Re-encountering the Rich Fool
Ordinary Sunday 18: 31st July, 2016
Richard Wilson, Priest Assisting at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23, Psalm 90, Colossians 3:1-5,9-11, Luke 12:13-21
When I hear today's lections, the readings, I am struck immediately, and none too subtly, with what I interpret as the purpose of the lectioner, the one who assembled the readings, the lectioner has conveyed quite clearly that he (and I'll lay money on it being him, not her) that he sees the core meaning of Jesus' parable of the rich landowner being that the accumulation of capital — in the form of barns and grain and other goods to go in them, and the building of yet more barns for even more wealth is a bad thing, not least because one's life could be taken at any moment.
That is, Jesus is advocating a life that is centred on God to the exclusion of earthly engagement and riches. That wealth is bad and some form of life of denial is what is called for. Which is to say capitalism is bad, poverty and ascetic religiosity is good.
The lectioner provides a wealth of evidence to make his point. Starting with a fairly small and predictable excerpt from Ecclesiastes — its well-known and well-worn world-denying lament that all is vanity — a career of toil and struggle and sleepless nights and to what end. Life is red in tooth and claw, and then you die!
The Psalmist is no more cheerful — years are swept away like a dream, like grass — renewed in the morning but by evening withered and dry. All our days pass away under your wrath, Lord; our years come unto an end like a sigh. Depressing, isn't it? The lectioner has appropriated Ecclesiastes and the Psalm's advocacy for retreat from this world to introduce his central point.
But I don't see how these two sections from the OT have any natural relation to what follows in the epistle or the gospel, apart from wanting to make this particular point — world-denial, as I have suggested.
Paul, however, changes tack, there is more hope in him, and he offers the new life in Christ, and that is encouraging to my mind. But still Paul expects his readers to set aside the things of the world for this new life in Christ. The unvarnished message is basically the same — he summarizes it in Second Corinthians: 'look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.' (2Cor 4:18)
But this is different to the OT. Paul's world denial is for two clear reasons. The first is that unlike the OT writers, he has seen Christ and has direct personal evidence of a transcendental hope that lies beyond this world, and this provides him a kind of justification of why he wants to deny the world.
Second, his reason for denying the world is that he, like most of the early church, believed that the world was about to end. They had heard Christ's prediction of his return again and it was expected to be in their lifetimes. The future was foreshortened and lay not in providing for things of the world, but in preparing for what is to come — judgment. There was no time to be lost, only time to repent and take on Christ.
Two thousand years on we have a different, if less clear or certain, view of what is to come. We are not convinced the world will end in our lifetimes, as Paul and his followers did, and so our work in the world must look out over many generations, not just our own. That is to say, the context in which we read Paul, is vastly different from the one in which it was written.
So I doubt I can lift Paul's world denial from his context and place it automatically in ours. Not to deny it, but to doubt the plain text over a more nuanced reading.
Therefore I question the first three readings as valid illumination of the gospel on the basis of an inauthentic selection and failure of context. My doubt takes me then on a different path through the parable of the rich landowner. So I must ask first — what it really is that Jesus says to his disciples, about what the rich landowner is doing, what is it that Jesus is concerned about? To read the plaintext first, what is actually done and said?
The rich landowner has decided to do two things — increase his capacity for wealth by an investment in farm infrastructure, and then to settle down, relax and enjoy the fruit of his exertions. The landowner is building his superannuation, making non-concessional contributions if you like, because he wants to retire. God's response is to declaim this as foolishness— "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?"
Whose will they be? Which is to ask who will inherit them? There is a cue here to go back to the start of the gospel reading, the dispute between brothers over family inheritance — to which Jesus' response is to condemn their greed.
This is the key. The issue for the rich landowner is not possession of wealth of itself, it is the failure to share it — to be greedy.
So, my interpretation — but it may not be yours — is that the call to the rich landowner is not to deny his wealth, it's not to cease to be a capitalist, but to cease to be greedy and self-absorbed in the possession of wealth. Further, implictly, if not greedy, then to be generous in a stewardship of that wealth that reduces the suffering of the poor, reduces inequality and shares the resources of the world.
The wealthy landowner's concept of property rights — and ours, I'll wager — is upended. You can make money, you can be a capitalist, but you have to give it away. So, I believe we can argue this gospel does not deny wealth and promote religious asceticism and quietude in its place, but that it conveys a much more positive view of capitalism that recognises its capacity for wealth generation, but which lays on the successful capitalist the burden of stewardship. I don't believe that is the interpretation the lectioner was trying to lead us to. But I hope it is a reasonable interpretation of what the gospel says. And not the only one.
My purpose in arguing this was is two-fold. First, I do not want to make a positive biblical case for capitalism, or at least to challenge the negative one. The second is to illustrate the possibility, indeed the need to read the Bible generously and openly, to be prepared to acknowledge alternative voices, and so to be open to a range of interpretations.
I do not deny the lectioner's purpose — asceticism and withdrawal from the world can be good for some. Christ practised it periodically, the monasteries and convents make it a lifetime commitment. All of us need space at times for reflection. To be open like this is an act of plurality, which is in my view something we have lost in contemporary Western society — a plural vision of our society. To be open to voices that are not ours, in different accents and from different cultural and religious traditions than our own. To be prepared to hear the Muslim, the Hindu, the indigenous, the refugee, the disabled or the homeless as equal participants in community life and to respond with the consideration and respect that equal participants deserve, still holding fast to our own beliefs and arguing for them — which is what plurality demands.
To do otherwise is to deny the reality of the world in the hope of some confected, comfortable isolation that is not the world we actually live in. We are called in this gospel, in my reading of it, to a much more radical and generous plurality.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.