Scripture Readings:

Ecclesiastes 1.12-14; 2-18-23

Colossians 3: 1-11

Luke 12: 13-21

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

If I was to set you homework, it would be to ask you to read the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes this coming week. For it is a remarkable book. As one commentator says,

…many readers find this book to be one of the most intriguing books in the Hebrew Scriptures, a fascinating mixture of darkness and light, confidence and doubt, piety and irreverence.[1]

I first read it as a teenager, struggling to make sense of the world, and the Christian faith I had been brought up in. It was amazing to discover a book, in the canon of Scripture, which seemed so honest about the world and the mystery of life. We tend to think of the Bible as a book of answers. Ecclesiastes is not afraid to say that sometimes we do not know all the answers. Ecclesiastes may be a rather gloomy book, but it reminds us that life, and faith, is ultimately a mystery.

The book’s English name is misleading, for it has nothing to do with the church. There is no mention of worship or religious institutions within it, nor of any of the great Biblical heroes and their stories[2]– it is, in a way, very secular book. For the book consists of the musings of a sage, a teacher of philosophy, a wise man of some kind. And having looked at the world, he has come to the gloomy conclusion that life seems ultimately useless. It’s all vanity, as it says in some of the other translations. The Hebrew word apparently means something inconsequential, light- like the wind. We are all chasing the wind, with little to show for it.

The Philosopher thought that all the work and worry of life just brought you Things. Things that don’t make you happy. They just tend to pile up, and add to your worries. It is little wonder that there are people today who try to do without many of the Things we seem to need to live nowadays. I saw a lady being interviewed on a news channel the other day who had given up trying to buy a house in the south of England and seemed happy to live in a shed instead. She spoke of how she had learned to be content with that way of life. It is as if she was going back to the old Christian tradition of monasticism.

And yet, we still kid ourselves that owning material Things is important. Our greed for Things even spreads into our religious life. If you want to start an argument in a church, talk about money! Or here’s another example- today’s Gospel reading.

If you had been around in Jesus’ time, if you had heard of this man’s wise teaching, and about the miracles he was said to have done- wouldn’t you have wanted to meet him? And if you could ask him any question you wanted, what would it be?

But here’s a man whose burning question for Jesus is about his inheritance:

Teacher, tell my brother to divide with me the property our father left us.

There is nothing more unseemly than a family quarrelling over an inheritance. (Recall that the most famous parable of all, the Prodigal Son can’t wait for his father to die to receive his share of the inheritance). In this case, it’s a family squabbling over the inheritance. The man demands that Jesus makes sure that he gets his share of the inheritance. Face to face with the greatest spiritual teacher of all time, standing before the wisest teacher he would ever meet, given the chance to ask anything of a man who would soon be described as the Son of God, this man demands that Jesus sort out a family fight over money. It is as if the man wants to harness the power of God which Jesus has been showing in his life for selfish ends.

As often happens, Jesus responds with a question: ‘Who gave me the right to judge between you two?’ There is a note of irritation here. Jesus has come to bring salvation to the world- why is this man bothering him with this? For the man is simply selfish- he’s demanding that he gets what he feels he’s entitled to. As one commentator puts it, he is

…trying to use the power and authority of Jesus to get what he wants.[3]

In other words, he is trying to use religion for his own, selfish ends.

And so Jesus tells him: guard yourself against greed. For your true life isn’t what you own, all the Things you possess, no matter how wealthy you might be.

And then Jesus tells us a story about greed.

It’s a very simple parable, and needs hardly any explanation. A rich man is lucky enough to own land which produces a bumper harvest. He builds barns to store it in, and decides he is going to live easy and enjoy himself. But God has other plans- sudden death enters the story as the man unexpectedly, he dies in the night. Now he will never enjoy his wealth.

Jesus explains,

This is how it is with those who pile up riches from themselves but are not rich in God’s sight.

He doesn’t mean that those who save and invest are going to die suddenly. Nor is it merely a moral tale- ‘You cannae take it with you’, as you Scottish granny might say.

Instead, this is a story about our attitude to God. Do we really God, and depend on God? Or do we put our trust elsewhere? Are we rich in the things of this world, but are not, as Jesus puts it here, ‘rich in God’s sight’? This is a story about the nature of faith. Where do we put ultimately put our trust? For as Jesus reminds us a few verses later, ‘Your heart will always be where your riches are’.

The passage from Colossians fleshes this out for us. Paul[4] is also concerned to remind the Colossians that their faith is to be in Christ alone. In the run-up to this passage, he says things like

Since you have accepted Christ Jesus as Lord, live in union with him.[5]

And,

You have died with Christ and are set free from the ruling spirits of the universe.[6]

And now he says,

You have been raised to life with Christ, so set your hearts on the things that are in heaven.[7]

The Colossians were confused because some of them thought that there were other spiritual powers which Christians ought to worship alongside the God of Jesus Christ. And we, too, are often confused, because, like the rich man in the parable, or the man who demanded Jesus told his brother to give him his father’s money, we are constantly tempted to worship money and wealth. But when we put our trust in anything else, in anyone else, other than Jesus Christ, we are failing to be Christians. We are worshipping the wrong things.

Jesus use of sudden death in the parable is meant to shock us. Jesus spends a lot of time telling us about how well-off the farmer is, how he is investing in new barns, how he’s looking forward to an early retirement to enjoy good food and wine… and suddenly—bam! He’s gone. It’s like killing off a character in a novel whom we thought was finally finding happiness. Jesus is using death for dramatic, rhetorical effect. Death is the end- there is no way that our farmer can enjoy his happy retirement now. There is not coming back from this.

The Philosopher in the Book of Ecclesiastes expresses it well:

Nothing that I had worked for and earned meant a thing to me, because I knew that I would have to leave it to my successor, and he might be wise, or he might be foolish — who knows? Yet he will own everything I have worked for, everything my wisdom has earned for me in this world.

And St Paul, too, uses images of life and death to that there can be no mistaking the points he is making. We die to the world when we become Christians. That’s an aspect of the sacrament of baptism which we often overlook. We tend to think of the water as representing cleansing and new life. But coming through the waters of baptism is a kind of death. We are, as Paul puts, putting to death and old life. For just as it was for Jesus, we cannot know the new life until we put to death the old. So: ‘You must put to death… the earthly desires at work in you’, says Paul. He knows full well that Christians continue to live with the temptation to go back to the old life. Paul lists those things of the old life which constantly call us back, call us away from Christ:

…sexual immorality, indecency, lust, evil passions, and greed (for greed is a form of idolatry)’.

We live in an age in which greed is often celebrated. We are taught to admire wealthy people, those who have done well for themselves, even if it is at the expense of others. So it is jarring to read those words of Paul: ‘greed is a form of idolatry’.

And greed is at the heart of many of the problems facing our world today. The man in the Gospel story reminds us of how families can be torn apart by greed- arguing over inheritances instead of honouring the life of the person who has died. Greed is why we are wrecking the environment- because people who make money from fossil fuels deny any responsibility for climate change. Greed is at the heart of the barrier we built between people, and the tensions which are stoked between nations, and between different ethnic or religious groups. Greed is what drives the oligarchs and billionaires who have accumulated too much power over us.

Greed is warps our vision, and damages our relationships, damages other people. Above all, it is a form of idolatry, drawing us away from our loving God and making us worship Things.

While we might well want to ensure we have enough to live on, putting all our efforts into becoming richer will inevitably draw us away from God. Greed is a prime force for making us forget heaven. As Jesus put it succinctly, ‘You cannot serve both God and money’ (Matthew 6.24b). We are to put the Kingdom of God first, and to trust God to provide the rest (Luke 12.31).

The next verse in Ecclesiastes after our reading today says,

The best thing that anyone can do it to eat and drink and enjoy what he has earned.

Things are good, if we understand that they are God’s gift to us, to use sensibly and usefully. We are not to seek to use the power of God to bring us wealth in a greedy way. We will be tempted to, for we still live in the old world- the world which worships money, lust and violence. Christians, in our new life, are, however, people of generosity, honesty and peace.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a parable about a final judgement. Like sheep being separated out from the goats, the judge of the world separates the good and the bad. And when those who are not destined for eternal life ask why they are to be condemned, and Jesus replies that their sins include, among other things,

I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.[8]

Centuries ago, St Augustine said of the rich fool in today’s parable that he was hoarding up perishable food in his barn, which would be of no use to him soon. For he was about to find himself being judged, and asked if he had fed the poor. But he hadn’t- he had hoarded up food in his barn.

Augustine concludes that the fool “did not realise that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns”.[9]

The good things of God should not draw us away from God. They are not meant to be idols to make us greedy and mean. Rather we are to enjoy them and give thanks for them, for they are God’s gracious providing for us. And we are to share them. If you make material Things the centre of your life, it will be like chasing the wind, and life will be made meaningless. But as St Paul reminds us: ‘Your real life is Christ’, and a life with Christ at its centre is a life of generosity, and life of thankfulness, and a life which sometimes glimpses a meaning in the mystery, even as we chase the wind.

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2019 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] John Jarick, ‘Ecclesiastes’ in Dunn and Rogerson (eds) (2003) Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, p467

[2] Except in the very first verse, where the philosopher claims to be the son of David, and king of Jerusalem; but the Hebrew is post-exilic, so it cannot be, say, Solomon (c.f. Jarick, Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, eds. Dunn and Rogerson, p468

[3] Justo González, Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke, quoted by Angus Ritchie in Church Times, 25 July 2019 https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2019/2-august/faith/sunday-s-readings/7th-sunday-after-trinity

[4] or someone writing with Paul’s authority: ‘Die Echtheit ist heute fast allgemein anerkannt’ stated Käsemann in RGG in 1959 (vol3, p1727); see also Kümmel, The Theology of the New Testament tr. Steely(1973), who however does not accept the authenticity of the closely related Epistle to the Ephesians; Morna Hooker seems undecided (in Eerdmans Commentary p1404), as does Jennifer K Bereson in the introduction to The New Oxford Annotated Bible 4th Edition (ed Coogan, 2010); J Chrstian Beker thinks it is not by Paul (in Mays (ed) (1988) Harper’s Bible Commentary p1226); J Murphy O’Connor thinks it is (in Barton and Muddiman (eds) (2001) Oxford Bible Commentary p1192); ‘A consensus on the question of authorship is unlikely given the present evidence’ concluded Kreitzer (in Coggins and Houlden (eds) (1990) A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation

[5] Colossians 2.6

[6] Colossians 2.20

[7] Colossians 3.1

[8] Matthew 25.42 NRSV

[9] Ritchie, ibid