Resisting the serpentine whisper
Gospel: Luke 12:13-21 (Read also: 22-34)
Someone in the crowd said to him, 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.' 14But he said to him, 'Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?'
15And he said to them, 'Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life (ἡ ζωὴ) does not consist in the abundance of possessions.'
16Then he told them a parable: 'The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, "What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?" 18Then 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. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, (ψυχῇ) you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry." 20But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life (ψυχήν) is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?"
21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.'
Resisting the serpentine whisper
If I succumbed to the temptation to title this piece with a dad joke, having remembered my cousin Murray jumping down into the grain-pit and discovering he was sharing the space with a Brown Snake, I would call it Pitting ourselves against the serpent because of its references to Genesis 1-3. You can listen here.
One of my colleagues characterised the lie of the serpent as "'You will be like God'... when we already are like God." The essence of idolatry lies in this misplaced adoration which is really a rivalry with God, and is deadly. The worst thing about possessions is that they can help us imagine we are like God in the wrong sense. They let us think we have a hedge against contingency, that we can buy our way out of being, in the end, a creature which is utterly dependent upon God— by the second. Possessions are too easily our sign to ourselves that, really, we are God.
The thing about a second-by-second dependence upon God is that it is our natural state. It is the way we are made! God's ordering of probabilities and somewhat unpredictable biological processes creates and sustains us, even though we would prefer a life chiselled out of certainty. The last thing we want to consider in our rivalry with God is that perhaps our natural state is good for us; that perhaps there is a sense in which needing to dodge bears and pick our way around the edges of steep hills, orients us towards a kingdom life, both as individuals and as a culture. We who are so rich that we need to build our barns many stories high have, by contrast, chosen to shoot the bears on sight and cut a concrete motorway straight over the hills, as though we owned the place; as though these blessings of life were a fault needing to be overcome.
Of course, such an insight can be distorted into a romanticism which is its own avoidance of reality. "What about bacteria and infant death?" we snap at the anti-vaxxers who somehow fail to realise that half of them would, like me, be dead if it had not been for Jonas Salk and Alexander Fleming. But where do we draw the line? How long do we keep people alive, and to what purpose? As we argue across the bed of the dying, the serpent's lie that we would be like God, "knowing good and evil," is laid out before us; we barely know how to distinguish between them.
Which means that even when we flee into the wilderness for a long weekend, because we have begun to realise that all the larger barns and skyscrapers we have built threaten to destroy us, we take generators and satellite dishes and portable showers and floodlights. So that, on the side of a mountain, as our lights wash out any sense of dependency, and the music blares, God may not be heard to ask, "What are you doing here?"
My dad gave me his old pop-top campervan. It saved me buying a car or spending a small fortune on taxis while I worked out if I could make a living as an IT consultant. We once squeezed ourselves into it for a short holiday, and found ourselves allocated the space next to a top-of-the-line four-wheel-drive with an enormous caravan. This rig was worth more than our entire house had cost to build! As we went exploring each day of our week off, the owner washed the unmoved 4WD again, and then mopped and polished it dry in an almost liturgical routine. His wife spent most of the time in the van. Although full, something about that barn seemed desperately empty.
Jesus said "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." All kinds of greed: I realised very quickly that paying attention to the statistics Google Analytics provided when I was paid to write a website was as deadly as loving a big 4WD, rather like measuring the worth of a ministry by the metric of bums on seats, actually. "This very night your life is being demanded of you. And this website you have idolised, whose will it be?" Status is one more hedge against owning our smallness; it whispers to us that even if we cannot be like God, we can at least stand worthy among our companions, which is to know, really, that we can be better than them despite all God's whispered questions about what we are doing here.
I noticed in theological college that there were two kinds of books. There were those which I read and sought to remember in the way I had once tried to retain the characteristics of various classes of herbicide. And then there were books which were rich and enthralling. I began to realise this was not only because they dealt with issues which interested me, but also because they were nearly always books written from places lacking privilege in the established church, and in society. Privilege is a more dangerously potent form of possessions; privilege means our possessions are uncontested! Privilege can mean we end up being blind and utterly merciless in our abundance, as we look down upon those who do not have enough to live. I found that rich theologies were less privileged, and that changed everything they saw.
What does it mean to be rich towards God? The text, and its context suggests that we cannot store up riches and also be rich towards God.
Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person. (Jerome, In Hieremiam 2.5.2; Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, LXXIV, 61). Malina and Rohrbaugh in the section Rich, Poor, and Limited Good, 5:3 of Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. See also here, where this text is quoted.
To be rich towards God is to recognise that we are already like God, made in God's image. We can plan, build, create, and rejoice, but do all this knowing that the creation is already "very good." We can live knowing that God is for us, not against us, and that when God said, "It is very good," this included us! We are loved already.
And we, more than all animals, can consciously seek to live and rejoice in a life where we know that we are a symbiont 1, and that it is in this harmony, that we will find joy and fulfilment. We do not need to live as a parasite2 upon the planet. This would be to learn that the world is already subdued, is already good, and that our stewardship is to live with, not over. To live as biological beings, and not as immortals independent of the creator. All this means that we are made to die. Whether we are like Elijah who was zealous for the Lord and have fled the consequences, whether we are comfortable at home, but with our faces carefully averted to avoid seeing our own discomfort and dissatisfaction, and even if we are truly possessed of a measure of peace, there will be a day when we are asked, "What are you doing here?"
Our present life means we have to do a sort of psychological trick where we say "A thousand may fall at my side... but it will not come near me," (Psalm 91.7) simply in order to survive. So I am cautious about making statements about death. Not only can we not speak from personal experience, but our motivations are always suspect. Yet, even as I am more keenly aware of the evolutionary pressures which secrete terror into my body when mortal risk comes near, and although I mourn the physical decline of my body— it seems that as we learn at last how good life is we are then called to let it go— despite all this, there is also something else. Sometimes I see what seems to be a kind of extra grace, or a special richness given to the life of families preparing for bereavement; I asked a person about this once, and receive an emphatic "Yes!" as answer. I have seen in some folk, who were the kind of "no-bullshit" blokes who never pretended piety for their minster, a sort of fierce joy as death came very close. The phrase "preparing for the ride of their lives" came to mind. Could it be that when the Lord comes and asks, "What are you doing here, Andrew?" that I might be able to say, "Coming at home, at last," and be able to say that with joy? As we say, time will tell.
I am much less hesitant about this: Holding my undoubted privilege lightly, and seeking to use it for others, rather than storing it up for myself, has been life changing. Privileging possessions is to buy one's way into slavery. Despite all my fears about how I will live in the future, whenever I seek an answer in possessions, I find I have no answers for anything.
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
1 Symbiont: an organism living in symbiosis, especially : the smaller member of a symbiotic pair
2 Parasite: an intimate association between organisms of two or more kinds, especially : one in which a parasite obtains benefits from a host which it usually injures
Also on One Man's Web
Luke 12:13-21 - My Father's Barn (2010)