Proper 13: Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14, 2.18-23; Psalm 49.1-12; 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 national upheaval of the past five weeks has called into question almost every kind of security. Political leadership and financial markets change by the day, while future funding for research, trade relationships, and the right to live, work, and travel freely where we choose have ceased to be certainties.
A deeply introspective trend in news coverage is entirely understandable in these circumstances. None the less, the disappearance from the headlines and front pages of the many who have learned the meaning of insecurity through far greater hardship and terrible loss is striking.
Sunday’s Gospel reading takes the kind of radical view of investment and true wealth which might be expected from a writer with a highly developed eschatological sense. Luke sets Jesus’s parable in the context of a discussion about the fair distribution of family wealth. The story’s purpose is to shift the centre of importance elsewhere.
If any members of the audience thought initially about the prudence of Joseph in storing up enough grain to last the population of Egypt through a seven-year famine (Genesis 41.46-57), as Jesus related the fortunes of the rich landowner, they were about to be surprised. Jesus shows them the folly of false security, of settling down to an earthly banquet (Luke 12.19), when the goal should be the banquet of the Kingdom of God.
The contrast between worldly wealth and spiritual poverty is heavily underscored, not because having possessions is intrinsically wrong, but because the management of even quite modest earthly belongings can become a preoccupation that pushes God to the margins.
William Tyndale stands alone among translators in his rendering of the summing up of this parable (Luke 12.21): “So is it with him that gathereth riches, and is not rich in God.” Others have “rich towards God” or “rich in the sight of God” (J. B. Phillips). Tyndale gets to the heart of Jesus’s idea in its fullest meaning.
True wealth means finding in God the most dependable source of love, provision, and protection (Luke 11.1-13, 12.22-34). It also means living a life that bears the signs of that discovery.
This is a description of a relationship, not an inspection, and it makes its transition from the anxieties addressed as Jesus heads for Jerusalem to, at the very end of Luke’s Gospel, sheer joy. Here, at Emmaus and in Jerusalem, Jesus confirms the promise of the resurrection in the act of sharing food with his disciples (Luke 24.13-49). The signs of this promise are rooted in the material world, but invested with the meaning of his risen life.
The Letter to the Colossians continues to explore what it means to have a stake in two worlds — the challenge that faces those who are “buried with [Christ] in baptism”, and thus “raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2.12).
There is a balance to be found between estrangement from all the negative and sinful tendencies that the writer enumerates as characteristics of the world (Colossians 3.5-8), and a turning towards the world, wearing the clothing of Christ (Colossians 3.9-11).
The picture that the letter paints is not one of a whole society suddenly transformed into a model of equality, free from prejudice, ethnic hatred, and anxiety about status (Colossians 3.11). It goes no further than the Christian community. And yet what a powerful example this might have presented to a world that looked at that community and wondered what its secret was.
George Herbert captures the balance to be striven for by everyone who thinks about how to live richly in God, while living fruitfully in the world, in his meditation on Colossians 3.3. He welcomes both callings, but, as the cunningly encrypted sentence running through the poem reveals, there is no doubt about where true wealth lies:
My words and thoughts do both express this notion,
That Life hath with the sun a double motion.
The first Is straight, and our diurnal friend,
The other Hid and doth obliquely bend.
One life is wrapt In flesh, and tends to earth:
The other winds towards Him, whose happy birth
Taught me to live here so, That still one eye
Should aim and shoot at that which Is on high:
Quitting with daily labour all My pleasure,
To gain at harvest an eternal Treasure.
(“Coloss. 3.3. Our life is hid with Christ in God.”)