28 September 2014
Revd Simon Cowling
2 Corinthians 9. 6-end; Luke 12. 16-30
Reflecting on this morning’s Gospel reading, and in particular on Jesus’s thought-provoking teaching about material wealth, I am reminded of the small boy who approaches the Rector at the end of a service and says brightly: ‘I’m going to give you lots of money when I grow up.’ The Rector smiles benignly and says ‘Thank you. But why?” The small boy replies, ‘Well, because my dad says you’re the poorest preacher we’ve ever had.’
Jesus talks about money and wealth in the Gospels a good deal. Sometimes he does this in quite direct ways, as in this morning’s reading: a wealthy man’s easy enjoyment of his worldly riches is to be cut short by his impending death. Who then, asks God, will benefit from the wealth he has accumulated? The question is left unanswered, but the message is clear. Sometimes, by contrast, Jesus uses wealth as a metaphor, as an image for the Kingdom of God. Think of the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price in St. Matthew’s Gospel. The field in which the treasure is hidden and the unusually fine pearl are worth so much that those who discover them sell all they have to possess them. Occasionally in the Gospels money is described as being used positively and straightforwardly: Joseph of Arimathea’s wealth enables Jesus to have a dignified burial after his crucifixion; the impoverished widow who places her small coin in the Temple treasury is an example of true generosity. And sometimes Jesus speaks directly to those who have wealth: last week at Evensong we listened to the story of the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man whom Jesus looks on with compassion before telling him that he must sell all he has and give it to the poor.
The large number of references to wealth in the Gospels should not surprise us. As a faithful and practising Jew, Jesus stood firmly in an ethical tradition in which material possessions were not thought of as being intrinsically wrong; a tradition in which there was nothing immoral in aspiring to be wealthy, like the rich man in the parable whose crops have produced so abundantly. It’s no accident that Judaism has never had a tradition of monasticism; and the Jewish tradition has generally viewed those with austere or ascetic tendencies with some suspicion. But before we become too complacent about all this, it’s important to add that Jews have never elevated wealth to the status of a moral good either. Wealth, along with food and all the other material and sensual pleasures, are morally neutral: they have the potential to be put to uses that are holy – or uses that are sinful. As one contemporary rabbi has written, ‘in Jewish teaching, wealth is not the purpose, it is the means. The means to … be able to give time, attention, love, education, charity. (The means) to be able to share with others in the community and (to) play one’s part for the wellbeing of all.’ In other words, the main purpose in life is not wealth in itself, but the way that one can use that wealth in the service of God and neighbour. The writings of the ancient rabbis reveal their healthy scepticism about human beings’ ability to be wise about the way they used money. They tell this story:
Once Alexander the Great stopped by a peaceful lake for refreshment and was overwhelmed by the sweet taste of its water and its fragrance when he bathed. He traced its source right back to the Garden of Eden, but the guardians of paradise would not let him in. He begged for some memento to show he had been there, so they gave him a small piece of bone from a human skull. ‘Learn what you can from it’, they said. When Alexander returned home he placed the small piece of skull on one side of some scales and some gold on the other. The bone outweighed the gold, and continued to do so however much gold was placed on the other side. Intrigued, Alexander asked his advisers to investigate this strange phenomenon. They took the small piece of skull away and examined it very carefully. Eventually they returned to the king and said, ‘Your majesty, the bone you gave us to examine is part of a human skull around the eye socket. The reason it always outweighs the gold is that the human eye is never satisfied. However much gold and other treasures are heaped up, the eye still wants more.’ Alexander then asked, “Is there any way in which the true weight of this little bone can be measured?” The chief adviser nodded and replaced the small piece of skull on the scales. He then took a handful of earth and sprinkled it on the bone. Immediately the gold on the other side of the scales was heavier: the bone and the earth jumped in the air. ‘See’, he said. ’All we had to do was sprinkle a little earth on the eye socket. This is the end of all human acquisitions of wealth and ambition. When the earth finally covers us all our possessions are left behind, and wealth is of no more use to us. Then our true and ultimate value is seen in all its clarity.’
In its original Jewish context, Jesus’ parable of the rich fool, as it’s often called, is partly a warning against the unrestrained pursuit of wealth for purely personal gain and gratification. Notice how the man’s consistent focus is on his ownership of grain and goods; on how he will store them in his barns. He gives no indication of having a wider moral sensibility that embraces family, or community, or God; no indication that his good fortune in acquiring wealth brings with it a corresponding responsibility to use that wealth for the good of others as well as himself.
Our next two Priory Autumn Talks, in October and November, will offer all of us a chance to reflect on the way wealth is used and distributed, and on the part we have to play in ensuring that God’s bounty, which we celebrate at harvest-tide, is used for the good of all. The increasing use of Food Banks, and the increasing workload of the charity Christians against Poverty, the focus for the talks, suggest that not all is as it should be in a country that has the sixth largest economy in the world. So we give thanks forthe lesson Alexander the Great learned from that piece of bone: that our true and ultimate value will only be clear when the earth has covered us; we remember that in God’s sight our wealth is not measured by the size of our bank balance but the strength of our commitment to our neighbour; and we pray that God will grant us all the grace and wisdom to be rich towards him, and to be secure in the abundance of his provision alone, this harvest and always. Amen.