In today’s short 6 verse Gospel we get a very direct lesson on what true wealth consists of. We learn the definition of wealth and true riches, the purpose of earthly temporal wealth, and the great difference between temporary self-focused living and kingdom of God thinking. Of course, we also learn that at our death, only the true reality of the kingdom of God will be left.
The set up for this parable of the rich man and his barns comes in the verse before where it plainly says: “…beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist of the things he possesses.” We get the answer to the question the parable is demonstrating right at the beginning. Possessions do not equal riches. So, the first question we need to consider is What are true riches? What is the value of material wealth?
The rich man who was blessed with bumper crops was right on track when he realized he had been blessed with more than he could take care of and started making plans to properly protect his grain windfall. The problem in thinking was not in his planning, but in what the ultimate use of the windfall could be used for. This would be known as the parable of the WISE rich man if he had said “Soul, I have been given a great gift to protect that I might distribute it to the poor and needy and thereby convert this earthly wealth into true heavenly riches where no thief approaches or moth destroys.” For this man who already had more than enough of everything, the best value and least expense to solve the problem of the bumper crop would have been to store it in the stomachs of the poor. A local musician Doug Mitchell wrote a song that pretty much sums up this thought. “The best place to keep your extra meat, is in the belly of your neighbor.”
Orthodoxy is Paradoxy. Our task is to unlearn much of what has been drilled into us from our birth, especially from our North American marketing culture. Win the lottery and live the dream. Really? A quick check of the internet constantly brings up that 70% of big lotto winners end up bankrupt and many say they wish they had torn up the ticket. A bigger house, more powerful toys, dining at the finest restaurants, this is what we should be seeking with all our heart soul and mind according to the Madison Avenue marketing guru’s, and this is expressed in every advertisement in print, radio or electronic media. And when we achieve these wonderful goals we will supposedly have arrived at “the good life” summed up in the classic line in verse 19 “Soul you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” To which we have God Himself delivering His judgement “FOOL, this night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?” Yes, we have much to unlearn about what is actually truth and of value.
Should we flee from material possessions? Take our cue from the non-possessor monks and fling our gold coins into the river because they can burn us so completely and easily? There have always been and are now a few Christian monks that are given grace to choose this road to union with Christ. However, for most of us living in this incredibly prosperous society that is the envy of most of the world, a proper understanding of the purpose of wealth can go a long way to keeping us on the Kingdom path. We have all around us the poor, they are a great gift to us to look after. They are our means of converting earthly wealth to heavenly riches. True alchemy! We have many stories of Alchemy in our culture; of the search to turn lead into gold. Gold being the most pure and perfected substance. This is a great analogy for what we do when we take our God given wealth, and use this wealth to lock in eternal investments by investing in the poor, the mission of the Church, and in other God-pleasing ways. Turning earthly material lead into heavenly pure gold, rather than using it to try to create false lifestyles, trying to achieve the media presented, air brushed celebrity culture. If not used properly, our earthly wealth will simply erode and lay in a useless heap at our passing, all its immense potential wasted. The best purpose of earthly wealth is most certainly to convert it into heavenly treasure. As our dear St. Tikhon, Enlightener of North America tells us, “Orthodox people, let us devote ourselves to the Orthodox faith, not in tongue only but in deed and truth.”
Listen to what our Lord tells us a little later in this 12th chapter of Luke. First, he encourages us not to worry or be anxious for the necessities of life, for God will provide for us as he does the birds, the flowers, and all of creation, for He loves and values us greatly. Seek rather the kingdom of God above all else and we will be in His constant care. Then He says (Luke 12:33) “Sell what you have and give alms, provide yourselves money bags that do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail.” And still a little later Christ tells us (Luke 14:13) “But when you give a feast invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” and (Luke 16:9) “And I say to you, make friends for yourself with unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home.” For when we are finished our earthly course, the only thing we can take with us is that which we have given away. May we be blessed to have a large greeting party meet us as our soul enters the home of the blessed.
The lesson we can take from today’s gospel reading is not just what we should do with our wealth, it is that we need to learn that our entire life is to be lived in reference to the counter-culture values of the kingdom of God and to recognize our utter and complete dependence upon Him. The man in the Gospel was deluded into thinking he could actually control and predict his future. We also are often easily distracted from our present, and live in the future. “If I can only finish this degree, if I could get enough money put away to properly retire, if I could find a mate and get married,” all good thoughts. But often we get so focused on our next goal that we miss the opportunities right in front of us. “I really can’t afford to give to the poor right now, but once I’m established, I’ll be very generous.”
When circumstances change, we can sometimes be blind to the door God is opening up or closing firmly, because we are so attached to our plans and daily routine. We can easily miss the opportunities God is giving us in the moment. Just like the priest and the Levite we heard about last week who were too pre-occupied with their plans to stop and help the wounded man laying directly in front of them; or the rich man who daily stepped around Lazarus, hardly noticing him even when he was living right at his doorstep. It is good and important to be actively perusing the plans and goals we believe God is calling us to, but we need to be awake to our present situation and the opportunities to act as a servant of Christ in any given moment. We should be willing to humbly admit that perhaps we are mistaken or going in a particular direction for the wrong reasons. Or perhaps this was a good direction for a certain time, but now we are being called to move in a different direction. When things come crashing down and we are frustrated because this is not what we had expected, we need to learn to say; “Thank you God.” We need to pray for God’s blessing constantly with every plan and project we undertake, and to end every prayer as Christ Himself did in the Garden of Gethsemane, “but not my will but Your will be done.” If we come to think we can actually be in complete control of circumstances, and it is a great problem when things don’t go as we thought they should; we need to re-think and probably repent for our prideful presumption and self-reliance. A good friend of mine who was almost forced into bankruptcy told me (a couple years later). “It was the great blessing I really didn’t want.”
What is important is how we treat the people around us and how we react to difficulties on a day to day basis, no matter what path we are on. God does not require that we be spectacularly successful and passionately dedicated to our career. This is fine if we are acting in a just and loving and humble manner. But if we were are in the fields, laboring for the man in today’s gospel at the bottom rung of his organization – and acting justly, lovingly and with humility this is equally commendable. As it says in (Micah 6:8) “This is the only thing the Lord your God requires of you; to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly before the Lord your God.” I’m sure the rich man in today’s Gospel was respected and envied as someone who had “made it”. But what matters is God’s opinion, and we see that “You fool” pretty much sums up His assessment of the man’s worldly achievements.
Unfortunately, too much success usually breeds pride and arrogance in us easily deluded creatures. God is much more concerned with our spiritual state, than our material wealth; “a broken and humble spirit He will not despise.” Therefore, when things do not work out as we thought, it is usually a great mercy sent by God.
We certainly should be planning for the future, but we should always hold our plans with an open hand, and thankfully allow God to completely blow them away and fill our hands with His new plans. May God bless and bring us many opportunities to invest in the Kingdom of God this Nativity season! Glory to Jesus Christ!