July 31, 2016
Rev Lissa Wray Beal
The challenge of some parables, is that they give us a loophole through which we might smugly escape the point. The parable of the Rich Fool is such a parable.
"The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' 18 Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' 20 But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'
You and I live with recent memories of excessive greed: Bernie Madoff and ponzi schemes that ruined peoples’ lives while a few got rich. The near collapse of the banking system through the subprime mortgage scandal in 2008. And then the US government bailout of those banks. . . with monstrously large payouts to the heads of those banks. You might want to watch The Big Short to see a movie record of that fiasco (although I had to have my financially-trained husband explain some of the convoluted tradings and so on, I got the gist: greed drove the markets up. Greed made property owners of those who could not afford it. Greed enticed the banks to subprime lending).
We recognize greed in these recent events and people. So when we read this parable we can too easily say, “I’m not rich, this parable doesn’t speak to me.” Or (if we have a comfortable nest egg) we can say, “Well, I’m not as rich as that guy” or “I give generously” so that “This parable doesn’t apply to me.” So we escape the parable through a loophole.
This parable’s warning against being financial rich but not rich towards God is a good warning. But even if we aren’t rich, or we are generous, or we don’t have bigger and bigger bank accounts squirreled away, this parable still gets us. Nails us where we are.
We can explore the point of the parable: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Hear that? “Treasure for yourself. . . not rich towards God.” And that doesn’t require that “treasure” to be money. It could be anything that we build up and treasure, rather than treasuring God. It is things we indulge in without any thought to whether God approves or not. For instance, it could be the things spoken of in our Colossians passage:
* It could be when we say, “I’ll do what I want with my body” (and so Colossians speaks of fornication, impurity, evil desire). And we end up “not rich towards God”
* It could be when we say, “I’ll say what I want with my mouth (and so Colossians speaks of anger, wrath, malice, slander). And we end up “not rich towards God”
* Or it could be when we say, “I’ll paint myself favourably” (and so Colossians speaks of us lying to one another). And we end up “not rich towards God”
This parable shows our souls if we will only look – to recognize that there are many things that we put out trust in that make us “not rich towards God.”
But we can explore the point of this parable another way. Let’s look at the words of the Rich Fool – these words are instructive, whatever the bottom line of our bank account. I think it is the Rich Fool’s words that we hear the real problem in his life; the real warning of this parable.
Look at the text: do you see it? “What should I do. . . my crops. . . I will do this. . . I will pull down my barns, I will build larger ones. . . I, I, I. God does not figure in the picture anywhere.
No acknowledgement that God brings the rains to grow the crops; or gives the skill to select and harvest them. No thankfulness to God. Only “I.”
In a world of the gracious gifts of God, the Rich Fool knows only his own self. He is the centre of his universe; his own north star; his own god. He has called the shots, and the tragedy is – what makes him a Fool – is that he doesn’t know this is not the way to true riches, but only poverty.
This is what our Old Testament text speaks of this morning. God rescued Israel out of Egypt – sometime in the 15th or 14th century B. C. (depending on how you do the calculations). God rescued Egypt as a father rescues a son tormented by a tyrant. This loving father taught their broken child to walk. Healed them. Fed them. Held them close. And the rescued and loved child? In response, this child said it was someone else who had done all this, and given them life: Baal – a god of unkindness, no power, no life. For 6 centuries Israel tossed God aside. Said “I’ll worship where I want; whom I want; how I want. I will decide. I will bank on Baal. It is my decision because I escaped from Egypt. I came into the land. It all belongs to me.”
Now, under the covenant (to which Israel had agreed), God could have rejected them. Sent them into exile and forgotten about them. Could have said – “let Baal rescue you from exile if he is so great.” God could have (under the terms of agreement) done that. And there were consequences for Israel breaking the covenant agreement. But that agreement and its terms and conditions were not the final word. The final word was, instead, the pathos of a broken-hearted God:
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? [cities that were destroyed] My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9 I will not execute my fierce anger; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
The parable had it right, and Israel’s history illustrates it: each of us has gone astray, off to our own way. Each of us lives with that “I” enthroned as god; calling the shots; thinking we can decide our destiny, genuflect to the god of our own making, and cut God out of the picture.
And the word of the gospel is God’s grief and love. The loving father willing to absorb the jabs and stabs administered by a wayward people. A God who in love finds a way to rescue us from our biggest problem: our own sinful selves, bent on storing up riches that impoverish us by keeping us from relationship with God.
And that, I think is where our Colossians text picks up. Paul speaks to a people surrounded by the sensuous pleasures of many cults – they could pick the god that made them feel good. A cosmopolitan city, they could trust in trading riches. These new believers could have gone after many, many things. . . other gods. . . activities. . . and forgotten God. So Paul teaches them about the true God they have come to know. After outlining the power that Christ has as God, Colossians tells us that Christ in power gave over that power. That he died to rescue us from our sin and the self that so easily leads us astray.
When you come in faith to Christ, it is because he has drawn us. Caught our imagination and our soul with the idea that we can be fully human. . . a humanity that is only found in Christ. Released from sin; from the tyranny of self, we become rich towards God.
Colossians says, “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” This is full humanity. It is what we see depicted in our baptism – a statement of what Christ has done, and to whom we belong.
Let me illustrate that. See this clear glass? Let’s say it represents you: your intellect, history, talents, even your body. When we are baptized (fill glass with water from glass pitcher), we are filled with Christ. We are still ourselves, but it sort of looks like we are still in control: we contain God.
But this is really what happens when we become a Christian. This is what our baptism is speaking of (put filled glass into glass pitcher filled with water). You have died in baptism; your life is hidden with Christ in God. You are still there, with all your uniquenesses. But your identity has changed. You are now Christ’s. Christ is both the infilling, and the surrounding reality of your life. In fact, he is your ife.
Our Colossians text describes it this way: “You have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” Do you hear the echoes of the creation account in Genesis, when God makes humanity as it should be, in the image of the creator?
Christ remakes the humanity envisioned in the garden, when humans were made in the image of God, the creator. They were in full relationship with him, loving and being loved. Knowing the goodness of God that directed and informed every aspect of their life. And they were complete and at peace. Fully human. Free from the tyranny of self. Rich towards God.
And this is what we truly are- now – in Christ Jesus. Wholly identified in him, we are his new creation. We have relinquished the tyranny of ourselves, and are freed to be wholly what we are created to be.
But of course (if this mystery was not enough), there is a greater mystery to this reality. It is this: that we are now died and hidden with Christ in God. But we also still live with the reality of our selfish self-tyranny. How, then, do we live this “fully hidden with Christ in God” life when the pull of our sinful selves is still a very real experience? – when we still lie to one another; when we have wrath, malice, slander, fornication – all the sins so common to sinful humanity?
This, too, Paul addresses. He told the Colossians to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” This is not calling us to be ethereal, other-worldly people. No. Christ came bodily to save the world. He leaves us in the world and as embodied people. We are not heavenly spirits.
But in the body (with its pull of self), hidden in Christ, we are transformed to become what we already are in reality. We come to live as we truly are: as Christ’s own people – his body – in the world.
And I don’t know that there is any easy way to do that. There is no 1-2-3-step “How to be the people hidden with Christ in God” manual. But as Rowan Williams puts it, there are disciplines that help us “grow into such love for [Christ] and such confidence in him that we could rightly be called god’s sons and daughters” (Being Christian, 4).
Growing in to the identity that is already ours in Christ is a lifetime adventure. We are baptized; we read our Bibles, listening as God speaks. We pray, sharing our lives, hopes, requests, and listening again for God to speak. We come to the table, taking into ourselves bread and wine as means of God’s transforming grace. We become what we already are.
And in this transformation, we find the riches of God – the riches the Fool of our parable never discovered. This is the mystery of the gospel. The riches of God and his life in us. Transformed
from the selfish “I, I, I” of the parable, into Christ’s own image. Sons and daughters of the father, loved and beloved.
Now, there are many compelling reasons to engage in this challenging adventure of living in to what we already are. (Some examples might be for God’s pleasure, for personal joy, for family wholeness). Let me share with you the one I think is particularly pressing in our world today.
In a small French town this week, two radicalized men entered a church during the Mass. Hostages were taken. And the 85-year old priest, Father Hamel, was brutally murdered. But this priest had apparently already – and in tangible ways – been reaching out to his Muslim neighbours. Showing kindness and caring for them. Townspeople in that small town gathered and spoke to the newscasters of his loving concern.
Now, I don’t know Father Hamel. But something about what I’m hearing suggests to me that he was finding ways to let the life of Christ show in his own life. I’m sure Father Hamel was not sinless. I suspect he fell short many times. But something of who he really was – a Christian; a “little Christ” was shining strong and true.
We live now in a world where Christ is not well known. Often, he is not welcome. Sometimes, God is dismissed.
We live in a world where bullies get platforms to pronounce hatred; where women and children are enslaved; where people are targets of radicalizing hate.
In this world, Christ is needed. And we – God’s people – made in God’s image and remade in the image of Christ – are the “little Christs” that God has set in this world with the riches of God. In our actions, speech, and thinking, let us show who we really are. By our Christian disciplines, let us become more fully who we really are.
The good news of the gospel is that we have died and are hidden with Christ. Let us so live in Christ that he is seen, and known.
Thanks be to God.