“The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.” Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up
“A person’s life is not made secure by what she/he owns, even when that person has more than is necessary.” Luke 12, 13-21
There was a time in Israel’s history when rabbis were called upon to arbitrate on family disputes. In today’s gospel reading, we hear of an incident in which Jesus was asked to adjudicate an inheritance settlement. Wisely, he refused to be drawn into the issue. However, he gave the contestants something to ponder when he invited them to consider what it was that was motivating them to engage in the action they were pursuing. He concluded with a parable about avarice and the dangers of wealth. Another story might help us to clarify our own thinking about today’s gospel:
As sometimes happens, two farming families fell into a dispute over the exact boundaries of their adjoining farms. They took their case to their local rabbi. He agreed to listen to both families. The first came to him with documents and plans to demonstrate how the land had been in their family for generations. According to them, the documents showed clearly the perimeters of the land they had been cultivating. The second family claimed that they had come to know by word of mouth where the land in dispute started and finished. That information had been passed from one generation to the next, and their practice had not been challenged in the past. Proof of their hard work was not written on paper but on their calloused hands and backs bent by hard, physical labour. Both families agreed that they would abide by whatever the rabbi decided. However, having heard both sides, the rabbi knelt down and put his ear to the ground. A few minutes later, he stood and pronounced his verdict: “I have listened to both of you. Then I had to listen to the land over which you are in dispute. And now, the land itself has spoken. Neither of you is right, for neither owns the land you each say is yours. It is the land that owns you.”
Putting our energy into accumulating money and other material possessions runs the risk of deluding ourselves into thinking that we can control our lives and shape unshakable futures. The more we focus on acquiring personal gain, the less sensitive we become to the needs and dreams of those around us. The “foolish” man at the centre of today’s gospel parable makes the bitter discovery that “wealth” in the kingdom of God has nothing to do with fat bank accounts, ownership of property, prominent social status or full grain silos.
At the same time, we have to be careful to put the right perspective on today’s gospel reading. It is good management to make sure to use our energy and talents to provide for those who depend on us - and that includes the needy, the overlooked and the destitute as well as family and friends. The danger lies in going to extremes and not knowing when enough is enough. Putting all our trust and hope in what we acquire can drown our felt need for God, the only one who will ever be able to satisfy us. The parable that Jesus tells makes the point that greed is a sickness of the heart and soul. For as long as our lives are controlled by acquisition of wealth, popularity and power, we will never be satisfied. Only God and the things of God will ever truly satisfy us. The worst kind of poverty that any Christian can ever experience is the emptiness that comes from a life full of material things but devoid of the things of God - compassion, mercy, forgiveness, care, joy and gratitude.
Taken together, today’s three readings are rather unsettling, to say the least. In the first reading from Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth offers no encouragement at all: “As long as you live, everything you do brings nothing but worry and heartache. Even at night your mind can’t rest. It’s all useless (Ecclesiastes 2, 23). The gospel reading is equally grim: “You fool! This night you will have to give up your life” (Luke 12, 20). Less negative, but still challenging, Paul offers an exhortation: “Keep your mind focussed on what is above, not on things here on earth (Colossians 3, 2). Taken together, they are confronting us with the question of the values on which we base our lives. In particular, the gospel confronts us with the rich man who resides in the heart of each one of us.
In the parable that Jesus tells there are only two voices - that of God at the conclusion and, for ninety percent of the time, that of the rich man speaking to himself. He is so obsessed with himself (he uses the pronoun “I” five times) that nobody else comes into his plans and considerations. He simply has no idea of how empty and poverty-stricken is his own life.
Notice, too, that Jesus makes no comment on how the man’s wealth might have contributed to social injustice. While we are not told that his accumulation of grain might have been a force for driving up market prices, we are told that he is a downright fool. And not because of his imminent death. He is intent on creating something grand for the purpose of satisfying nobody but himself. His folly is not in giving expression to his creative skills, but rather in the expectation that he will enjoy it all by himself. Ironically, it will fall into the laps of others to enjoy, to the very people he is intent on excluding.
In today’s second reading, Paul gives us a comment on our own creativity. He points out that, as Christians, we are created anew in the image of our creator God: “You have put on a new self, which is being renewed in the image of its creator” (Colossians 3, 10). Paul is reminding us that we have been formed to be creators, in imitation of the God who loved us into life. Human creativity at its best is surely about using our gifts and energy to grow the love within our hearts and to contribute to the world in which we live. In imitation of our God, it should lead us to serve others and to inspire wonder and joy. All this resonates with the reminder Paul gave to the people of Ephesus and to us, too: “We are God’s masterpiece, God’s work of art. God has created us anew in Christ Jesus, to do the works for which God has prepared us” (Ephesians 2, 10).
So, the rich man of today’s gospel parable is an incomplete creator in that he has not been able to develop his full potential. He cannot bring himself to share or even to want to share. As a consequence, he is a poor image of God and, therefore, just not rich enough.
As I look into the mirror of today’s three readings, I am challenged to ask myself questions like: “Am I rich enough? Do I give generous expression to the creativity with which I have been entrusted? How do I share myself as God’s work of art?”