The Gospel we’ve just heard is known as the “Parable of the rich fool”, a title which offers a convenient and easy key of interpretation. Indeed, we encounter in this story a rich man who – for some reason, b/c his land produced more abundantly than usual – finds himself suddenly very comfortable, and literally does not know what to do with his money, or at least with his harvest. So he begins to think about it and as he finds a way to secure his gain, he also starts plans about how he could finally enjoy the good life. But that’s when he hears the voice of God calling him a fool, telling him that he’s going to die on that very night.
And so the point seems obvious: Life is short, and we worry too much about money. This interpretation of the parable makes sense, of course. It’s hard to argue with the fact that we give too much importance to money and material things, our “stuff” as we say. I was recently attending a diocesan meeting about stewardship and the speaker brought up an interesting study showing that 80% of our lives are about earning money, spending money or worrying about money. It even claims that we think about money more than we think about sex (I wonder how they do the math!).
At any rate – that’s where we are in the Gospel: warned that life is not all about material things. Actually, Jesus’ words today can remind us of the conversation he’s just had with Martha (the Gospel from 2 weeks ago). The dialogue starts the same: “tell my brother / tell my sister (to do this…)” and Jesus downplays the request to point out the importance of privileging heavenly things instead of worrying over earthly things. It is worth pointing out that Jesus does not so much condemn money than the fact that we worry about money. It usually makes wealthy people feel better (It’s okay to have money as long as you don’t worry too much about it) but I guess it is more actually to include also the poor (who were the audience on that day). The poor are also invited to not worry too much about money b/c this is not what matters ultimately, even if it feels like it matters a lot.
And so that’s a good story, as we start thinking about stewardship season. Give you money away so you can focus on spiritual things and save your souls! But when the sense is obvious, especially in the Scriptures, there is often a hidden meaning as well. And sometimes the way to find it is by focusing less on what the story says, and focusing more on how it feels.
To me, it feels like a strange story. One of those stories Jesus told, like the story of ten bridesmaids, that has a little something eerie to it and givesyou a few goosebumps when your hear it. If you think about it, it’s strange, this man alone in the night hearing the voice of God telling him that his life is being demanded of him. As far as I remember, people in Jesus’s stories rarely interact directly with God. Jesus generally uses images: A king, a Master, a bridegroom. Sometimes it’s an angel or a prophet who brings God’s message. But Godself? No.
So, it’s a strange story, yet there is a familiarity to it – a familiarity that does not make it comfortable, a familiarity that actually feels a bit threatening, b/c it feels real. We can relate to the experience. This man, it could be anyone of us. Because he worries about money, but more deeply we can picture ourselves in the story, lying in the little hours, alone with our thoughts, making to do lists. All would be quite good if we didn’t have this voice inside of us telling us that maybe it’s not going to work out, that maybe our plans are in vain. Ever had that?
We don’t always know where this voice comes from. Is it the voice of our wiser self, or the voice of the foolish one? Is it common sense, or insecurity? Yet sometimes it feels powerful enough, it could be the voice of God. I was actually wondering if in fact the rich man wasn’t having a panic attack! When suddenly something inside of you tells you that you are going to die on the spot…although no danger surrounds you, only the weight of your own anxiety!
But we all have those voices and we’re plus or less good at dismissing them. And yet, Jesus tells us today, there is something we need to pay attention to. There is something inside those voices that could be indeed the voice of God. There is something deep in us that knows how our plans for our lives are threatened by our own mortality. There is something inside of us trying to remind us something to fear that is deeper than our fears. There is, if you will, an anxiety inside the anxiety. We’re worried about money, but more deeply we’re worried we’re not going to make it. We’re worried that everything is going to stop before we can be happy. We’re worried that we may come to realize that life does not make sense.
And it seems to me this is exactly the point Jesus is making with the parable: this kind of life does not make sense and the man starts shaking and trembling as he realizes the emptiness of everything he values. Maybe he is not so much going to die than he is already dead inside. His heart is dead. A lot of commentaries of this Gospel underscore the fact that the man speaks to himself and even speaks to himself inside his monologue (“I will say to my soul”), b/c he is utterly lonely: he has nobody to talk to, he has nobody to dream about, he has nobody to share his bread with.
Today, Jesus warns us against greed (Be on your guard against all kinds of greed!) and in the Epistle, Paul points out that greed is idolatry. We know from the Old Testament that idols are gods of stone. And this is what happens here: the man’s heart has turned to stone. A theologian gives this definition of sin: “Sin is when life freezes”, and in our story, God is actually not saying to the man that he is going to die, the Greek says: “These things are claiming your life”. “These things are freezing your life”. We often think of sin as doing something wrong or dangerous. But for Jesus, sin is doing nothing. Sin is when we don’t live this life God is giving us and instead we try to preserve and secure it. The man trying to secure his harvest could be a counter reference to the gift of the manna, and the way God ordered his people to never store the manna (otherwise it will rot…). Jesus has just told his disciples to pray for their daily bread, not their saved bread. Jesus is the living bread, the bread that is alive and given to all.
Real life is the life of the heart…Life is not about saving stuff, it’s about giving one’s heart away. Jesus’s words are not condemnation though. Jesus invites us to consider the abundance around us (Consider the lilies is the passage that follows) consider the beauty, the way God acts through the world instead of focusing on never having enough. Jesus invites us to respond to God’s generosity by our own generosity. This is ultimately what it means to be rich towards God: to have this ability to give all the time. Well, if you have the ability to give all the time, it must mean that you are very rich, right? Or at least there are treasures in your heart!
But to become generous, we have to be freed from worries…How can we do that?
Well, to me – and that will be my last point – Jesus’s teaching in this parable is this: What you’ve always been taught about life is not necessarily true. Maybe the anxiety at the root of all our anxiety is that we suspect the lie: a successful and material life does not make any sense indeed. But that’s what we’ve been taught to believe. That’s the culture we live in, and that’s often the example our parents showed us or the expectation they had for us. With his parable, Jesus does not make any reproach to the man who is asking the question about the inheritance! I think the character Jesus pictures is the father of this man, a father who died suddenly, without sharing his wealth, b/c of his selfishness and anxiety. My clue is that God says to him: “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” and that’s exactly the question the man is asking to Jesus! This man and his brother cannot agree what is for whom, and doing so they let their hearts be captured by the material things, in the same way their father did. Jesus by telling this parable tells the man: Just don’t go down that road b/c what you saw your father do was foolish. Jesus wants to free us today from carrying the anxieties of our fathers and mothers and all those who told us that worrying was the reasonable thing to do. Instead, Jesus asks us to consider the lilies and want to teach us airiness…It’s not about filling ourselves with food and wine (actually addictions are a side effect of worrying!)…it’s about finding holy anxiety – addressing the anxiety behind all other anxieties by living out our call to live God’s dream, instead of reenacting our parents’ dramas or the myths of our society…
As in his sermon of the Mount, Jesus gives his own teaching, a new teaching: “You’ve been told…but now I tell you…”. Will we listen to his voice inside of us?
Henri Nouwen: “From the beginning of my life, two interior voices have been speaking to me: one saying, Henri be sure you make it on your own. Be sure you become an independent person. Be sure I can be proud of you. And another voice saying: Henri, whatever you are going to do, even if you don’t do anything very interesting in the eyes of the world, be sure you stay close to the heart of Jesus, be sure you stay close to the love of God. You are here (…) to discover and believe that you are a beloved child of God…Life is just a short opportunity for you during a few years to say to God: I love you too.”