‘So it is when a man stores up treasure for himself instead of making himself rich in the sight of God’ (12:21)
|Rembrandt - Parable of the Rich Man|
In the past few weeks our readings have presented us two core teachings about living the Christian life – how we should approach prayer and how we should relate to our neighbours. Today, it’s the turn to look at another important aspect of being a follower of Jesus, considering the ways in which we use our possessions. On one hand, the first two readings form an introduction to this theme by highlighting the ultimate futility (vanity) of pursuing wealth as the greatest life goal, and the pitfalls of greed as vice that is unbecoming to Christians. On the other, the gospel reading introduces a parable featuring an unnamed character identified only as “the rich man” who is used by Jesus to describe a very common way for people in relating to riches of any kind. In the story the man, confronted by the sheer volume of his wealth, finds himself at a loss, and says “What am I to do?” – not knowing how to make the right use of his vast fortune. Faced with the prospect of potentially losing whatever does not fit in his storehouses, the rich man decides to pull down the old barns, to invest in new, bigger ones, and thus setting himself on track for an even more comfortable life than before. Because of this, the rich man may appear to us as a distant figure with whom we may have little in common, an Ebenezer Scrooge, or even a Scrooge McDuck sort of character. He is a wealthy landowner, whilst we live in one of the most deprived parishes in England; he has an inordinate amount of possessions stored up, whilst many school children in our town benefit from subsidised meals; and he is set on increasing his income, whilst we are besieged by an increasing number of payday loan adverts.
Yet, it’s worth bearing in mind that Jesus told this parable to crowds of people who were very often poorer than the poorest among us. To them – and to us! – Jesus speaks about this unnamed rich man to allow anyone to put themselves into his shoes, and to think “Is my behaviour so much different from the rich man’s?”
However big or small, most people have plans or aspirations for the economic security for their families, and by and large, that’s alright. What Jesus is trying to teach us goes beyond that, and it concerns our attitude towards wealth, the way we look at what we receive from God.
The rich man, even in a seemingly enviable situation, is tormented by his many cares for his riches; “What am I to do?” he says to himself, meaning “How am I going to contain and protect all this wealth for myself?” Do we, like him, leave our possessions to dictate the way we lead our lives, and to pile on needless worries on our minds?
The rich man says “I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones”, when he could have said “I will open up my barns and let those who have nothing help themselves out of my plenty.” Do we, like him, act selfishly with what we have?
The rich man conceived great plans for his wealth by himself, when he could have prayed about it, and indeed thanked God for what he had received. Do we, like him, leave prayer and thanksgiving out of our finances?
Through this parable, the Lord puts into question any attachment we might have to material things, helping us not to make the same mistakes as the rich man, and to see ourselves as stewards, rather than owners. But perhaps this second part of Jesus’ teaching becomes clear only at the very end of the reading, when he says about the selfish rich man’s demise, ‘So it is when a man stores up treasure for himself instead of making himself rich in the sight of God’ (Luke 12:21).
Any wealth we may acquire should be used (that is, spent) to make ourselves rich in the sight of God by acting as stewards of the gifts we receive and distributing generously out them to those who have nothing and to his Church. If we do this, when this earthly life is ended we won’t hear the Lord saying to us “Fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?” Instead he will say to us, as he promises somewhere else in Luke’s gospel, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been a trustworthy in a very small thing, so you’ll receive even greater things” (Cf. Luke 19:17 - adapted).