The host of a morning news program was interviewing a writer from Forbes magazine who was lamenting the financial losses suffered by various dot-com billionaires. He said that one person’s fortune had fallen to a mere $170 million and another had only a billion left. I could barely hold back my tears. What a change when I approached the Sunday readings. “Vanity of vanities” says dour Qoheleth, who goes on to recount the perils of wealth, while Jesus tells a parable about the danger of greed and the fragility of wealth. Hardly grist for summer vacation prayer and preaching!
Luke begins with an all too familiar fight over an inheritance, which Jesus is asked to adjudicate. Jesus refuses but warns against greed by recounting a parable illustrating that one’s life does not consist of possessions. Greed (Greek: pleonexia, “grasping for more”) is one of the most pilloried vices in antiquity, called by Diodorus Siculus “the metropolis of all evil.” Paul calls it idolatry, since the desire for wealth begins to take over one’s life (Col. 3:5).
The parable begins on a positive note. A rich man’s land produced a bountiful harvest—usually a sign of God’s blessing. The parable then becomes a long soliloquy, in which the man ponders his future. He attempts to secure this future by building bigger barns, storing the grain and other goods, so he can sit back and say, “You have many good things stored up for years; rest, eat, drink and be merry.” Suddenly the voice of God thunders, “Fool” (using language forbidden to humans, Mt. 5:21-22), “this night your life will be demanded of you.” Jesus then utters an ominous warning: “Thus it will be for one who stores up treasure for himself, but is not rich in what matters to God.”
A rather harsh God emerges from this parable. Why did the rich man merit such condemnation? Some have suggested that he wanted to corner the market on grain and drive prices up. More likely he has turned his back on his Jewish heritage where Torah demands that gleanings from a harvest be left for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the immigrant (Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Dt. 24:21). Because he has rejected God’s word, God’s voice condemns him.
Today’s readings present a special challenge to prosperous North Americans. The gap between rich and poor widens; bigger homes, bigger cars, bigger home entertainment centers are the modern equivalent of the bigger barns. How shall Christians today become “rich in what matters to God”? Skip The Prayer of Jabez, and take Luke’s Gospel to the beach.