23 November 2014
Note: the word "fool" here is not "more," the word the Lord uses in Matthew when he says, "Whoever calls his brother 'fool' shall be liable to hell fire." The word here is "aphron," which means more literally, "unthinking."
“You fool.” They were probably the last two words he ever expected to hear of himself. He was careful with his assets, crafty in his dealings. At a time when few could consider retirement, he had arrived. He told himself, “Soul, take your rest; you have goods laid up for many years. Eat, drink, be merry.” He had climbed the ladder of success, and was about to reach its top.
But just there was the problem. He had climbed the wrong ladder. And now he heard God’s judgment: “You fool! This night your soul will be required of you; and who will enjoy all the things you have gained?” Then the Lord concludes, “So is he who lays up treasures for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
It would be easy to read these words and see them applying to someone else—a Donald Trump, say, or a Bill Gates. They, after all, have lots of money. Like the man in today’s story, they’ve reached the heights of the ladder of success.
But the Lord does not condemn the rich man because he reached the top of the ladder. He condemns the rich man because he climbed the wrong ladder. And whether our bank account is full or we struggle to make the next paycheck, we’re all alike in danger of that same condemnation if we’re climbing that same ladder.
How can you tell if you’re on that ladder? Listen to what the rich man said. “Soul, take your rest; you have goods for many years.” He thought his life consisted in his possessions. Do we?
Do we feel more secure when our bank balance is higher, and less alive when it’s not? Do we think, “If only I could gather more, then I could really live?” Are we elated when stocks rise, and depressed when they fall? Those are warning signs, my friends. They suggest that we might be climbing the wrong ladder. We’re not thinking right if we think that life is something yet to come.
Moses says that we are like grass. Grass is beautiful, but it lasts only a day. “In the morning it flourishes and grows up; In the evening it is cut down and withers.” The fact is, tomorrow never comes. You and I are alive but one day: today. Let us not be always getting ready to live, and never living.
When we lived in Canada we had a landlord named N___ P_____. We told him what a beautiful house it was we were renting, and he told us his story. He had married a nurse. They planned to work full time and pay off the house early, so that they could retire early and enjoy life. Then she got breast cancer, and died. “Don’t put off your life together!” he told Cindy and me. To live in the future is not to live at all.
The man also thought that he was master of his possessions. They were his, and he could do with them what he wanted. And they were his—but he was God’s! He didn’t own himself.
We may say that we own things, but we really don’t. What we call “owning” is just the right to use them as we see fit. God puts his things into our hands, and gives us more than we need, so that he can test us. They don’t belong to us. They, and we, belong to God.
The holy fathers teach us that we make progress in the path of holiness when we keep two things in remembrance: death, and God. Those thoughts are like the guardrails that keep us on the path. When we remember death, we learn to humble our pride; when we remember God, we learn not to despair.
For the God we remember is the God who spoke these words: enfleshed God, our Lord Jesus Christ. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who, though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” He emptied himself to fill us; he bore our sins to redeem us; he endured the cursed death of the cross that he might freely give us the blessed life of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Beloved, the tasks God sets out for this parish are great. None of them can be done if we climb the wrong ladder. They can only happen if we give up trying to be rich for ourselves, and learn, as Christ calls us to learn in this text, to be rich toward God.