The means to live or a meaningful life?
Colossians 3.1-11; Luke 12.13-21
Well – there’s been no shortage of news over the past few weeks, has there? Much of it has been about the EU Referendum, of course – both the run-up and the aftermath! And inevitably much of the Referendum coverage focused on the economic consequences of staying in or coming out. Since we all voted we’ve seen the pound fall against the dollar and the euro. People are worried about the effect on their pensions, or on the value of their houses. And nobody really knows what the economic future holds. Will there be a recession?
Of course, it’s only natural that we are concerned about our financial security and about what the future might hold for us – whether as individuals or as a country. There’s only so much economic news and economic forecast one can take. But with the news that the Bank of England is set this week to lower interest rates to their lowest ever since the Bank was founded, there’s more to come.
I’ve had several conversations with members of our congregation over the past couple of weeks – each person saying the same thing: I can’t cope with any more news! Every time I turn on the TV news something else has happened! And then on top of all the post-Referendum news we’ve had to cope with all the tragic events in France and Germany which just seem so close to home. There is just so much news to deal with.
Well – back to the aftermath of the Referendum and our worries about what the future holds for our finances. Today’s gospel reading could almost have been written by Luke for a modern money-based society like ours, 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, and that can be a worry. 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.
The parable that we have just heard, usually called the parable of the rich fool, has something to say about how we prepare for the future and what our priorities should be. It says much about the difference between having the means to live and having a life with meaning.
And it brings to my mind what are called ‘preppers’. Now, I suspect that you don’t know what preppers are – it’s not a term in common use.
I learned the term from our daughter who, a while ago, got talking to a guy who used 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 in the parable he has stored up treasure for himself to use when he needs it. He has ensured that he has the means to live – but does he have a life with meaning? I doubt it.
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 if they are able. 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 our 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 businesses they are supposed to manage through their mismanagement – yet more of that in our papers this morning about one particular businessman (Note – it was only after I preached this sermon that I read that a politician who had questioned the businessman concerned in a parliamentary committee asked him, “Do you want to be the richest man in the graveyard?”Such an apt quote to go with this parable). We hear about celebrities – popstars, footballers, TV presenters, film stars, tennis players – who are paid more in a year, sometimes in a week, than most of us will ever manage in a lifetime. What would they all make of what Jesus has to say, I wonder?
Well, back to the rich farmer in our parable this morning. There is no suggestion from Jesus that he has got rich at the expense of others, though perhaps much goes unsaid. But he does appear to be intent on using his wealth purely for himself.
He and his workers – because he hasn’t done this on his own – 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, though he doesn’t appear to have given a second thought to the futures of those who have worked to give him his abundance, or indeed to God. 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. He has the means to live – so he thinks – but he has a life without meaning.
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 – the idea that all will be well if we have the means to live. But to have a life with meaning, Saint Paul reminds us in our second reading, we must set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. A hard message for a culture that so often defines people by what they have.
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 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. It’s not about having the means to live but about having a life that is meaningful.
“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, a bigger house than your neighbour – or is your heart with God in heaven? It cannot be in both places at once, as both Jesus and Saint Paul make clear. Don’t ever try and tell yourself otherwise.
Let us remember that it is not having the means to live that makes life worth living. It is, as Saint Paul tells us, living life with meaning – setting our minds on the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.