Finally we’ve had a decent summer. We’ve had the longest period of hot and sunny weather for 25 years, and last Thursday was the hottest day for 7 years. We’re into the holiday season, schools have broken up, and perhaps our minds have not been so much on thoughts of recession but have been taking the opportunity to enjoy life a little more. And then – just when we’re least expecting it, up sneaks today’s gospel to put a dampener on things with its powerful challenge to us to reject the love of money and possessions. And to force home the point Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool, the man who stored up riches so that he would be prepared for the future, but who died before he could use them. Nothing wrong, you might think, in being financially prepared for whatever the future might bring, if we are fortunate enough to be able to make provision. And of course, many of us don’t earn enough to be able to ensure a secure future. But nothing wrong with having a comfortable lifestyle if you’ve earned it, people feel. And yet Jesus has something to say, and something to say quite forcefully, about that.
Being prepared. The parable that we have just heard, usually called the parable of the rich fool, brings to mind what are called ‘preppers’. Now, don’t worry if you don’t know what preppers are – I had never come across the term until this week, and I discovered the term from our daughter. This week she got talking to a guy who uses the same coffee shop as her. And it turned out he was a prepper. A prepper is a person who believes that an apocalypse is coming and who prepares for it – hence the name. And we’re not necessarily talking about religious fundamentalists who believe that a Biblical apocalypse is coming or people who are convinced we’re going to be hit by an asteroid. Sometimes called ‘survivalists’ there are thousands of them in the United States, but I’d never come across any here. Some of them have thought quite seriously about possible futures, like this particular guy who has decided that worldwide economic collapse is highly likely – and that if that happens society will essentially fall apart. For example – he reasons that as supermarkets only keep around three days of stocks, that food will run out because new stocks won’t be delivered. Society’s infrastructure will simply collapse. So he has buried at various sites around the countryside, and only he knows where they are, everything he believes he will need in the event of the worst happening. He has buried not just food supplies, but spare clothing, medical supplies, camping equipment – tents, fuel and so on – everything he needs to ensure that he can survive. Rather like the rich man in our parable, he believes that he has everything in place to ensure that he will be okay. Of course, such an approach only works if you are fully prepared to keep everything for yourself and leave others to suffer. Like the rich man he has stored up treasure for himself.
Most of us wouldn’t go to those extremes – well, I’m assuming not but presumably you wouldn’t tell me where your secret stashes of anti-apocalyptic supplies are if you do have them. But whether we are willing to admit it or not, people on the whole, when push comes to shove, are less willing to part with their own money to help others than they like to think. We like to be secure. Such is the way that humans live and have always lived. Like the rich man in the parable we think it is fine to store up our treasure to prepare ourselves for the future – and only then look to others. No, says Jesus – it isn’t. And if we are honest we find what Jesus says somewhat uncomfortable. Of course we find it uncomfortable, but listen to him we must. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions!”
It’s out attitude to wealth that’s important. It is sometimes said that “Money is the root of all evil”, and there are those who think that it is a quotation from Scripture. It’s actually a common misquotation – and what the original actually says is: The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. The complete quotation, from Saint Paul’s first letter to Timothy, reads: Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
Like Jesus, Saint Paul doesn’t mince his words. The love of money is dangerous and can do great harm to those who pursue it and to others who suffer as a result. In recent years our economic news has been dominated by the banking crisis, and the way banks have behaved. We’ve heard about individuals who have reaped massive payouts in return for ruining the economy through their mismanagement. We hear about celebrities – popstars, footballers, TV presenters, film stars – who are paid more in a year than most of us will ever manage in a lifetime. What would they all make of what Jesus has to say, I wonder?
Well, the rich farmer of the gospel at least seems to be an honest farmer. There is no suggestion from Jesus that he has got rich at the expense of others, though perhaps much goes unsaid. And he does appear to be intent on using his wealth purely for himself. He and his workers have worked hard, they have gathered in so great a harvest that the barns are not big enough to contain the yield. The farmer has vast new barns built and thinks that he will have enough for many years to come. What is worse, he thinks this happy situation can go on forever. “Eat, drink and be merry,” he says to himself. What he has he will go on possessing and enjoying for many years to come. Well, that’s his plan, anyway. The future is a long way off and he need not worry about it. He has forgotten that one’s life is not made secure by what one owns. And the security he thinks he has is an illusion.
We can heap up riches (or some can), we can multiply our possessions, we can go after the latest gadget, buy a new car every couple of years, and above all we can become so attached to what we have that we think – like the rich farmer in the parable – we can find security in them. That is the great mistake of modern society. All these things, all this wealth, is as nothing when we leave this world. All possessions are transient things and as one grows old and more conscious of the finite nature of life, one realises more and more that this is so. If we live long, we find that gradually things are stripped from us. Movement is restricted, we cannot do this or that, we cannot eat this or that, we become dependent on others and whatever little wealth we may have had gradually dwindled in one way or another. And you can’t take it with you. “The things you have prepared,” says God to the rich farmer, “whose will they be?” The ancient Egyptian pharaohs thought they could take it with them. When they died, their possessions were entombed with them so that they would have them in the afterlife. Even their wives and retainers. The things they had prepared didn’t of course go with them, but their riches became the property almost always of tomb robbers. “The things you have prepared,” says God to the rich farmer, “whose will they be?”
Perhaps what Jesus is saying about possessions and riches seems rather gloomy and depressing, especially at a time when many are struggling financially and would like, understandably, a little more to go round. Of course we need to be able to live. But God is teaching us not to put all our faith in material goods. He is teaching us that there is something of infinitely greater worth that does last for ever, that we can take with us when we die. Use money as a tool, but don’t put all your faith in it as the thing that will make your life worth living, for life isn’t about what you own but about how you live it.
“Where your treasure is, there is your heart also,” says Jesus, a little further on in this chapter of Saint Luke, and part of next week’s gospel reading – yes, we get more of this challenge to our attitude to wealth next week. Where is your treasure? Is your treasure in the accumulation of wealth and possessions, like the rich farmer, or is it elsewhere? Is it in heaven with God? Do you, as Saint Paul encourages us in our second reading today, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
Or, if that seems a difficult question to answer, try turning that saying of Jesus around. For he might well have said, “Where your heart is, there is your treasure also”. Where is your heart? Is it in the possession of worldly goods, in the feeling of security that comes from a healthy income, an index-linked occupational pension, holidays several times a year, a nice car, private schools for the children – or is your heart with God in heaven? It cannot be in both places at once. And where your heart is, that is where you will find your treasure. Is your treasure in heaven, or is it in the bank vault?
Let us pray that we may be less and less attached to the things of this world and so be ready to come into the presence of God, casting all our care on him, knowing that he will hold us up and keep us close to him for all eternity. May we come to treasure him above anything the world has to offer.