Friday, November 27, 2015

The Abundance of Our Possessions


Dear Parish Faithful,

"Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possession."  (LK. 12:15)

Icon of the Parable of the Rich Fool: He dines like a king at the table in the center, while servants build his new barns on the left. At right, an angel is seen coming to his deathbed to receive his soul.

There is hardly a Christian who would disagree with this teaching of the Lord, as expressed in the words above, when it comes to our relationship with the "abundance of our possessions."  We know that our life does not "consist" in them.  In other words, these very possessions do not, and simply cannot, impart genuine meaning and significance to our lives. These possessions are external to our inner being; for they cannot define us as human beings made "in the image and likeness of God." And we can say that without dismissing these possessions as just so much "mammon."

There are things that we need and there are things that we enjoy.  Yet, I also cannot but arrive at the inescapable conclusion that even though we know this teaching to be true, we seem to pay such teaching just so much "lip service" because of the extent to which we are enamored and captivated (enslaved?) by "the abundance of our possessions!"  Who is the person that can claim otherwise? 

On one level - certainly not the highest! - our lives seem to be a steady progression of accumulating as much as possible, the only limit to this accumulation being imposed on us by the extent of our available resources.  This means that the abundance - or at least the quality - of our possessions will increase as our access to "purchasing power" increases.  (Thus, at Christmas, the extent and quality of the gifts that end up in the hands of children will depend upon the wealth - or lack of wealth - of their parents.  Those who have will simply have more once Christmas comes and goes).

As Christians, then, we find ourselves in the awkward position, indicative of a genuine tension, of accepting our Lord's teaching about the dangers of accumulating possessions as true, and yet unable to arrest the desire and endeavor of adding to this abundance.  The "consumer within" is a driving force indeed!

The Lord reveals the obviousness of His teaching about possessions through the Parable of the Rich Fool, found immediately after the words already cited above. (LK. 12:16-21)  This parable is relatively short and to-the-point, so I will include it here in order to refresh our familiarity with it:

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; that there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample good 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."

Not only short and to-the-point, but almost brutal in its clarity and inescapable truthfulness:  You can plan all you want, but death will cut short the most well-conceived plans with an unexpected finality that makes a mockery of those very plans. When death comes, the rich man's wealth is shown to be a worthless form of security for his "soul." (This parable always brings to my mind the words of Tevye the dairyman, who once mused that the more man plans the harder God laughs!). 

The parable does not make a moral monster of the rich landowner. There is no hint of his being a particularly sinful person. Indeed, he is probably quite indicative of his "type:" at least outwardly decent and a man of status. And he may have attended his local synagogue with regularity.  It is his preoccupation with "the abundance of his possessions" - "what shall I do;" "I will do this" - that renders him a "fool" in the judgment of God; a preoccupation that was self-centered in its orientation, culminating in a blindness that resulted in forgetfulness of God, instead of pursuing the meaningful task of striving to be "rich toward God."  As a Jew guided by the Law, he had that opportunity but squandered it.

His careful plans to build larger barns in order to accommodate his ever-increasing store of crops had the immediate impact of making life easier and enjoyable - a time to "eat, drink, and be merry." This, in turn, was a self-satisfying expansion and investment of his time and energy. In the process he pushed the inevitability of his death into a vague and perhaps far-off future. (The saints teach us that the "remembrance of death" is a key component of our spiritual lives, precisely to protect us from any such foolish forgetfulness). It is an attitude/temptation as alive today as it was in the time of Christ.

As real as the barns the landowner envisioned may have been, they are equally symbolic of a choice he made with the direction of his life. And this choice toward wealth proved to be quite costly.  Is our present-day portfolio-building equivalent to the rich landowner's building of barns?  Are we more preoccupied with becoming "rich toward God," or simply with becoming rich in the accumulation of our possessions?  Will we have to suffer with being called a "fool" when that time comes?

Perhaps we can understand the rich landowner's pursuit of an abundance of possessions as an unconscious strategy toward finding and establishing a sense of security in life. 

We are all aware of the fragile nature of our lives, and the threats posed to our security on a host of fronts:  poverty, illness, death itself.  There is nothing quite so reassuring as the feeling of security that would protect us from such threats.  While to feel insecure is a cause of great anxiety. Civilization and technology are built and developed to provide security for human beings in an insecure world. 

Thus, we find ourselves facing the same dilemma as the landowner of the parable in our own search for security; and often turning to the very means that he did in order to build up that ever-shifting sense of security:  the accumulation of an "abundance of possessions."  How ironic, though, that we tend to "secure our security" with the very means that cannot really provide it, while we neglect trying to get "rich toward God, the only true security! 

As the biblical scholar Timothy Luke Johnson has written:

"It is out of deep fear that the acquisitive instinct grows monstrous.  Life seems so frail and contingent that many possessions are required to secure it, even though the possessions are frailer still than the life"  (Gospel of Luke, p. 201).  

And, as another biblical scholar - Brendan Byrne - writes with a certain bluntness: 

"Attachment to wealth is incompatible with living, sharing and celebrating the hospitality of God" (The Hospitality of God, p. 115).

The impact of the Parable of the Rich Fool is precisely in the choice with which the parable confronts us between two very different types of "security:"  the abundance of our possessions, or being rich toward God.  It seems like a simple choice - especially for Christians - but somehow it ends up being a good deal more complicated.  We need to search our minds and hearts as to why this is true.

Christ did not deliver parables in order to entertain us with pleasant stories.  Neither to simply edify us with a moral story that remains within our "comfort zone."  The choice that the parable does confront us with demands a response - though it is possible that if we do not have "ears to hear," we can walk away from the parable with indifference.  ("Let us attend!" always precedes the reading of the Holy Scriptures in church so as to focus our minds on the appointed readings).

Let us, however, assume that we do have "ears to hear." If, then, the parable shakes us out of the false sense of security that possessions may give us, we then have to reflect deeply on how to become "rich toward God." 

Of course, we must begin by cultivating the gifts of God graciously bestowed on us:  faith, hope and love.  We can direct our prayer towards this. We need to un-hypocritically practice prayer, almsgiving and fasting. 

We further immerse ourselves in the "words of the Word" - the holy Scriptures.  It is essential that we confess our sins, and then wage a "spiritual warfare" against them.  The possibilities within the grace-filled life of the Church are many indeed.  We are neither predestined nor forced to avail ourselves of these possibilities.  We must choose to do so, supported by the grace of God.  This choice may very well determine whether or not, at the end of our lives, we will hear either "Fool!" or "Well-done, good and faithful servant."  As Jesus often exclaimed: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"

*As a kind of footnote to the above, I would like to point to a tremendous story of great narrative power and psychological insight, that almost reads as an extended and artistic embodiment of this parable:  Leo Tolstoy's "Master and Man."  In the story the rich landowner of 1st c. Palestine is now re-conceived as a wealthy 19th c Russian landowner.  His ultimate fate is rather terrifying.  A great work of literature well worth the time and effort.

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