Luke 12.13-21 & Ecclesiastes
4 August 2016
Help me Jesus! Take my side. He’s in the wrong and I’m in the right. Tell him. Tell him off. Make him give me the money he owes me.
That, in a way, is how one Gospel passage starts (Luke 12.13-21). In the Ancient Near East Rabbis, Teachers, the Learned, were sought out by parties in dispute to give a legal ruling on any given issue. One wonders, without legal institutional accountability, whether some of those ‘learned folk’ - those people in positions of authority, responsibility, trust - were perhaps corrupt and would look more favourably on those people who – shall we say – offered some kind of ‘thank you’ in terms of money or goods for finding in their favour? Thank goodness that doesn’t happen today (!)
And, clearly, this was simply not what Jesus was about. In fact, Jesus in his response made very clear what he thought about all these practices. He calls the chap who approaches him: ‘Man’. The precise meaning of the word in Greek doesn’t translate terribly well. But it implies criticism and reprimand. I wouldn’t go far as having Jesus say: “No chance Mate...” certainly not. But the effect would have been the same.
As the biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey says: Jesus is a reconciler of people, not a divider. He is a supporter of justice – true justice – not a taker of sides. Unless of course it involves taking the side of the downtrodden, the outcast, the oppressed, the excluded, the persecuted.
Another theologian Lesslie Newbiggin, considered that ‘all human causes are ambiguous and all human actions are involved in the illusions which are the product of our egotism’. While the prophet Habbakuk wrote about the coming of the Chaldeans, he said: ‘their justice and dignity proceed from themselves’ (Hab 1.7).
When we are in dispute, don’t we often say – it’s not the money, or the damage so-and-so has caused- it’s the principle? And so often, if we look really close enough the ‘principle’ turns out to be what I perceive as my rights, my due... my dignity. I’ve lost face in the incident and I demand vengeance. I may justify that vengeance by wrapping it up in a belief that whatever retribution I manage to exact will be for the good of society. But it’s my dignity that I ultimately wish to be the beneficiary.
This incident of Jesus being confronted by the petitioner is like the opening theme of a tone poem. The theme is selfishness, and self-righteousness. The obtaining and claiming of things for ourselves which are rightfully, and always will be, God’s.
When we really think about it, there are no possessions other than those God gives us. And in thankfulness we respond to those gifts, that abundance of God’s by passing on, giving away – not holding on to. Not grabbing everything for ourselves because we believe it is our right. We think we deserve it. We’ve worked hard. We’ve earned it...
Which is what the passage goes on to consider, in a parable Jesus tells about a rich man, whose crops produce a bumper harvest and he says to himself – I’ll need a bigger barn. How clever I am to have got this fantastic windfall. But God says to him: how foolish you are, grabbing and holding on to all this yourself, for you will not live through the night.
The passage is not saying we should not look after ourselves, our families our futures; often a misinterpretation of the passage of the rich fool. We should absolutely be wise and careful and plan for the future. Indeed it is a blessing and God’s delight that we enjoy God’s gifts and abundance. Why else does Jesus often describe the Kingdom of Heaven as a great banquet? If you haven’t seen the film Babette’s Feast – I commend it to you. A better metaphor for God’s graciousness, abundance and delight in us I cannot imagine.
So what is this parable saying? Well, let’s just look at the rich fool. First of all – he’s alone. His dialogue is with himself. He has no friends, no counsellors, no advisors.
We may imagine he has, little by little, in his self-absorption, self-righteousness, cut himself off through the amassing of wealth and belonging from family, or any genuine friends – people who might have been honest enough and their relationship strong enough to advise the rich fool against his folly. But he has none. His whole life’s focus is on acquisition not relationship. Isaiah (5.8) wryly warns: ‘Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land.’ I repeat – there is nothing wrong with possessions. But the root of the word possession is of course possess. Do we own our possessions or do they possess us? That’s what this passage is asking.
The rich fool receives not just abundance, but abundance upon abundance. Yet where do his thoughts go? Thanks be to God for these blessings? Does he go on to say: why do I have so much? It must be so that I can benefit others. Where are the needy, those who have not - where I have much? Let me seek them out and share this with them?
What he does, instead, is justify to himself his right to hold on to it himself... with a quotation from scripture.
(By the way - we need constantly to beware selective quoting to justify our own beliefs.)
He says to himself: ‘and I will say to myself (‘my soul’)... you have ample goods laid up for many years, relax eat, drink and be merry’.
The passage he quotes is from Ecclesiastes. But God – who knows scripture better than the rich fool does, in calling him foolish, is reminding him of the actual context of Ecclesiastes, and as one Bible’s subheading puts it: The Futility of Self-Indulgence. Chapter 2. Verses 18-19: “I hated all my toil... seeing that I must leave it to those that come after me – and who knows whether they be wise or foolish, yet they will be master of all for which I toiled...” and verse 25: For, apart from God “who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him, God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy.”
True pleasure, true enjoyment is relishing the abundance of God but treating it in the way God wishes us to treat it. So let us constantly and consistently give thanks for our lives, for the abundance of God, for God’s blessings on us... and let us actively seek to pass on that joy, that abundance, those blessings to others.
In the words of The Lion King: that’s the circle of life. God doesn’t want that circle to stop with us. Because then it is no longer a circle. It’s a dead end.
May you enjoy your blessings and may those blessings enable you to be a blessing to others