Saturday, August 04, 2007

Pentecost 10

Well, hasn’t it been a rocky couple of weeks on the international stock market scene?  On Friday morning, I think it was, I read that the Australian share market had had $60billion wiped off in a single day’s trading – that’s about 5% of the total value of the share market.  The general gloom of all this reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous tongue-in-cheek novel, Slaughterhouse Five - in which aliens from the planet Tralfamadore kidnap a couple of Earthlings and take them back home to exhibit them in a zoo.  Unfortunately, in spite of being given the best imaginable accommodation, the Earthlings tend to mope, and they don’t really do anything very interesting, so the Tralfamadorian zoo-keepers hit on the idea of installing a stock-market telex in their cage – after telling the Earthlings they have invested a million dollars for them on the stock market back home.  Immediately, the Earthlings start displaying wild swings of emotion ranging from uninhibited delight to the depths of despair whenever the telex tells them their stocks have moved a few percentage points up or down – which naturally makes them a whole lot more interesting to the Trafamadorians.  The point Vonnegut was trying to make, of course, is that human beings all too often try to find security in things that don’t have a deep and abiding value.

This, I think, is also the basic point of our gospel story today.  Where do we get our security from?

There’s a basic contradiction, I think, between what Jesus is saying here and our everyday understanding of what it means to be responsible, to make adequate provision for ourselves and the people we love.  The other curious thing is that Jesus has no time at all for the younger brother who has missed out on a share of the family inheritance – the one Jesus is accusing of being greedy is the one who has missed out.  Even though everywhere else Jesus is on the side of those who get a raw deal out of life, here he isn’t interested.  The message is certainly that material possessions are going to get in the way of being a disciple – of all the gospel writers Luke stresses that one time and again – but also that getting ourselves tied up in a knot about the possessions we haven’t got but wish we did have, or think we should have – that might get in the way of being a disciple, too.

Part of the difficulty with Jesus’ teaching here, when we try to listen for what he is saying to us today, is the difference between our 21st century view of the world, and what the world looked like to a 1st century Palestinian peasant.  Even in our own time, even here in Australia, we come across the fact that different cultures have got different ideas about material possessions – think for example  about the conflict between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians over land.  In the Westernised culture of non-Aboriginal Australians, land is something you own, something you manage and use to make a living out of, it’s a resource – for aborigines it’s completely different because there’s a totally opposite understanding that the land owns us, and that who we are is formed by our relationship with the land and how we care for it. 

In ancient Israel there’s a similar understanding about the land and about the responsibilities of the people who live in it, because who we are is the people that God called out of Egypt – the whole self-understanding is about living in the land that belongs to God, and living under the terms of a covenant with God – the idea is of being like tenants who have the land on trust from God.  Having material possessions that belong just to you, in this way of thinking, is a bit strange, because the true owner is God.  

This covenant with God is like a sort of contract, or a way of living within the circle of a relationship that gives life.  The prophet Hosea says that for Israel to be faithful to this covenant means relying only on God, not looking for its security to its stronger neighbours, and it means not exploiting or oppressing the poor, who should have equal entitlement to the goodness of the land that belongs to God.  Not only has the rich man with his barns forgotten that the wealth of the land doesn’t belong to him, it belongs to God – but he has forgotten the basic understanding of Israel which is that the only real security comes from God’s blessings which by their very nature can’t be hoarded, they can only be shared – unsurprisingly the word that Luke uses here for greed crops up again in Colossians, where Paul says that greed is a sort of idolatry, which means putting yourself in the place of God.

One of the most startling things about this story, for Jesus’ listeners, would have been that the rich man was talking to himself.  For us, in our individualistic culture, that’s not so uncommon – you hear people saying, for example, I enjoy my own company – but in this peasant society where everyone depended on everyone else, and all the important decisions were made in families and villages, the idea of having a conversation with yourself would have been just absurd, and it’s another clue that this person is operating outside the circle of covenant relationship.  Jesus’ hearers would also have recognised straight away that the absentee landlord’s solution to the problem of his own insecurity would mean starvation for the landless peasants who worked for him.  This is when God steps in and reminds the rich man he can’t take it with him – others will argue over it, and in the story there’s even a hint of violence, the possibility of furious peasants taking back by force the wealth they probably worked for – because the Greek word that’s used for demanding back the rich man’s life has also got the sense of taking back something that was stolen – not only the man’s wealth but his life itself was on loan from God, and the only way he could have been rich in what matters to God, was to recognise what that implied.

How we hear all this probably depends on whether or not we identify with the rich man or his neighbours.  Probably none of us here suffers from a real embarrassment of wealth – on the other hand maybe we all do in relation to the poorest people of the world.  So there’s a challenge in this story for us to think about the serious imbalance of the world’s resources, where we in wealthy nations have more than we need while others live in crushing poverty. 

Closer to home, the simple message of this parable is that when we try to find our security in the stuff that we’ve got then we’re living in a fool’s paradise because the only real source of security is to live within the circle of God’s blessings.  We become rich in what matters to God when we look at the world not through the lens of our own individual needs, but from the perspective of a whole community whose needs are inter-related.  To live, in other words, out of an understanding of our covenant relationship with God that is inseparable from our relationship with God’s people.

This of course has got some serious implications for how we live, for how we strike the balance between providing for our own needs and the needs of those we love, and providing for the needs of others who also have a claim on us because they are God’s children.  For us as Christians there is also a direct connection with the need for us to contribute financially to our parish, because that is one of the most important opportunities we have for growing in commitment to one another, for growing together in practical faith and for helping God’s covenant community to grow.  Anglicans, I think, don’t like talking too much about how much money people should put in the collection plate, somehow it seems pushy, we don’t generally like talking in terms of tithing which means to give 10% of your income.  I think that’s a bit unfortunate, because it tends to give the impression we think it doesn’t matter.  The amount you give to God does have to be negotiated between you and God, it needs to be a pledge that you make seriously and it needs to be a real amount, not just the bit you happen to have left in your wallet at the end of the week – but the main point is that we are invited to find our security not in ourselves, but in giving back to God what actually belongs to God in the first place. 

When it comes down to it, it’s not what we hold on to that gives us life, but what we give away.  The simple reality in the life of the Church is that parishes where people give generously of themselves – both financially and in terms of their time and energy – where people share their resources and their lives with one another – become vibrant and life-giving – the sort of oasis of community that, when you think about it, is exactly what Jesus spends most of his time trying to tell us about.

‘The kingdom of God’, he says, ‘is like this …’