A solicitor unexpectedly found himself at the Pearly Gates. Surprised he said to St Peter: ‘What am I doing here? I wasn’t ill and I’m only 39!’ ‘Hmm,’ said St Peter, ‘Are you sure? Do you remember how you charged your clients for every ten minutes or part thereof?’ ‘Standard practice’ said the solicitor. ‘Indeed,’ replied St Peter, ‘but we added up all those parts thereof and according to your bills you’re 102!’
Jesus knew well the power of greed. In v.13 a man approaches Jesus to pronounce on an inheritance dispute. He knows exactly what he wants Jesus to decree: ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’
It reminds me of a story about an English woman who died in 2009, leaving £120,000 pounds. A useful sum, even when divided amongst her three children. But those children quarrelled. None would back down, and the case went all the way to the High Court. In the end they didn’t get a penny, as the inheritance had all been spent on legal fees. (incidentally I haven’t got anything against lawyers – I’ve dealt with a lot recently to do with Jonathan and most of them are deeply compassionate people)
The man wants Jesus to pronounce, but Jesus will not be drawn. Curiously he says ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or arbiter between you?’ That may strike us as a bit odd. Surely Jesus is the judge? Isn’t it to him we turn for the right answers?
But Jesus’ judgement is different. He refuses to pronounce on the dispute. Instead Jesus homes in on the spiritual assumptions underlying the question. Why is money important to this man? How attached is he to wealth? If we bring something to Jesus seeking his guidance, let us be aware that we may receive an answer which is more profound and searching than we bargained for!
To make the point, Jesus tells this story which has become known as the parable of the Rich Fool.
The man in the gospel reading is a farmer. His land has produced well. This could be luck – a good year for the right crop. Or perhaps the farmer’s hard work and intelligence have played a part – in which case we might think he has earned a right to enjoy the profits of his labour.
But the parable doesn’t say. Perhaps Jesus sees everything as ultimately coming from God – rain or personal abilities alike. The problem with the character in the parable is that he doesn’t see it this way. For him, the implications of wealth stop with himself. He does not consider the God from whom it came. He does not consider how his wealth might be used for others. He only looks to himself, seeing the windfall as an opportunity for a party. Tragically though, he dies that night, and his wealth brought no benefit at all. The moral seems clear.
But to whom is it spoken? Who were the original hearers? Not the rich. They are Galilean peasants, scraping a living from tiny smallholdings, herding goats or day to day labourers. They live a hand to mouth existence. The aim in life for the typical listener is to get by. He expects to keep on, say, fishing, until he can no longer get into the boat, and then he hopes he will have enough grown-up children to look after him.
The situation Jesus describes here in the parable is beyond the average listener’s wildest dreams. The ability to retire in good health is inconceivable, let alone instantly. It’s not like winning the lottery, it’s like the Euromillions jackpot rolled over. More money than he could know what to do with.
So Jesus is saying: ‘Imagine you are as rich as you could possibly be. Pause and see yourself there. Then what? What happens next? If you were to die that very night – for die we all must – you cannot take it with you. If even this fabulous wealth, beyond your wildest dreams, cannot give you life, then what about your striving for the next thing? If this is what it is like for those who are incredibly rich, how much more foolish for those of limited means to devote themselves to money?
Jesus nails one of the biggest lies society tells us. That happiness lies just around the corner if only we had a bit more stuff. That if you strove a little harder and earned a little more, you would be satisfied. That if I bust a gut now, I can retire early and then it will be worthwhile.
That well known philosopher, Arnold Schwarzenegger, once said: “Money doesn’t make you happy. I have $50 million but I was just as happy when I had $48 million.’ Jean Paul Getty, who as the richest American of his time, certainly ought to have known what he was talking about said: ‘Money isn’t everything but it sure keeps you in touch with your children.’
There is a sense in which a certain amount of money does help. But it’s a surprisingly small amount. Money can buy us what we need and if we cannot afford the essentials of life we may well be unhappy. Yet research shows that once people have enough to get by, more money does not make them happier. As Phil said coming back from Uganda: ‘One thing I was struck by is a bit of a cliché but it’s true: the people have so little yet they are full of joy.’
What then does this parable mean for us? Jesus says do not store up treasure for yourself, but be rich towards God. What does that mean?
Firstly, let’s be grateful for our comparative wealth. Merely by living in this country we are rich by the world’s standards. If you ever doubt that, visit a developing nation. I found it a real eye-opener, for instance how much we take something like a glass of water for granted – that it comes out of a tap rather than being hauled up a hillside for three hours. Being aware of our blessings roots us in gratitude and opens us to God from whom ultimately it all comes.
The mere fact that retirement is a possibility is a blessing for us. Yes, we hear a lot about pension deficits and my generation will have to work harder and longer to receive less. But simply being able to retire sometime is a better position than most.
Secondly, the parable tells that life is not our own. One day, we know not when, we must give it back. That’s not a reason to be morbid, but it is a reason to look at what we do and how we live. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing now. Live life to the full under God – do not put it off until retirement. I’ve known people put their dreams, their good works, on hold until they retire – and then tragedy has struck.
So live life in the present, be attentive, be aware of God’s call to you now, be thankful and generous. We will have to let go of our money one day, so why not do what you can now and make a difference?
Finally, being rich towards God means we recognise that our responsibilities to God and to others exist at all stages of life. For many, retirement is a God-given opportunity to get stuck in and serve the community. Maybe we feel we can give financially once we have made our pile. But why leave it till then? If it’s not a habit now, why will it become one later? Children and work keep younger people busy, but are we in danger of living unbalanced lives or failing to play our part?
The story of the Rich Fool is a warning, a stark warning of the dangers of a materialistic approach to life. Putting ourselves at the centre will not in the end fulfil. Only a life that is rich towards God is grounded in that which will last.