There is debate among Scripture scholars as to whether Jesus intended his teachings for all people in the general public or only for his disciples. There are merits to both sides of the discussion and the Scriptures can be interpreted to support either argument. The parable in today’s Gospel reading, for example, can be interpreted as instruction intended either for all people or only for disciples.
The rich man in the parable congratulated himself on having amassed sufficient wealth to guarantee a carefree life. He said, “Lucky me! I have enough wealth to last a lifetime! I can eat, drink, and rejoice to my heart’s content!” (Lk. 12:19) This is a preposterous idea, regardless of whether or not one is a believer. No person’s life is without its worries. The poor have to worry about survival and the wealthy have to worry about safeguarding their wealth. Furthermore, it is often the case that one’s intentions don’t work out as planned. The rich man was about to achieve his lifetime’s goal of having enough wealth to ensure an effortless life but he died just before seeing his plans come to fruition.
No one, regardless of circumstances, gets a carefree life. This parable about the fleeting nature of life and wealth can be seen as common-sense instruction addressed to everyone. One does not need to be a disciple of Jesus in order to understand that nothing in this world lasts forever; everything is contingent. This is a truism that predates Christianity. The ancient Greek myth of Tantalus expresses a sentiment similar to this parable. Tantalus was condemned to spend eternity standing in a lake that receded just at the moment he bent down to quench his eternal thirst; everything in the universe is flawed and finite.
While most people will acknowledge this statement above as common-sense wisdom, few people seem to live accordingly. It certainly appears that the majority of people think and act in a way similar to the rich man in the parable. Americans spend great amounts of time worrying about money, success, future plans, self-improvement, aspirations, employment, and retirement. There appears to be widespread denial about the impermanence of created existence. Many people treat their limitations as theories rather than facts. Perhaps, Jesus’ instruction about the fleeting nature of wealth and life is, in fact, truth reserved only for disciples.
If it is the case that Jesus intended this instruction only for people of faith, one might ask about what unique insight Jesus was revealing to his group of followers. Is there anything in Jesus’ words beyond the acknowledgement of the limited nature of the created world?
Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “So it is with the one who saves up what God does not consider to be wealth.” (Lk. 12:21) The warning “So it is” refers to the soon-to-be-deceased rich man’s powerlessness over the vagaries of human existence. What, then, is the wealth that God values? There are, I think, several things that might qualify. I’d like to mention one that I consider to be the most pertinent to the limited nature of human existence and the limited nature of material wealth.
A central aspect of Jesus’ preaching was the universal need for repentance and forgiveness. Jesus preached repentance to sinners and he preached even more repentance to those who considered themselves to be sinless. Associated directly with his call to repentance was his command to grant forgiveness to all who cause offence. Jesus’ logic was simple: one should forgive others in the unconditional way that God has forgiven one’s own sins. I’d like to suggest that the wealth that matters to God is the habit of forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s great gift to human nature and it is the great gift that God commands us to give one another.
Forgiveness is a well-known but widely ignored remedy for personal and interpersonal problems. Forgiveness heals wounds that resist healing. Forgiveness is a requirement in families, church communities, and civil society. Forgiveness is also required by the limited and flawed nature of the world. The rich man in the parable failed to take into account the limited and flawed nature of the wealth he had amassed. He deluded himself into thinking that he had guaranteed himself a long and carefree life. He enjoyed a carefree life surrounded by his great wealth, but only for an afternoon.
The rich man could have made a different choice about this life. He could have acknowledged the temporary existence of his life, his possessions, and his world. He could have reconciled himself with his own limitations and the limitations of all other created things. Had he done so, he might have used his possessions more wisely and more faithfully. He didn’t make the faithful choice because he ignored the truth about his own existence and the truth about God’s existence.
This parable contains Jesus’ instruction to disciples, those who have put their full faith in God. Greed and selfishness imprint a character on one’s life and on the world, as do forgiveness and compassion. Greed and selfishness are easy choices to make. Forgiveness is a nearly impossible choice in the absence of Divine forgiveness. Jesus’ instructs his disciples to imitate God by forming themselves and their world through the gifts of forgiveness and compassion. This is teaching that is comprehensible only to believers, only to those who have repented and experienced God’s compassion and forgiveness.