In 1818, the British poet Percy Shelley wrote a sonnet entitled “Ozymandias.” The sonnet was inspired by an archeological find of a broken, deteriorated statue of the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II. The poem was a commentary on the fleeting nature of fame and success. The sonnet’s well-known line, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” is followed by a graphic description of the state of ruin of the Pharoah’s statue and the vast, empty desert that surrounded and swallowed it. The mighty Pharoah, who imagined others would be humbled by the grandiosity of his burial site, was humbled to the point of having the contents of his grave pillaged and put on display in a museum.
Despite the obvious impermanence of our personal accomplishments, modern members of western culture tend to esteem their lives in the same terms that Shelley used to describe the Pharoah who was completely forgotten by posterity. We love to think of our accomplishments as solely the product of our own will and effort; further, we love to fantasize that our accomplishments will last forever.
Jesus’ culture had a very different perspective on human labor; that perspective provided the background for the parable of the rich fool in last Sunday’s Gospel reading. Lacking the scientific knowledge that we have today, the ancient Israelites surmised that crops and plants were given life by the soil. Seeds that fell to the ground, either naturally or by the action of a sower, were thought to be lifeless; the soil gave life to the seeds and allowed for the growth of crops. (Jn. 12:24)
Farmers and shepherds attributed the source of their livelihoods to God’s power at work in the elements of nature. Farmers, in particular, considered themselves to be stewards or managers of their land rather than owners. The earth belonged to God who brought forth crops to feed the People; farmers and laborers were the recipients of God’s generosity. It was for this reason that the rich man was judged to be a fool; he took personal credit for God’s actions of crop growth and fruition.
The notion of stewardship that appears in this Sunday’s Gospel reading was a common way that people understood their relationship with God. All things were created by God; all things, therefore, belonged to God. People were allowed to use, and benefit from, God’s creation but neither Creation nor its benefits belonged to people in the way that those things belonged to God the Creator. Against this cultural background, Jesus suggested how the rich fool’s life could have turned out if he had been grateful to God instead of being overly impressed with himself.
If the fortunate farmer had acknowledged that he was the steward or manager of God’s land, his life might still have come to an abrupt end. The length and quality of one’s life are largely not under one’s control. If the fortunate farmer had understood himself as steward of the bountiful harvest rather than producer of the harvest, his life, however short, would have been vastly different from that described in the parable. If the fortunate farmer had been a faithful steward rather than greedy, he would have avoided being judged a fool. The parable of the two stewards in today’s Gospel follows immediately after the parable of the rich fool and it illustrates the difference between greed and gratitude: everything we have and do is the result of God’s generosity; those who ignore this truth do so to their detriment.
The wicked servant who abused his fellow servants is Jesus’ commentary on the life of the rich fool; the faithful and prudent steward who earned his employer’s praise is a description of how the rich fool’s life could have been. It is also how our lives can be; for this reason, Jesus continued the theme that he began in response to the request to arbitrate the two brothers’ dispute over an inheritance. The inheritance, like the farmland and the household stewardship in the two parables, were gifts from God; they were gifts to be accepted gratefully, guarded in the way a manager safeguards property entrusted by another and, ultimately, returned to the Giver.
The brother who demanded a share of the inheritance, the rich fool, and the wicked servant had at least one thing in common: they brought shame on themselves. Conversely, the faithful and prudent servant earned his employer’s esteem. Jesus says that each person has a fundamental choice to make about how she or he lives; one is free either to serve oneself or to honor God. Clearly, this choice is not made on the basis of which offers the better reward; the only reward is the particular character that is imparted to one’s life as a result of one’s choice.
It is necessary to acknowledge that Jesus’ teaching is not about how to choose the most valuable rewards in life. Trying to choose valuable rewards is an act of greed, the very thing that Jesus recommended against. Rather, Jesus’ teaching is about being true to one’s convictions. If one claims to believe in God, then one is obliged to act in accordance with that professed faith. To claim to believe in God and, at the same time, act like the rich fool or the wicked servant, is to live a lie. Living with honesty and integrity produces a result much less tangible than material wealth, fame, or personal enjoyment; the consequences of honesty and integrity, however, are not equal in value to the alternatives. Everyone despises dishonesty in others. Dishonest people, then, judge themselves to be despicable.
The person who claims to be a follower of Jesus but is greedy, grasping, unforgiving, mean-spirited, or self-serving, lives a lie and becomes that which he or she claims to reject. The teachings of Jesus don’t promise an easy or comfortable life. Jesus’ followers don’t have a guarantee of living a carefree existence. Faith in God does not prevent suffering or injustice. Living in accord with one’s professed faith in God does, however, afford a lasting blessing: it prevents one from making oneself an utter fool. This, according to Jesus, makes all the difference in this world and the next.
It is a truism to say, “where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Lk. 12:34) All people worship what they value most. The faith one professes is a lie if one values and, therefore, worships created things above God.