"What does is mean that man is mortal? It is certainly not a compliment." (Woody Allen)
In addition to that piece of existential-comedic wit from Woody Allen, there is also another on the subject of death that I have heard from time to time that goes something like this: According to the latest research, the death rate is holding steady at 100%. Truly "there is nothing new under the sun." This absolute inevitability of our own mortality - and the various strategies that have been contrived over time to deal with this fact, from the grimly serious to the comic - is at the heart of the Parable of the Rich Fool heard as the Gospel reading at the Divine Liturgy yesterday. This parable may have been overlooked, as in our parish, because of the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple on November 21. However, since our spiritual tradition strongly encourages the "remembrance of death," perhaps what was overlooked yesterday can provide a worthy subject of meditation on a typical Monday morning. The parable is short enough to be presented in its entirety:
And he told them a parable, saying, "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 things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (LK. 12:16-21)
Not only is this parable short, but it is painfully direct. Yet, the obviousness and clarity of the parable's meaning; the timelessness and universality of its application; and the near impossibility of disagreeing with its over-all content, may ironically provide one more reason to really not "hear" this parable when it is proclaimed in the assembly of the eucharistic gathering. Since we are not hearing something "new," we can become complacent in our knowledge of this truth about life and death. In one ear, and out the other ... And yet, we continue to "build our barns" and plan our future with its eating and drinking and making merry, seemingly oblivious to our indistinguishable similarity to the rich man/fool! Perhaps this is why before delivering the parable, Christ first issued something of a warning: "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (LK. 16:15) Being heedful is counseled by the saints, as something of a careful awareness of our decisions, reflection into the consequences of our choices, and sobriety when assessing our actions. It also means to avoid the dispersion and dissipation of our thoughts amidst a variety of enticing and conflicting distractions. This heedfulness is meant to help us in directing our lives so that they do not spin out of control, and in a thoroughly confused state induced by losing sight of the God-given priorities found in the Gospel, we find ourselves not knowing whether we "are coming or going." Jesus clearly tells us that this can happen when we become "covetous," or obsessed with the "abundance of our possessions."
There is no reason to believe that the rich man of the parable was a particularly sinful person. He is "everyman" in his search for false security and comfort. His "sin" appears to be a lack of the heedfulness that Jesus taught us to embrace. Of course, he was self-reliant and self-absorbed in the way that narrows the mind and shrinks the heart of a person. St. John Chrysostom said that the "barns" he should have been intent on filling, were the empty stomachs of the poor. He planned according to his own will, forgetting what God had "planned" for him according to God's own foreknowledge. (As Tevya the dairyman said: "The more man plans, the harder God laughs"). In the final analysis God declared the rich man a fool in his heedlessness and self-absorption. Such a person cannot be "rich toward God." (A tremendous - and harrowing - artistic expression of the timeless truth found in this parable can be found in Tolstoy's well-known story "Master and Man").
Compounding his and our dilemma, there is the universal human tendency to "forget" about death; though no one actually forgets about it, because the reality of death drives so much of what we do both consciously and unconsciously. As a general principle of life in the fallen world, the Fathers teach that we sin because we die: "through fear of death," we "were subject to lifelong bondage." (HEB. 2:15) So, in our death-denying culture, we are caught in this schizophrenic position of both an awareness of death and a "lust for life" that desires to drive such thoughts from our mind by a "get it while you can" desperation. Filling our "barns" is our solace from the harsher realities of life. The saints teach the opposite by urging us to practice the "remembrance of death" as part of the spiritual life. This "remembrance of death" has nothing pessimistic, gloomy or morbid about it. On the contrary, there is nothing possibly more realistic and clear-sighted. It is a humble acknowledgment of reality; of an awareness of our own mortality. It is meant to bring us back to God, as we realize that we are literally "nothing" without God. The elder Joseph the Hesychast summed up a long tradition with these simple words:
But death is lurking somewhere, waiting for us, too. Some day or night will be the last one of our life. Wherefore, blessed is he who remembers his death day and night and prepares himself to meet it. For it has a habit of coming joyfully to those who wait for it, but it arrives unexpectedly, bitterly, and harshly for those who do not expect it. (Fifty-first Letter)
The only way to "joyfully" await death is through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ, for "through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage." (HEB. 2:14-15) This is that "good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ" that we pray for over and over in our litanies. And it is our access to the Kingdom of God that reveals that life is stronger than death.