Brief synopsis of the readings: The author of the book of Ecclesiastes proclaims “Vanity of vanities.” He goes on ask why a man should achieve success when he must eventually leave it to someone who didn’t work for it. In Luke’s Gospel we find Jesus among a crowd when a man asked Jesus to compel his brother to share his inheritance. In response Jesus told a parable about a wealthy man who faced an interesting problem: his harvest was so big he didn’t have enough storage space. He decided to tear down his bins and build larger ones thereby ensuring prosperity for years to come. But he died that night and Jesus finished by saying this: “So it is when a man stores up treasure for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God.”
Between the time I post this and the time these readings are read, I will have done something central to a democracy: I will have answered a summons to jury duty. I find myself surrounded by well meaning friends, family members, and coworkers who eagerly give me strategies to avoid jury duty, but to tell the truth, I find serving in this capacity an honor. I live in a world where citizens and residents of many countries have no access to the justice system and would like nothing more than to participate in deciding guilt or innocence of their peers. Or, more to the point, they would like nothing more than living in a nation where only dictators determine justice.
Since our beginning as humans we’ve attempted to build structures and societies that ensure justice, but we’ve often argued over what “justice” means. Does it mean everyone has the same opportunity, or the same result? The question of justice, frankly, centers on what to do with those who don’t practice justice.
That’s the struggle of our first reading. Of all the books of the Bible I believe we understand Ecclesiates the least. And I blame the 1960s band The Byrds. The took a few lines from chapter three where the biblical author speaks of how there is a time for everything: the Byrds turned it into a folksong that lights up YouTube (look if you’re curious).
But today’s reading begins at the beginning of the book where the author essentially states that, in the end, success won’t last, and so what’s the point?
Our idea of justice for as long as we can remember rests on this: if you do the right thing you’ll be rewarded, and if you don’t do the right thing you wont be rewarded.
That’s fine, except for the fact that it doesn’t work. In Luke’s Gospel we find a dispute between two brothers. Anyone who has executed a will can testify about how thankless a job this is. The person whose job demands that he or she fairly divide assets will eagerly tell you that the job does little more than make enemies and create resentments. And for wealth nobody earned.
In response, Jesus tells a parable that reminds us that justice over “stuff” misses the point. In today’s Gospel the person who desires safety for this excess learns to his horror that the safety of his stuff doesn’t matter as much as those who don’t have enough.
Three hundred years after this Gospel we read about St. Marcella of Rome. She had some wealth and lived during a difficult time when the Visigoths were attacking the vestiges of the Roman Empire. When asked when she kept her wealth she responded that she chose “to store her money in the stomachs of the poor rather than to keep it at her own disposal.”
I’m a fan of economics and much of the study of economics centers on the distribution of finite resources. Clearly the wealthy man looked on his surplus resources as a problem: “What am I to do? I have not enough room to store my crops.”
I would be curious to know what St. Marcella of Rome would say. If I had to guess she would have told him to store his excess with those who don’t have enough. On one level you can’t store your excess in the stomachs of the poor because they won’t stay there. But on a higher level we put our excess in the stomachs of the poor because it ensures that everyone will have enough.
I’ve spoken before about the need for justice, and we discuss this because we live in a world where justice isn’t a given. Instead, seemingly daily, we hear about those among us who believe all wealth is honestly earned and all poverty is self inflicted. I’ve spoke about this before but some fellow clergy subscribe to the Prosperity Gospel, the belief that wealth results from God’s blessing.
I often wonder how they respond to these readings; I suspect they ignore them. But they shouldn’t.
An online university here in the United States advertises themselves with the line: “Talent is evenly distributed. Opportunity is not.”
When Jesus told this parable he clearly wanted the man not to be consumed with his alleged inheritance as much as his relationship with his brother and that’s a timely reaction. Several years ago one of my patients died after a long illness. The next day his son and his daughter’s boyfriend got into a fistfight in the home over who should get the TV set. It got so bad the police were called. I like to think they later reconciled and recognized how little the TV was worth, but that’s more of a hope than suspicion.
And I believe that God determines talent and we determine opportunity. Yes, I believe some people don’t do well because they squander opportunities and we all know people who consistently choose laziness in the face of opportunity. But when we offer opportunities, we are not responsible for ensuring their success.
I often wonder who inherited the rich man’s grain.