A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 31, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are Proper 13C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14;2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; and St. Luke 12:13-21. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)
Some translations of the Bible like to add to it. They insert explanatory headings and titles into the teachings of the authors of scripture or before the parables or important elements in Jesus’ life and teachings. The New International Version, for example, adds the title “The Parable of the Rich Fool” to our gospel text for today. It breaks up our reading from Ecclesiastes with three such headings: “Everything Is Meaningless,” “Wisdom Is Meaningless,” and “Toil Is Meaningless.” If you have a bible like that, take those titles and subheadings with a very large grain of salt because they are simply not accurate!
Even though Ecclesiastes is famous for its many repetitions of “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” and its apparent judgment that nearly all human activity is a “chasing after wind,” meaninglessness is not, in the end, the message of Qoheleth the Preacher, as the author of this book is sometimes called.
Elizabeth Webb, an Episcopal theologian who teaches at William Jewell College in Missouri, writes that to find meaninglessness and hopelessness to be the message of Ecclesiastes is to give in to a “profound lack of faith in the God who delights in our very being, and in whom we are to find our delight.” Such an understanding, she asserts, is far from the message this book has for us. Instead, she suggests, the message of the Preacher is that
The cure for despair and hopelessness, and the desire of God for human beings, is to find joy precisely in this wearying life. Several times (2:24-25; 3:12-13; 5:18) Qoheleth asserts that, when confronted with the apparent meaninglessness of life, the best we can do is enjoy ourselves – take joy in eating, drinking, even in our work. A particular joy is to be found in companionship with one another; two are better than one, he writes, “For if they fall, one will lift up the other” (4:9-10). We are to see such enjoyment in play, in work, and in relationships as gifts from God; indeed, enjoyment comes “from the hand of God” (2:24). (Webb)
It looks like that is exactly what the rich farmer in Jesus’ parable is trying to do! He has had the good fortune to enjoy a bumper crop and has great plenty, so he builds larger barns in which to store it and says to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” That seems to be precisely the advise of Qoheleth, so why is this man called “a fool”? Indeed, it is God who so addresses him, so we ought to take this question seriously.
So let’s begin by acknowledging that this not a parable in which Jesus in anyway criticizes the accumulation of wealth. This parable does not, for example, have the moral overtones of lamenting the relative positions of rich and poor such as in the story of Lazarus and Dives (Lk 16:19–31), nor the outright spiritual condemnation of our Lord’s observation that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt 19:24) No, the rich man is not foolish nor immoral simply because he is wealthy. Something very different is at play here.
This gospel lesson is a short one and the parable itself is only a couple of sentences long, so bear with me as I read it again and listen carefully to how Jesus tells the story:
“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then 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. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'” (Lk 12:16-19)
It is at this point that God addresses the man as “You fool!” (v. 20)
So let’s have a short pop quiz. The man had a bumper crop and wondered what to do with it; with whom did he consult? Only himself. When he reached his decision to pull down his barns and build bigger ones, whose advice did he take? Only his own. And when he had stored his grain and his goods, with whom did he plan to enjoy them? Himself alone! “When the rich man talks in this parable, he talks only to himself, and the only person he refers to is himself.” (Johnson) He is, in the truest sense of the word, selfish. He has no thought of family or community; he has no thought of God. He’s all “I alone,” and it’s a fearful loneliness. Meda Stamper, a Presbyterian theologian in England, suggests that underlying this parable and many of Jesus’ other stories is a recognition that underlying excessive accumulation of goods and possessions is most often personal anxiety and fear.
It is said that the person who represents himself in court has a fool for a client; in the case of the man in this parable, the person who consults only himself on how to handle wealth has a fool for an advisee.
Elisabeth Johnson, a Lutheran who teaches theology in Cameroon, writes: “The rich farmer is a fool not because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future, but because he appears to live only for himself, and because he believes that he can secure his life with his abundant possessions.” Meda Stamper says the rich man, whom she calls “the barn guy,” is a fool because of his selfishness, because of his “earthbound, inward-looking way” of seeking happiness.
But “is ‘life’ to be equated with happiness?” Jesus’ First Century society exemplified by “the barn guy” certainly thought so, and so does our own. “Western society abounds with seductive invitations to happy lifestyle, usually promoting new products and promising that ‘good feeling’,” writes Australian theologian Bill Loader. “Markets manipulate the modes so that regular dissatisfactions can be exploited as people just must have the latest. For some the problem is blindly building bigger barns. For others it is building bigger wardrobes, possessing fancier gadgets, sporting flashier cars.” There is, says Loader, “a deep human anxiety about being worthwhile which reaches to the heart of the self.”
In his book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Brazos Press: Grand Rapids, 2007), University of Scranton theologian Scott Bader-Saye, points out that the Christian faith has long understood this:
In this context [the 13th Century theologian Thomas] Aquinas uses the Greek term systole, from which we get our English term systolic (referring to the contracting of the heart muscle as it pumps blood into the arteries). Fear, for Aquinas, can cause a kind of contraction of the heart. By imagining some future evil, fear draws us in on ourselves so that we “extend” ourselves to “fewer things.” This, in turn, becomes a hindrance to Christian discipleship, which calls us not to contract but to expand, not to limit ourselves to a few things but to open ourselves charitably and generously to many things, not attack that which threatens us but to love even the enemy. (Page 28)
At the heart of the rich man’s foolishness is this selfish, “I alone” fear which asks the fearful question “Is my life worthwhile?”
The answer to that question, the courage which answers that fear, the wisdom which counters rich man’s foolishness is found in “a kind of Christian defiance which says: only in life towards God, a life participating in God’s life is peace. That will be a peace that weeps, knows anguish, sometimes does not know and does not have answers, but keeps believing in the worth God wants us to have and wants us to give and live towards others.” (Loader)
The rich man is foolish because, although he seems to follow Qoheleth’s advice in Ecclesiastes and prepares to “eat, drink, and be merry,” he stores up treasures for himself alone and not for his community or for God. The translators of scripture who insert titles and subheadings into scripture and suggest that Qoheleth’s message is one of meaninglessness are also foolish because nothing is further from the truth; yes, the Preacher decries wisdom, and toil, and accumulation of wealth as “vanities,” but in the end he says that the purpose of these things is to allow us, together in community, to eat, drink, and be merry, not as an act of selfishness, but as a communal act of faith toward God.
After telling them this parable, Jesus says to his listeners:
Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you? (Lk 12:24-28)
It is the Father’s good pleasure to give the kingdom itself to us, his flock, in companionship with one another. So the way to collect treasure suitable for the kingdom isn’t, as Meda Stamper said, “the earthbound, inward-looking way of the barn guy but the soaring, beautiful way of the one who lives and loves generously, lavishly, and with joy.” Not foolishly, selfishly alone, but wisely, gratefully together. Amen.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.