On the face of it, this is a pretty straightforward exchange between Jesus and someone in the crowd. The unnamed person in the crowd appeals to Jesus as a rabbi – the law is pretty straightforward and all he wants is a ruling in accordance with the law.
Jesus’ response is interesting on several levels though.
First is his response question – yet another example of Jesus answering a question with another question.
‘Who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’
This seems like a strange response.
The answer, we know in the light of John’s later revelation, is God. Jesus has indeed been appointed to be our judge.
It is interesting that here he seems to be refusing that role.
Unlike some of his other interactions though, where people do recognise Jesus as the messiah, this questioner doesn’t respond in that manner, or possibly isn’t even given the chance to.
Unlike some of his questioners, who are at least heading in the right direction – like the rich young man who wants to know how to get into the kingdom of heaven, and is unable to because there are earthly things that he holds too dear – Jesus discerns that this person isn’t even interested in living his life in the right way. ‘Beware! Don’t be greedy…’ He says.
For ancient societies like Israel, especially predominantly agrarian ones, and that was most of them, wealth was land, and land was wealth. And in order to use the land efficiently, it would stay in the common ownership of the family unit. So, not a ‘nuclear’ family like we are used to, but an extended family, 4 or even 5 generations living under the same roof. And this was a very sensible idea. Because this would give you the capacity to cope with the vicissitudes of fortune – one working adult hurting themselves wouldn’t mean starvation for their dependents. This was your safety net; your social security.
The Pentateuch is full of laws designed to uphold this extended family unit, reaching up to the law of Jubilee – the sabbath year of sabbath years, when every 50 years, debts were forgiven, slaves were released and land was returned to its original owners. Every generation, there was a chance to begin afresh, no matter how things had gone for the previous generations.
And yet this questioner is seeking to break up this system. He is asking Jesus to rule on splitting his inheritance with his brother. He no longer wants to be part of this extended family unit – Like the Prodigal Son, he wants to strike out on his own.
Now it’s possible that he had had a major falling out with his brother – brothers can be pretty insufferable at times, certainly in my experience. And I’m hopeful that when the Kingdom of Heaven fully arrives, then they won’t be insufferable, or at least not nearly so much.
But in the meantime, this is what we have to put up with in God’s world. God made us to live in community, not alone. In community with God certainly, but also in community with each other, and often we see God most clearly when we see him in each other.
This is why Jesus responds with the parable of the rich man who pulls down his barns in order to build larger ones to store all his abundance.
On one level, Jesus’ audience may have thought that the rich man deserved it – Proverbs tells them that the good will prosper, and the wicked will suffer. So those that prosper are obviously blessed.
But Jesus tells them this is not so. God calls this man a fool, because he is storing up earthly goods against a future that doesn’t exist for him. People prosper who are not good – Israel’s theology and understanding of God have moved on and become deeper, and they understand now that it is not just about rewards in this life, but also rendering an account of oneself to God after that as well.
So this man isn’t thinking about his eternal soul – he is only thinking about this life and a future that doesn’t exist for him. Specifically for him.
And this is the critical thing about this I think – the rich man is storing up goods for himself – not for his community. Like the man who is asking the question, he is thinking only of himself – not of God, and certainly not of others, the community around him, the members of his family and his tribe.
And this is a surprisingly easy trap to fall into. Obviously it is easy on a superficial level, with worldly goods. I’m sure many of us have an abundance of ‘stuff’, material goods that we may or may not need for the future – stuff that will be worthless to us if an account were to be demanded of us this very day.
But at the same time, we know this. At the level of material possessions, we know that our wealth will be of little account when we stand before God. What we have done with our wealth will be what counts.
Many people here are very generous with their money and time towards the church, and towards each other.
We hear and understand the first level of Jesus’ parable.
But should we be looking deeper than that?
And yet at the same time, how many of us are procrastinating spiritually? How many of us are echoing Saint Augustine of Hippo’s famous adolescent appeal – ‘God make me good, but not just yet’.
I’m not suggesting anyone here is quite living the life of the young St Augustine, but often God is looking for more from us that we are necessarily giving.
God is always asking for a deeper commitment, the sort of commitment that you think is heading in one direction, but can actually lead you somewhere completely different.
Might we be like the rich man? Storing up our gifts for ourselves?
When in the 16th Century, Martin Luther read his Bible with fresh eyes, what stood out for him was Paul’s emphasis on salvation through faith. Luther was quite an unusual character and very much a product of his time, and his theology was very much driven by his personality and how he saw those times.
There is no doubt that the abuses and excesses that he saw in the Roman church at the time were in need of correction. And he draws our attention to some very challenging passages in Paul’s letter to the Romans, that chimed with his own feelings of complete failure in any attempt to follow the rules. Like Paul in Romans, he found the Law to be a death trap.
And the product of this, his insistence on salvation by faith in Jesus, is undoubtedly theologically and spiritually liberating.
And yet, but turning so decisively against works as a means of salvation, there has been a risk that we have jettisoned too much in the other direction, thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
It is all too easy, and it is a trap that many protestant churches have fallen into, to see salvation not only as the be-all and end-all, but also as a purely personal thing – a matter between us as individuals, and God. We are saved individually by our own faith, and by our faith alone.
Like the rich man, our souls can produce abundant salvation, so much so that we have no place to store it all. We are right with God; we are saved by our own faith in Jesus. Surely this is what is critical – our justification before God.
And yet like the rich man, maybe we too are fools if we think like this; as individuals concerned only about our own salvation.
For what Jesus demands of us is faith, that is true, but the word that the New Testament writers use has many more meanings than the simple English word faith has. The word that is used, pistis, is more normally used of the relationship between ruler and ruled.
It occurs in the Book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha in this sense, where the Jewish rulers are required to have pistis in their Greek overlords. Pistis here is faith, allegiance, trust. But importantly, it is something that is not just a way of thinking – it is something that you live out in your life – you are required to demonstrate your pistis, your faith and allegiance in your actions as well. If your overlord was attacked, it wasn’t enough to believe in him in your heart – you had to raise your troops and march out in support of him.
So maybe when Jesus says to people that their faith has saved them, it is not just their belief, but also their action that has been motivated by that faith that has saved them. They have believed and acted.
This is not salvation by works – it is not calculating how many years in purgatory each prayer will save us, but it is seeing that belief and action cannot be divided when we truly have allegiance to Christ. We too must gather our forces and march out in support of our Lord.
Dietrich Bonhoffer, the German Lutheran theologian murdered by the Nazis in 1945, talked in one of his most famous books of ‘cheap grace’. ‘infinite and boundless grace without price; grace without cost!’ He felt that people were asserting their faith privately, assured of their own salvation, while not challenging the spirit of the times they were living in. He was convinced that religion could not be a purely personal thing – to be a Christian, you had to take a position on the social and political questions of the day. For him, your faith, your allegiance to Christ compelled it.
It is one of the key tenets of the modern world that religion is a private and personal affair, that should not interfere with public affairs, but Bonhoffer saw clearly that it is not possible to truly have faith in Christ and ignore the world around us.
Jesus’ questioner is trying to live for his own satisfaction and on his own terms, rather than as part of a family or community. He is not confronting the issues and dealing with them, but trying to solve them by dividing the family – not building relationships, but breaking them. And when we break our relationships with other people, we are breaking our relationships with God as well.
Unlike Jesus’ questioner, and unlike the rich man, true faith in Christ means acknowledging him as King and showing our allegiance to him in our actions, playing our part in his Kingdom – a kingdom of all the world, not just one small corner of it. Amen