EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus,
“Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.”
He replied to him,
“Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?”
Then he said to the crowd,
“Take care to guard against all greed,
for though one may be rich,
one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
Then he told them a parable.
“There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest.
He asked himself, ‘What shall I do,
for I do not have space to store my harvest?’
And he said, ‘This is what I shall do:
I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones.
There I shall store all my grain and other goods
and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you,
you have so many good things stored up for many years,
rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’
But God said to him,
‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you;
and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’
Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves
but are not rich in what matters to God.”
It is unfortunate that Sunday’s text as assigned is not connected to the following paragraph in St. Luke, Jesus’ famous address about the lilies of the field. The “lilies” account is a counterpoint to our text at hand, which focuses upon the assemblage of material goods which, in the great scheme of things, do not provide the security of faith in the heavenly Father. In truth, this Sunday’s text is something of an intrusion into Jesus’ narrative about faithfulness in persecution. As Joel Green wonders, “What has this man’s inheritance to do with bearing authentic, Spirit-inspired witness to the Son of Man?” (p. 486)
For starters, I think it is important to remember that St. Luke, unlike the earlier evangelist Mark, for example, is attempting to serve two needs in his Gospel. The first is faithfulness to the Synoptic Gospel tradition of Jesus coming to earth to break the chains of Satan and ushering in the glorious final coming of the Kingdom of God; in other words, Luke strives to protect the apocalyptic flavor of his text, as we saw a few weeks ago when Jesus “set his face for Jerusalem” and the final showdown with official Judaism.
The second point, though, is Luke’s inaugural understanding that this glorious kingdom might not appear for years, centuries, even millennia (as has proved true), and thus the second purpose of his Gospel is a prescription of how to live the immediacy of Christ’s discipleship on a day-to-day or century-to-century basis. The Gospel text of Sunday opens with a left-field request from a man that Jesus settle a probate issue. Given his bigger mission, along with the fact that he probably knew nothing of the details of the case, Jesus sidesteps the request, but as Green points out, this unexpected interruption provides Jesus with an entrée to talk about present day conduct and ultimate destiny.
While he may have been brought up in Nazareth, Jesus was a successful tradesman (a carpenter in his time was the equivalent of a home builder today.) Biblical scholar John Meier believes that Jesus was conversant in multiple languages befitting a businessman and a devout Jew living under Roman occupation. His life had exposed him to the destructive consequences of greed and the risk taking that often resulted from it.
In Luke’s day the word “greed” was a collective term for both material goods and social standing. Greed for the pocket and greed for the psyche is another way to put it. Jesus draws from a hypothetical, a rich man with an enviable problem: his harvest is too big! The irony of Jesus’ story, though, is that the land owner is stressed for two reasons. The obvious one is storage of the extra grain. It is hard to imagine that there were no hungry Jews or Gentiles in the owner’s unspecified location, but he gives no indication of even passing benevolence to his neighbors in his dilemma.
The reason for this is his second stress, a more psychological one: assuring himself security for years to come, the kind that will let him relax, eat, drink, and be merry, in Luke’s words. The worries of the rich landowner parallel very succinctly the two dimensions of Luke’s Gospel: an attitude of prudent living now and concern for one’s destiny down the road. The land owner embraces the worst of all choices. He builds bigger barns—thus ignoring his ethical soul—in the mistaken belief that his goods will bring him peace of mind down the road.
Jesus quotes God as calling the man “a fool” for both practical and spiritual reasons. In Jesus’ narrative, God appears to the man and states that his death is imminent, in fact, that very night, the man’s life—including his moral narrative—would be demanded of him. All of his hoarded goods would go to probate, an ironic reference to the opening question of Sunday’s Gospel to the man who sought Jesus’ help in sorting out his family’s estate.
Jesus concludes his example with a telling remark. “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” This text calls for some explanation. “Rich toward God” is not a thinly veiled request for church or temple support. In fact, organized religion is not mentioned at all in Sunday’s Gospel. “Rich toward God” has two more immediate meanings. The first is benevolence toward God’s most beloved, specifically the poor, the foreigner, widows, orphans, children, the sick, those falsely imprisoned, those with no true constituency of support in general society except the heavenly Father’s.
“Rich toward God” has an equally concrete meaning in this sense: it refers to the good soul who believes that he or she is rich because God simply is. To the virtuous for whom God is a constant “player” in their conduct and outlook, there is a richness that no man can steal nor moth destroy, to quote another Gospel text. As Luke will write in successive paragraphs, if God is generous to the birds, the grass, and the lilies, how much more so to those who strive for his kingdom?