Saturday, January 17, 2015

What Is the Life Abundant?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 15, 2007

Poor Jesus. People always seemed to be asking him to solve their problems for them. Bad enough he had to turn water into wine, and restore sight to the blind, and heal the sick. Now, they were asking him to interfere in an inheritance battle within a family. That was too much, even for Jesus; he wasn’t going there, for sure.
“Teacher,” the man in the crowd cries out to him, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” No way, Jesus says: “Friend,” he replies, “who set me to be judge or arbiter over you?” That kind of worldly affair just wasn’t on his radar screen. Plus, the rule of the day was clear; it was a fixed formula: the oldest son was to receive double what any of the other sons would receive. That was the way things were done in ancient Judea at the time, and Jesus saw no reason to fiddle with it; it worked well enough from a worldly perspective, from the mere angle of dollars and shekels.
But, as was his way, Jesus gets beyond the surface issue pretty quickly—and gets to the real matter at hand, the deeper matter: and that was the issue of greed among these brothers, which was, perhaps, tearing this family apart. The issue, Jesus says again and again and again, is the life you lead, not the things you have. He would have agreed with Tyler Durden, the character played by Brad Pitt in the movie Fight Club[though I don’t think he would have liked the movie very much, but maybe I’m wrong] when he exasperatedly shouts at the Narrator (played by Edward Norton): “You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not [the clothes you wear.]” {He actually uses a different figure of speech than “the clothes you wear”, but it’s a figure of speech I can’t repeat it here.}
That’s the point Jesus wants to make in this parable. As long as the brothers had this underlying problem of greed, and covetousness, and clinging for dear life to all their stuff, and their money, and their possessions, and what they might be getting down the road somewhere, then they were never going to be contented. They would spend themselves on empty air, and not be satisfied, as the hymn we just sang says. So, as always, Jesus tells them a story.
There’s this rich man, he says—very rich. His land, we are told, “produced abundantly.” He wonders to himself: what is he going to do with all this bounty of the earth—all this wealth—that “he” has produced? He decides to pull down his barns, and build larger ones, and store the crops away. Then, he’ll be all set for many, many, many years—“And I will [then] say to my soul,” he says, relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
But God (as is often the case) has other plans. “You fool!” he tells the rich man. “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. This is your last day on earth. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? What’s going to happen to all your stuff that you’ve so carefully hoarded, and stored away, and made plans for?”
Then, Jesus delivers the clincher: “So it is,“ he says, “with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” They collect and collect and collect. And hoard and hoard and hoard. But what good do their possessions do them when they’re gone? Nothing, of course. You can’t take it with you. We may not be sure where we’re going when we leave this earthly coil, but one thing we know for sure is that they don’t take the American Express Platinum card there! All our wealth will do us no good when we’re gone.
“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” It occurs to me that such would have made a good parable for Canvass Sunday a month or so ago. But supporting one’s religious institutions, as important as that is, isn’t really what Jesus is talking about here. He’s talking about something even more fundamental. He’s talking about the attitude we take toward life. And he’s talking about the gratitude with which we pay back the Gift of Life.
Jesus isn’t saying there’s anything wrong with the man in the parable being wealthy, in and of itself. Judaism in general didn’t have a problem with wealth. It doesn’t make the same tragic error as the Marxists who thought that if you just made everyone poor, the world would be a better place. It didn’t work. No, in the ancient Jewish worldview that Jesus shared possessions weren’t seen as evil, as tricks of the Devil, as despicable. There are a number of wealthy people in the Bible who are shown, generally, in a favorable light: Abraham was well-off; Solomon was very wealthy; Job suffers much, but not because he was prosperous; in the New Testament, Joseph of Arimithea is a wealthy Jew, who out of kindness gives his tomb so the body of Jesus can be buried.
Jesus doesn’t condemn the rich farmer for being successful—or for working hard and industriously—or for having land and enabling it to produce—or for renting it to people to work as tenant farmers—or for being successful at what he was doing—or for charging a fair price for his goods—or for providing for his family-- or even for putting some of his wealth aside, and planning for the future. No, Jesus seemed to have no problem with any of these things; he probably would have found them quite commendable, even.
But he doesn’t commend the farmer, does he? He doesn’t congratulate him. He doesn’t say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” No—he calls him (or rather, he quotes God as calling him) “You fool!”From our modern perspective, this might be confusing to us. The judgment might seem a bit harsh—or even downright unjust. Why is the man a fool? He represents so much of what we in our society seem to value. He seems a prime exemplar of the American Dream and the Protestant work ethic.
But the thing is, of course, is that Jesus (and his listeners) weren’t 21st Century Americans. They weren’t Protestants (or even Christians), either. In the historical context in which they were living, the listeners of Jesus might well have been quite clear about why this rich man was being derided as a “fool”.
Jesus wasn’t condemning the man for being successful, for having wealth, or even for using it to live a comfortable life. Jesus (or God) is condemning him for hoarding his wealth, for keeping it stored away in barns, for serving Mammon, and ignoring his responsibility for those beyond himself (and perhaps his family). He is being condemned for “storing up treasures” for himself, but being stingy toward God? Just what did “not being rich toward God” mean in the context of Judaism at this time? It meant ignoring his social responsibility to the poor. It meant not sharing his wealth for the common good. As one observer has put it, in these days “If the poor did not receive any assistance from their own families, then charity and almsgiving were the only social assistance available to them. The giving of alms, money to the poor, was the main way the poor survived.” Such was the covenant written into the very heart of the religion of the ancient Jewish people: as God has blest us, so we must blest those less fortunate than us; as God has protected us, so we must protect those weaker than us. The Hebrew word for “righteousness” comes from the root “to give alms”, to donate to charity. Every Jew was required, in his life, to complete three overriding duties: to keep the Law of Moses; worship the God of his fathers; and practice deeds of kindness toward the less fortunate.
So, imagine how Jesus (and those listening to him) would have viewed this rich landowner, so carefully planning to build those barns, and store all his wealth away, and keep hold of his possessions. Sun, and rain, and soil have combined to make him rich. Add a little luck, too; being in the right place at the right time never hurts. Add to that too his own hard work and diligence; there’s no problem there. He has planned carefully, and worked hard, and has been rewarded. That’s no sin.
But now that he is rich, what does he do? What fruit does his wealth bear? Selfishness. That’s it. He becomes greedy. He wants more (or, at least, to hold on to all that he has). He stores all that grain away in those great big barns. What does he plan to do with it? Not eat it all himself, certainly. He’s going to sell it, of course—at some day in the future; maybe during a time of scarcity or famine, probably; and at a really high price, too. Rather than helping others out of their distress, he’s going to profit from it instead. There’s where the sin arise; there’s where his alienation from God springs. There’s where he starts his movement away from God and toward utter foolishness.
His excessive greed makes him forget about his connections—his interdependence with all life—the greater Spirit of Life in which he lives and moves and has he beings. He forgets about his responsibility to other members of his community. He forgets about God, the great Source of Life without whom he would not even exist. He lives completely for himself. He talks just to himself; he even congratulates himself on a job well done. “How great I art!” he exults. “I’ve done it again!” Of the 50 words we hear from this guy (in their English translation), a full dozen of them are “I”, “my”, or “mine”: “my crops,”, “my barns”, “my grain”, “my goods”. His greed has led him down the road to isolation, and in isolation there is no life. “Blessed is he who is joined to all the living,” the book of Proverbs tells us. We can assume that the inverse is true as well, and cursed is he (or she) who is cut off from all others, who is isolated from them, who lives for himself (or herself) alone.
Now, after Jesus is done talking about the foolish rich man, he goes on and hints at what the life abundant might truly be. If it’s not collecting lots of possessions, and storing them away, and hoarding them, and not sharing them, then what is it? What is the life abundant?
“Consider the lilies, how they grow,” Jesus says just a few verses down in the gospel of Luke, “they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink… Instead, strive for [God’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”
Then Jesus concludes: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
We are, each one of us, a simple flower—just a lily of the field. Maybe a day lily, or an Easter lily, or a glorious Cala lily. There’s lots of diversity among lilies, as there is within the lives of all of us. Some scholars think that the lilies Jesus would have been referring to, with which his listeners would have been familiar (and yes, there are scholars who figure such things out) would have been what we call Loden lilies today: a common flower that grew among the grass and weeds in the area where Jesus preached. A simple flower, quite plain; but pretty hardy, too, able to adjust to adverse circumstances. Just like all of us.
Sturdy, but simple. Nothing like king Solomon in all his glory, certainly. Solomon—one of the wealthiest kings of all time. Solomon—who built the Great Temple of Jerusalem, and so many edifices to reflect his prosperity. Solomon—who had shields and thrones built of gold; who built his palace with golden steps and doorways. He sat surrounded by 12 great lion statues, all solid gold. (Talk about bling—Solomon sure had it!) He was considered wealthier than all the other kings of his day combined.
But that’s wasn’t real abundance, Jesus was saying. Solomons come and Solomons go. If you want to see abundance, look at the lilies of the field. The simple lilies who know they are dependent on the Source of Life for all they are.
If you want abundance, Jesus says, then live the kingdom of God—practice the reign of love within your hearts.
God’s love is infinite. The creation’s love for each of us is boundless. There might be just so much money to go around; just so many fatted calves that you can slaughter. But loving is about pouring forth our abundance upon the earth—this abundance of love—and in so doing, bringing about the Reign of God among us. It’s not about weighing and measuring, coldly calculating profit and loss; how much something will cost us; what it’s worth to us. The coming of the kingdom is about radically (and even rashly) sharing our bounty with everyone, all around us. Not only with those who have been nice and respectful toward us; not only with those who have danced to our tune, or to society’s tune, who have never made waves, who have caused us no grief. No, to truly experience abundance in this life, then our love must fall, like God’s rain, on the just and unjust alike; on those who have helped us, and comforted us, and cared for us; and on those who have hurt us., and slandered us, and reviled us. We become “rich toward God” when we stop circling the wagons around ourselves, and caring only for ourselves, and reach out and embrace and share all we have with all creation
I’m not saying any of this is easy, or logical, or something we can do all of the time, or even most of the time. I’m not saying it’s going to bring us riches in any of the things of this world.
But I am saying that it is the way we transform our reality, and transcend our limitations, and live out the way of the divine in these, our little human lives. It is the way we experience that profound abundance which beats at the heart of this precious life. It is the way we bring about, if only in the holy, eternal moment we have before us, the blessed reign of the love of God.

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