space”
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then 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. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Jesus is inappropriately asked to intervene to settle a dispute about a family inheritance. Jesus refuses because he is neither qualified in law nor does he approve of the underlying greedy attitude causing the dispute. To make his point he tells the Parable of the Rich Fool.
Jesus is teaching his disciples about being fearless in the face of opposition when he is interrupted by someone in the crowd who wants him to stop what he’s doing and deal with his “urgent” request, namely, that he tell his brother to give him his share of his inheritance. Jesus recognizes the greedy desire behind the dispute and uses the occasion to teach about trust in God and avoidance of greed for material possessions.
In verse thirteen, Teacher: Jesus is addressed as a teacher, that is, a rabbi, since he is being asked to act in that capacity. When a father died he had to leave two-thirds of his property to his eldest son; the rest was divided among the remaining sons. In this case the younger wanted his share to be liquidated and the elder, apparently, wanted to keep the land intact. In chapter fifteen Luke will use the same setting to teach the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Such disputes were settled by appeal to rabbis on the basis of the existing law. Jesus declines the “honor” as he typically does. He will not be flattered into behaving a certain way. Having said that, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach about the underlying problem, the attitude of greed.
In verse fourteen, who appointed me: This is a rhetorical question. The implication is that Jesus has no legal standing as a rabbi to act in the matter. He will not settle matters about material possessions, but he will make clear by explanation spiritual matters and proceeds to do so.
In verse fifteen, one’s life does not consist of possessions: The real life of a person does not depend on amount, abundance or accumulation of material possessions. Greed, avarice, longing and planning and plotting to get as much “stuff”- be it land, money, houses, and all that is in them- directs a person’s aim to the wrong ends. Such greed preoccupies one’s attention and ignores what really matters, namely, “wealth” as eternity defines it.
In verse sixteen, a rich man…a bountiful harvest: Such a man would be the “envy” of all. As described he represents the essence of life as a success, a happy man, one who has arrived at life’s point and purpose with all of its contemporary pleasures. In verse seventeen, I do not have space to store my crops: Such are the problems of the rich: no closet space! He has no room to store his “stuff.” There was no question in his mind that his wealth would last or that he would last. His only problem, oh, the cares of the rich!, was where to keep his “stuff.”
In verse eighteen, build larger ones: “Bigger and better,” always seems to be the indisputably correct answer for a rich person with a problem. This rich man enters upon a construction project that will not only solve his storage space problem, but will advertise to others just how rich he is. After all, he will have the biggest barns in the neighborhood.
In verse nineteen, eat, drink and be merry: The rich man has put plenty away not for the proverbial rainy day but for the dry one. Let famine come, he is prepared. He is self-sufficient. With no thought of the needy or his neighbors he proceeds to stuff himself with his stuffed away stuff and enjoy his life.
In verse twenty, you fool: Enter God. God trumps the rich man plans and tells him he is about to die. This the rich man did not prepare for. It was not in his plan book. Apparently, he was so busy enjoying his good fortune that thought himself the “judge and arbitrator” mentioned in verse fourteen. He erroneously thought he’d have a say in the matter.
This night your life will be demanded of you: The Greek verb, apaiteo, conveys the idea of life as a loan that must be repaid to God upon demand.
The things you have prepared, to whom will they belong: Certainly a man who dies while being “rich in material possessions” is as poor as one who dies with none. Neither has anything material, let alone owns anything. The reflection found in Ecclesiastes 2: 21-23, today’s first reading, is behind this question. The rich man will not know to whom his stored-up goods will go, perhaps to sons who will quarrel over them, as in verse thirteen. He does know one thing though. They will not go to him or with him.
Verse twenty-one b, thus will it be: The rich man gathered treasure for himself, saw life as something one accumulates and then uses for one’s personal pleasure at the service of one’s whim. He really failed to accumulate real wealth, to gather in a harvest of good deeds. In the end, where it really counts, he is seen to be quite poor by eternity’s definition.
What is the connection between greed and death? The passage begins with a dispute among brothers about the distribution of their father’s property. The man’s property, as Ecclesiastes 2: 18-23 says, must go to someone else. We presume the man worked hard to accumulate it. Now he is dead and his sons, whom we presume did not work for it, inherit his “wealth.” However, they cannot agree on whether it is to be preserved intact and mutually enjoyed or whether they should sell it and divide the “spoils.” Greed is not merely the desire to possess, but the desire to control. This has put to death any love between the two brothers. Greed kills love because it seeks to control rather than to enjoy and mutually share. So much for the future consequences of possession of “wealth.” What the two sons inherited was their father’s greed not his love, although we presume the father would have called it love and his inheritance a sign of that “love.” The father looked like a great success. He had it all or so he thought. He had all the angles figured, all his bases covered, or so he thought. Foolishly, he left out the inevitable. His wealth could not prevent that or compensate for it. He was not really in control of anything substantial. His control was temporary and a sham. His greed for goods diverted his attention from teaching and passing on to his sons anything of lasting value. Had he used his wealth to help others in need, used it for good causes, he would have put it to good use. Instead, it has become a cause for hatred between his sons. The man was spiritually dead and spiritually destitute long before his was physically dead. How foolish to admire wealth and those who “have” it! Of course, “wealth” in the story stands not merely for money but for anything we attach our desire to, anything we attribute more worth to than it truly has.
Jesus saw and evaluated everything from the viewpoint of eternity. Money, land, possessions have no value in that light. It is a distortion of truth- as God sees it- to impose a value on such things, a value they do not have in and of themselves. The word Jesus uses for “greed” means “the desire to have more.” Desire, as such, is not evil or wrong. Desire is recognition of need. We, as humans, are needy, incomplete, not self-sufficient. But only God can fill that need. And Jesus condemns attaching that desire to something that cannot fill it, something less than God, but treated as God should be treated, pursued as God should be pursued, loved as God should be loved. Thus, the desire to be more, become more is right and good; the desire to have more is wrong, a distortion. We become “more” by loving more not by acquiring and using more. As the old formula goes: Love people and use things rather than love things and use people. Jesus warns us to “guard against greed in all its forms.” He means that we are not to attach this good desire for the divine, uncreated, onto something less than divine, even something the divine has created and considers good. Anything created, good in itself, is just not good enough as an object of worship. It will not deliver because it cannot, will not fulfill because it cannot. That is why greed, the desire for more, can never get enough, is insatiable, that is impossible to satisfy, ultimately unfulfilling, and why the greedy person always needs more of what ever the object of greed might be focusing upon at the time.
Greed is not just some cosmic mistake we make which can be corrected at death. A lifetime of worshiping the wrong god cannot be undone. If we have spent a lifetime achieving the wrong goals, like trying to build a house by using the plans for a windmill, like accruing a bank account with currency that eternity does not recognize, we will be truly destitute when we arrive at the shores of eternity. For all our earthbound skills, knowledge, clever ways, insurance policies, bank accounts, property, etc. we will be like fish out of water, living in an atmosphere requiring lungs when we have only gills. We will have “skills’ for which there is no need or use in eternity. And there are no “programs” for the unskilled in eternity, no re-tooling. The place for all that was earth and we would have spent our time and talents, really wasted them, acquiring things which eternity abhors and rejects. Death reveals the folly of attachment to such things. The fool learns the lesson only at physical death, too late. The wise person knows that life is more than that and lives life in that light, the light of eternity.
Greed, the “love” of dead things, kills love, the food of life.
The fulfillment of life’s potential is found in sharing one’s “goods,” not accumulating and hoarding them.
What many on earth would call “wealth” is considered to be “junk” in eternity.
At the moment of death, if not before, the economically rich become “dispossessed” of what they considered to be their wealth and as “poor” as the most economically destitute on earth.
Closets: The man in the story suffered from a common ailment that many of us frequently complain about. He and we do not have enough closet space! When we think about it, closets play an inordinately large part in our earthly lives. This is especially true in developed countries, like the USA. In economically poorer countries there is little need for closet space and so we see few, if any, closets. It astounds us that people can actually live in a one room hut or house. We cannot help wondering where they store their stuff, until we realize they have little stuff to store. Such countries might have small stores, usually nothing more than homes from which people might sell one or two commodities, but nothing like the stores in developed nations. Malls and shopping centers are really just bigger closets where stuff is stored. Oh, they are well organized and have separate compartments for each item or type, but closets nonetheless. We store everything in these stores- cars, boats, housing materials, clothing, and every kind of gadget imaginable. They become shrines really. Some people visit them religiously just to browse if not actually buy. They are the “churches” of the greedy, sacred places to either pray for what they think they need or be inspired to need something they never thought of or places to get the answers to their prayers, carry them home to put in their own personal closets. Closets can be just storing spaces or hoarding places, places to hide and protect one’s stuff from theft by others or unauthorized use by others. Therefore, they must be locked and guarded. Locks and “security systems,” really, monuments to insecurity, are simply logical extensions of the closet mentality, that approach to life that compartmentalizes everything, organizes everything and considers the accumulation of just about everything to be the goal of one’s life. It is as though people were in a contest to see who ends up with the most stuff. Then comes death and reveals the folly of it all. It is left to others to clean out our closets, cabinets, dressers, chests, safety deposit boxes and bank accounts and divvy them up, usually among contending “shoppers.” Then comes the fights, hurt feelings, resentments, etc, until the “winners” die and their stuff gets divvied up, if they have any left. All of us enter into eternity without a penny to our name or a stitch of clothing on our backs, even our bodies are left, along with the clothes they are dressed in, to be divvied up by the natural process of decomposition, helped by parasites of a different kind than the “inheritors”. In eternity all the stuff we try to accumulate on earth is considered as junk. From the eternal perspective earthly junk not originally junk- God does not create junk- but human-made junk, is not going to get into eternity and mess up that environment. Nor are there any closets in eternity. Life and love is shared, not compartmentalized, stored or hoarded. Closets, be they silos, cabinets, chests, markets or supermarkets, stores, malls or mega-malls, might be monuments to a person’s earthly wealth, but they are also testaments to human folly. Death reveals the absurdity of a life of accumulation.
Mental Closets: Physical closets are, of course, visible signs of invisible realities, “sacraments,” in a way. They are the “sacraments” of idolatry, the religion of greed. People do not just put their stuff in closets; they put themselves in closets. It is not just homosexuals who can be closeted. We all erect closets and build bigger and we think “better,” barns to store our prejudices, resentments, fears, hatreds- all forms of emotional greed, of hoarding essentially useless and potentially harmful feelings. Like the elements of the universe, our feelings are at first free-floating. It is when they get locked into a form, stored as frozen or canned, never fresh, that we need to reserve space in our hearts and minds to keep them, taking up space needed to love, shrinking our freedom. Amen.