I didn’t intend to have a Bulletin announcement about estate planning on the same weekend we hear an argument about an inheritance and a parable about hoarding wealth; it just worked out that way. There might be some Divine message in this, but I’m still trying to figure it out.
In keeping with the inadvertent theme of this Sunday, the man in the parable made a prudent financial plan. He considered everything, except one detail. He planned well for the rest of his life, but failed to plan for the end of his life. In the parable, God said to the man, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” (Luke 12:20)
In a society as materialistic as ours, it is very tempting to judge the rich man in the parable to be either a hero or a villain. If you embrace the widespread and shallow materialism of our culture, you see the man in the parable as being extremely fortunate and extremely smart. He came into great wealth because of an unnaturally good harvest. He is a winner and a role model, even though his financial windfall was more a coincidence than the result of any personal effort.
On the other hand, if you are scandalized by the extreme and narcissistic materialism of our culture, you view the man as representative of everything that is wrong with our society. He was among the “1%,” the “Haves” who exploit laborers and who have no concern for the poor. Even though his wealth came to him as an unforeseen act of nature, he would appear to you to be intentionally unjust.
Regardless of which camp you are in, there is a danger inherent in judging the man in the parable based on our contemporary moral standards. To judge the fictional character based on our standards is to fail to judge him based on the moral standards of Jesus’ culture. In the case of this parable, our contemporary moral standards are not able to portray adequately the man, his wealth or his sin.
Jesus lived in a time and place where central governments paid very little attention to the welfare of the general population. In the absence of governmental care for the poor and powerless, other powers stepped forward to look after the needs of the marginalized. In Jesus’ culture, the rich were expected to use their power on behalf of the poor. In exchange, the poor who were helped owed a debt of honor to their patrons.
The man in the parable is a classical example of a wealthy patron. He was entitled to his wealth, as wealth was considered a sign of Divine favor. He was, however, obliged to use his wealth justly and wisely. The just and wise use of wealth at that time and place would have been to help a few less fortunate people. The result of his help would have been to improve the lives of some who were powerless in society, and to gain their loyalty and indebtedness. The man’s moral failure was not that he was rich, nor that he intended to remain rich, but that he failed to use his wealth appropriately.
Jesus’ summary of the parable identifies the man’s sin, “Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.” (Luke 12:21) According to Jesus, “what matters to God” is faithfulness to God and neighbor, a recurring theme in his preaching. (Luke 10:25-37) His sin was infidelity rather than avarice. The rich man could have helped alleviate the suffering of the poor in his town. Instead, he broke faith with his neighbors; he did not fulfill his social obligations.
If we look at this parable in its original social context, a direct application to our lives becomes unavoidable. There are numerous ways in which we break faith with our neighbors today. Some of those acts of unfaithfulness are the result of the way we use our personal wealth; others are the result of the way we use the world in which we live, and still others are the result of the way we marginalize inconvenient people and groups.
It is an easy thing to break faith with our neighbors. If we view other people as threats to our prosperity, happiness or comfort, it’s easy to withdraw the social faithfulness we owe them. On the other hand, if we view other people as being exactly like ourselves, it becomes easier to sympathize with their needs. Jesus’ teaching portrays other people as the mirror in which we see ourselves. The rich man turned out to be the poorest of men because he was blind to the possibility of helping his neighbors in need. His life reflected only emptiness.
Take a few moments to imagine the people with whom you surround yourself. How do those people reflect on you? Can you see the sort of treasure you have accumulated in your lifetime? Is it a small, manageable or simple treasure? Or, is it the sort of treasure that would fill a barn? I think Jesus would have us spend our lives filling the biggest possible barn with the most eclectic collection of faithful relationships. That, I think, is what it means to grow rich in what matters to God. (Luke 12:21)
A note on the Scriptures:
During Jesus’ lifetime only adult males could own or inherit property. In most cases, ownership of ancestral property passed from father to eldest son. However, Judean legal practice allowed adult male family members to dispute the distribution of an inheritance if there was no clear instruction left by the eldest male family member before his death. The man in the crowd in this Sunday’s Gospel was claiming part of his father’s estate, even though by rights it belonged to his eldest brother. The man had the legal right to ask for a share of the inheritance, but to do so would have been considered shameful. Requesting that the inheritance be divided between brothers risked both diminishing the family’s ancestral property and causing disunity in the family structure. It was the potential for enmity between brothers that Jesus found distasteful about the man’s request.
The dispute led Jesus to tell the parable about the rich man who didn’t live long enough to do anything with his wealth except store it in a barn. Jesus summed up the parable by saying, “Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.” (Luke 12:21) The particularity of the situation that occasioned this parable should make us cautious about applying Jesus’ saying in a general way to all matters dealing with material wealth. In the context of the Gospel, the parable and the saying were warnings to the man who asked for a share of his father’s estate.
The specific, contextual meaning of the parable and the saying is that Jesus judged family unity to be of greater value than material gain. Generalizations about all material wealth might not be warranted, and any pejorative judgments about material wealth should avoid assiduously falling into the dualism that occasionally creeps into Christian ethics.
Luke’s Gospel speaks often about the poor and the preferential favor that God shows to them. This was an address to members of Luke’s congregation, who perhaps had lost their wealth in the effort to retain their faith. Material poverty on its own is neutral with regard to Christian faith and ethics. In Luke’s Gospel, it is praised because of its association with a deep desire for the Kingdom. Poverty is salvific for Luke because (or when), it signifies fidelity to the Kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)