In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus is talking about possessions again, and about our relationship to them, which is usually reason enough to start feeling nervous, even though the surrounding context has Jesus repeatedly telling his disciples not to be anxious. I think if we listen carefully, we might be surprised by what Jesus is saying, and, perhaps as importantly, by what he is not saying.
Jesus has been teaching his disciples in the midst of a large crowd as they all walk towards Jerusalem, when someone interrupts with a request concerning a family inheritance. Jesus’ immediate response is to confirm that he has not come into the world as judge. He has come to wake us all up to the reality of our lives, and to invite us to deepen our experience of life in God’s kingdom, but he will leave our response up to us.
It is likely that some of the things Jesus does not say would have been assumed true by his audience. Greed was understood as a social evil bringing harm to those around the greedy person, and an increase in possessions by one person would have been attributed to a loss of resources by others.
While that might be in the background to this gospel passage, what Jesus actually says seems to indicate a different focus. It might be worth noting here that while Jesus has been speaking with his disciples, in our passage he speaks to the man and to the surrounding crowd. As the story goes on, Jesus will turn his attention back to his disciples, but for now I think he is describing what it means to be human generally rather than what it means to be a disciple specifically.
Jesus is concerned about the detrimental effect that greed has on the greedy person. He cautions us to protect ourselves from greed, because living greedily is harmful to us, and it comes in many forms, greed for possessions being just one of them.
While being wealthy is generally considered suspicious in Luke’s Gospel, the rich man is not immediately condemned in Jesus’ parable just for being wealthy. This is not a story about giving it all away. It is when what used to be enough is no longer enough that the trouble really starts for him. The man has become isolated from those around him and is concerned only about his own comfort and satisfaction, which is not the same as his own wellbeing.
His condition is eloquently expressed in the passage from Ecclesiastes, where we find another man turned in upon himself and his own concerns. There is frustration because all that has been so carefully worked for will pass into the hands of others, and he cannot control how it will be used then. It is enough for him to give his heart up to despair.
It does not seem to occur to either the writer of Ecclesiastes or to the rich man in Jesus’ parable that having others benefit from the results of our labour might just be a good part of what makes for a fulfilling life. The rich man does not know how much trouble he is in, for in his oblivious self-satisfaction he has an intimate conversation with his own soul, quite unaware that his soul is dying.
The condition of our souls is also the subject of the apostle Paul’s writing to the Colossians. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God, he assures them, reminding us that there is more to life than our own self-absorbed preoccupations. Our souls are being renewed by God through Christ, and we are invited to live generously into that larger reality, rather than risk being stifled by our desire for security.
Paul describes God’s intention in the renewal of all things as revealing the beauty of all things including ourselves being filled with the risen Christ. We are invited to contemplate the freedom of living in such a way that the distinctions among us no longer divide us, so that the image of God in all of us is revealed as including each one of us as we share life together.
Jesus tells us to be careful about how we live because our lives are precious to God, and he warns us about the consequences of living selfishly, including the harm we do to our own souls. What does our life really consist of? What does it mean to be rich towards God?
We all need enough to live our lives with dignity, but so do those around us. When we have more than enough, what are we to do with the excess? I think we all need to find our own particular answers to these challenging questions, through careful prayerful discernment.