Sermon - 4th August 2013
The Rich Fool
Scripture - Luke 12:13-21
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
“This is how it is with those who pile up riches for themselves but are not rich in God's sight.”
There we have the punch line of the story, left hanging in the air, leaving us with a challenge to work out what it means to be “rich in God’s sight” (GNB). An earlier translation uses the phrase “rich towards God” (RSV), another speaks of being “rich where God is concerned” (J.B. Phillips), while a modern paraphrase rewrites the sentence as, “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God” (The Message).
Today’s reading is part of a larger section of Luke’s Gospel dealing with different aspects of justice, with a particular emphasis on seeking God’s justice by being true to oneself. This section, telling the parable of the rich fool, relates wealth to justice and continues to ask questions about what it means to be true to ourselves when we step back from our own desires and consider the bigger picture.
But wealth is an idea which has carried many meanings over the past two millennia. The understanding of wealth which was accepted in Jesus’s day was that everything in the world was finite and limited, especially land. And in a rural economy of that kind, wealth came primarily from what the land could produce for its owner. There was no concept of creating new wealth from new enterprises; wealth was finite. There was one pie, of a fixed size, and so what really mattered was how that pie was carved up. If it was carved up justly, everyone had enough to live on: conversely, if there were people who did not have enough - people who were poor and facing destitution - then the pie had been carved up unjustly, and somewhere there must be people who had more than they needed.
Out of this primitive economic theory grew a belief system in which wealth always equated to injustice at its deepest level. A rich person’s wealth was seen to have been accumulated at the cost of others, and probably by means of some form of corruption or exploitation. This is one reason why rich people are often generalised in the gospels as being self-centred, starting from the wrong viewpoint, or reaching wrong judgments. For generalised wealth in the gospels, read generalised injustice, and expect tough words from Jesus.
The parable about the rich man whose life will be required of him tonight turns on the idea that the man discovers too late that material wealth is not a permanent possession. In essence, the only possessions worth striving for are those that death cannot take away. And the challenge of the story is to think about what those possessions may be in the life of each person who hears that message. What makes us truly rich in God’s sight? How do we fill our barn with God and not with Self?
Today’s world is infinitely more complex than the society in which those words were first spoken. Injustice, poverty, inequality and exploitation are still major issues in our world, but the mechanisms which give rise to those evils are almost impossible to disentangle. We may have convinced ourselves that wealth is not finite and can actually be created through enterprise, new discoveries and innovation, and that those who are enterprising and hard-working enough may be entitled to the personal wealth that their business skills bring their way. Our capitalist economies, even with their failings and frequent injustices, seem to have become a reality of life - perhaps even the least worst option - in the world we face.
Occasionally we see wealth being given away, usually arising from a personal ethical belief in giving something back to the world which created that wealth in the first place. The great philanthropists from the Victorian era onwards, such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Leverhulme, and the Quaker families behind the big UK brands of Rowntree, Cadbury and Fry, all responded in some way to what they saw as a social justice issue. Building societies, which in their earliest days functioned rather like credit unions run by their members for their members, the Co-operative Movement which gave its profits back to its members in shares, Voluntary Societies and Charitable Trusts which gave the interest from investments to people in desperate circumstances, all contributed to the idea of making society just a little bit fairer for those who struggled to keep going. In our modern day, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation puts money from Gates’s huge personal wealth generated by the success of his Microsoft Corporation into many worthwhile causes and may be the nearest thing we have to the classic philanthropist in the Victorian style.
But perhaps the challenge of the gospel is to see beyond the call to philanthropy and charitable giving, even though both of those choices are noble actions. Perhaps the parable warns us to avoid becoming so comfortable with our wealth - so focused on self - that we never get around to being as generous as we are called to be if all are to have their fair share.
Justin Welby’s heart was in the right place when he decided to take on the pay-day lenders and told them he would close them down by resourcing a better solution to emergency payments for people in need. It’s just a shame that his church’s investments were in the wrong place at the time he was making the announcement. But, for a short time, he captured a mood - perhaps because he reflected something of the good news of Jesus.
We still hear stories about charity funds and government aid money occasionally being diverted from the places and projects where they can make the most impact. The worlds of finance, trade and ethical investment are hugely complicated areas where mistakes do happen, and where bad judgment creeps in, and will probably continue to do so. But somewhere in that complexity of the choices we make and the decisions we face, there is still a gospel message: we are called to become rich in God’s sight in preference to accumulating the wealth of this world which is, at best, of fleeting value.
The story is framed in terms of wealth, but it is really about justice. The challenge, at its simplest, seems to say, “Does anything in the way we live our lives diminish in some way the life of another person?” “Does anyone lose when we profit?” Perhaps even, “When do we stray beyond what we need, into the realm of what we want for ourselves, to the disadvantage of others?”
We can’t always link causes to effects. We know that in the modern trading world the relationships between those who make goods and those who buy goods are often very indirect with many agents, wholesalers, resellers and distributors involved in the process. And yet our modern news and communications services also alert us to injustices as never before.
Not everything that we hear is the pure, unbiased truth of a situation: stakes are often high, and damaging news items can bring businesses to their knees. We have to learn to think in a 21st century way to understand our 21st century context; and we have probably never had as many opportunities as we have today to challenge oppressive laws, boycott unfairly-traded products, petition for better working conditions in developing countries, or demand proper taxation of profiteering corporations. Perhaps the complexity of modern society has also brought us the opportunities for modern social action.
The effects of our choices will not always be clear and obvious to us. Like a certain Archbishop, we may discover the impact of our decisions only after the event, and realise that we are caught up in something which betrays our best intentions.
But for the Christian, there is always that gospel challenge which requires us to consider - in amongst the thousand-and-one other things which demand our attention - whether justice is being served in how we acquire, manage and spend our money: because, when we do our best to opt for justice, we become rich in God’s sight.