Friday, November 28, 2008

Same Old Barns

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Before delivering the short Parable of the Foolish Landowner (LK. 12:16-21) the Lord first offers the following admonition by way of preface to the parable itself: "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness, for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (LK. 12:15) The parable gives story-form to the truth of that admonition. Yet, the timeless and universal truths revealed in this particular parable can have the unfortunate effect of blunting the depth of its inner meaning. As if the clarity and obviousness of the parable somehow removes its "sting." We then feel content with repeating the worn-out and cliched saying (accompanied by a pious sigh): "When you die, you can't take it all with you." Spoken in such a spirit, this becomes a form of lip-service to what Christ is getting at, while in reality we brush the parable aside as "not applicable." But the parable goes far beyond the banality of that cliche which, in itself, still contains more that a hidden hint of despair over the prospect of death and loss. The parable is compact enough to include in this meditation:

The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully, and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' And 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; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry. But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.

The Parable of the Foolish Landowner is not only about the loss of material wealth due to our common human finitude, against which we have no real defense (though leaving it for our loved ones is something of a consolation); but more importantly about the loss of not being "rich toward God." Then the parable is not only about the inevitability/necessity of loss, but about the cost of a self-inflicted poverty and a freely-chosen path of neglecting God. In the post-Resurrection Church, the loss of such "riches" becomes even more acute, based on what the Apostle Paul so powerfully expressed:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. (II COR. 8:9)

The landowner is chastised in the end because he turned his new barns into the treasure that attracted his heart's desire, "for," as Christ taught: "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (MATT. 6:21) These "barns," in turn, represent whatever it is in our lives that becomes a treasure more valuable than God. It should be deeply sobering and convicting, indeed, when we think of how grossly materialistic some of these "treasures" actually are. It's the same old barns, but now with modern conveniences! "Nothing new under the sun ..." In the parable, the Lord has God call such a confusion of priorities "foolishness." Basically, this is misplaced spiritual energy. The "energies" of our human nature are so misplaced as to be considered wasted. Directed toward the self, they lack any root by which to be nurtured by divine grace, for the self cannot serve as a substitute for God. Since there is no indication that the rich landowner was a theoretical atheist, it appears that he, as countless others, may have been trying to manage a "balancing act" - if not "bargain" - of sorts: (outward?) piety toward God together with the heartfelt pursuit of building new barns and then eating, drinking and being merry to his heart's content. Very human desires, but draining enough to transform one into a practical atheist - believing in God's existence, but living as though God did not exist.

To be "rich toward God," is to put God first and foremost in our lives. To build up our relationship with God is infinitely greater than building up new barns. We do not know when our soul will be "required" of us. Even though we postpone thoughts of our mortality, or project them into a vague, indistinct and seemingly remote future, the reality could be different. Only God knows. To hear God pronounce "Fool!" in the end would be beyond tragic, especially if we are immersed in the life of the Church and its call to eternal fellowship with God. We have this life as a gift in order to become rich toward God. The Parable of the Foolish Landowner is a fair warning of what squandering that gift may ultimately mean.

Fr. Steven

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