In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
In today’s Gospel reading, the Lord speaks of the futility and the danger that come from an attachment to carnal or worldly things. As with the story of Mary and Martha which we heard several weeks ago, today’s story features two siblings, one of whom feels wronged by the other, and who comes to Jesus appealing to his authority to set things right. And as with the story of Mary and Martha, if we are honest with ourselves, we find that what little we know of the petitioner elicits our sympathy. He seems really to be a victim of his brother’s selfishness and unfairness. “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.”
Nothing can cause more alienation within families than disputes over inheritance. It can seem impossible to find an equitable way of dividing things up. Even when people try to go the extra mile with generosity toward their fellow-heirs, when it comes to who gets what, bitterness and resentment nevertheless very frequently find a way to worm themselves into relationships.
So today we find the Lord speaking of the transience of all things. As St. Teresa of Avila put it, “Todo se pasa.” All things are passing away. So the question is: why hold on to them? Holding on to them can do nothing but imperil our souls. How foolish it is, therefore, to hold on to anything in the world whatsoever. All things are passing away. In his second epistle, St. Peter says: “…the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.” And then Peter asks, “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be[?]” (2 Peter 3.10ff).
If we have trouble with this question, in today’s Gospel the Lord says what sort of persons we are NOT to be. He says, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” (Luke 12.15). “Beware of all covetousness…” Covetousness means desiring what other people have, but the same power in our heart that gives rise to it also gives rise to an inordinate attachment to the things we DO have, and the danger of this kind of attachment is clear in the parable the Lord tells in this Gospel reading.
The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, `What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods… (Luke 12.16ff)
The first error of the rich man in the parable is in thinking that his crops belong to him to begin with, and this is a misconception to which we are all prone. So powerful a notion is it, that we go around just assuming it. “My stuff is my own.” But it isn’t true. We possess nothing of ourselves. Even that which seems nearest of all to us – our existence, our LIFE, our most intimate possession – is a gift from God. We did not create ourselves, and therefore as St. Paul says, “…you are not your own…” (1 Corinthians 6.19).
All that we have comes from God. And fighting covetousness and an attachment to things begins with this recognition that nothing belongs to us in a fundamental way, but that it all comes from God; and that we, who are the stewards of what we possess, must relate to and dispose all of it as God sees fit. If we say that he is our “Lord” and we fail to do this, then we make ourselves into liars and rebels.
St. Basil the Great says: “But if you say that what you have comes from God… why do you have plenty while another goes without? Are you not then a thief for thinking that what you have received [from God] belongs to you? It is the bread of the hungry that you receive, the clothing of the naked that you hoard in your wardrobe, the shoes of the barefoot that rot in your possession, the money of the poor which you have hidden away. Why then do you thus bring injury to so many whom you might help?”
What are we to do then? Do we have to give everything away if we are to be real Christians? Well many real Christians have done just that, and this is the core of the monastic vocation: embracing poverty for the sake of the Gospel. Christian history is filled to overflowing with examples of Christians doing this very thing. But not all of us are called to be monks and nuns. But we are all called to seek and to cultivate a detachment from our possessions that is borne of our recognition of the truth – that none of it belongs to us anyway, and that God has allowed us to have what we have for the sake of our salvation and the salvation of others. Armed with this attitude, we should proceed to relate to and dispose our STUFF accordingly – for our salvation, and for that of the whole world. And I would venture to guess that many of us could stand to give a lot of our stuff away.
Fundamentally we, as Christians, should gratefully accept everything as having come from God, we should use what we really need, and let go of the rest. Saint Basil says that if everyone just kept what he needed and gave the rest to the needy, then no one would be rich and no one would be poor. But how hard this is! And its difficulty should be an occasion for us to repent and to ask God to help us to do better.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus confronts us with another reality – another truth – that we are prone to forget, but the memory of which should help us to relate to and dispose our stuff in a virtuous way. After the rich man in the parable decides to hold on tightly to his riches, God says to him: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ [And Jesus says] So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12.20f)
Its an amusing irony that people who are worried about the world ending spend a good deal of their energy hording food and guns and so forth. What good is it to stockpile stuff if the world is coming to and end? It would be much more sensible to give it away. And the truth is that the world IS coming to an end eventually, and that, as St. Teresa of Avila reminds us, all things are passing away continually. And regardless of whether or not we live to see the end of the world, the stark fact is that each of our own personal worlds is coming to an end relatively soon. We are all going to die. So what good is our stuff going to do us ultimately? Not much. Saint Athanasius of Alexandria said, “Now if you live so as to die daily, seeing that your life is naturally uncertain, you will not sin…” If I really realized in my heart the stark fact that: before this day is through, I could be standing before God for judgment, I imagine I would reorder my priorities.
Some of you may have read Flannery O’Connor’s great short story called “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” One of the main characters is a selfish old woman who turns quite beatific when she is faced with being murdered. After she is killed the misfit who kills her concludes, “she would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Spiritually I think we are often in the place of that mean old woman. If we just had someone to shoot us every minute of our lives, we might start relating to and disposing our stuff in a way that is more worthy of the name of Christ.
We ought not to wait until it is too late. The Book of Common Prayer, on page 445, directs the pastors of churches “to instruct [their] people, from time to time, about the duty… of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.” You are hereby so instructed.
But more fundamentally, I wish us all prayerfully, regularly , humbly , and gratefully (which means EUCHARISTICALLY) to recognize the uncertainty of our lives, and to acknowledge God as the source of all that we have and all that we are – and then humbly, prayerfully, regularly, and gratefully to take stock of our STUFF, and resolve that our relationship to all of it will always grow from, and be informed by, this anterior recognition of God’s majesty and of our own insignificance: that we are nothing of ourselves, but that he was, and is, and will be all-in-all. Let us live and do and have accordingly.
Saint Ambrose of Milan said, “these THINGS that we cannot take away with us [when we die] are not truly ours. VIRTUE alone is the companion of the dead, MERCY alone follows us [beyond the grave and] gains for [us] an everlasting habitation.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.