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Faith > Sunday’s readings >

Readings: 10th Sunday after Trinity

Proper 13: Ecclesiastes 1.2,12-14, 2.18-23; Colossians 3.1-11; Luke 12.13-21

Let your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of your humble servants; and that they may obtain their petitions make them to ask such things as shall please you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

THE idea, in the collect, of the Lord's having merciful ears is a rich one to ponder. What kind of ears do we think God listens with? What other ears do people listen with? What kind of ears do we listen with?

The prayer is predicated on mercy. The man who approached Jesus did not obtain his petition, but Jesus's response was the result of more merciful listening than he expected, or perhaps wanted.

Israelite inheritance practices were designed to keep family land holdings as viable units. Land, therefore, normally passed undivided to all the heirs. It appears that this father died without leaving instructions about the inheritance, and one son wanted to split it into independent units. This rare approach was permitted only if the older brother agreed, indicating that this man was a younger brother who was frustrated by his older sibling's desire to keep the land, and thus the family, together. Jesus's merciful ears heard undertones of a rift in family relationships.

By quoting what sounds like a wisdom saying about being on our guard against all kinds of greed, Jesus went to the unspoken heart of the issue. In refusing the man's request, he exposed some hidden motives, and refused to collude with greed that could destroy a family's relationships for generations to come. It was not the answer that the man craved: in the words of a 1970s book title, it was "a severe mercy"; but it was mercy, none the less, because unchecked greed was in danger of destroying the family and preventing his being "rich toward God".

The parable showed that Jesus grasped the potential of this situation to engender loneliness. In the culture of the day, no decision like this was made without hours of discussion with family, friends, and neighbours. In contrast, this man "thought to himself" about what to do. He was cut off from other people, entirely self-sufficient and isolated. At creation, God had said: "It is not good for man to be alone." Yet, by his wilfully independent actions, this man was pursuing separation that was contrary to God's good purposes.

So God called him a fool, putting him on a par with the fool who says in his heart, "There is no God"' (Psalm 53.1). This headstrong pursuit of self-sufficiency was essentially God-denying, as he planned to eat, drink, and be merry for many years rather than recognise that his life and death were in God's hands.

Luke sets this story soon after the parable of the Good Samaritan, who used his wealth for others, and the petition in the Lord's Prayer about trusting God for our daily bread. With this juxtaposition, he set up a stark contrast with the selfish attitude of the man in the parable who planned to use his wealth to make himself impregnable.

It is a shame that the Gospel reading stops where it does, because, tellingly, Jesus follows this condemnation of the man's plans to build larger barns to store his food with commendation of birds, who do not have barns, but trust God to feed them daily.

The disciples of Jesus were to learn from the example of the birds, and to know themselves even more cared for than they. The birds in my garden live with implicit trust that my purpose in life is to keep them fed and watered; when I fill the feeders, they tweet the good news of food so that others can share it too, while a robin clearly thinks that I dig the garden solely to provide him with worms.

Living with trust like that, directed towards God, leads disciples (then and now) to a radically trusting way of life which does not attempt to secure the future solely through reliance on amassed possessions. Possessions gratefully received and stewarded need not stand in the way of our relationship with God, or indeed with other people; but there is always that danger.

This difference in the foundational trust in our lives is about being free to live vulnerably and trustingly, and thus, to be rich towards God. These two men needed to be released from the grip of their possessions and their greed. So the merciful answer to their prayer was to refuse it in the hope they might learn to ask what is pleasing to God.

The Lord has merciful ears.

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