|12 The Rich Fool - November 18, 2007|
In the parable of this morning’s Gospel, I am drawn to the word of the Lord to the rich man as he leans back in self-satisfaction after having accumulated so much wealth that he feels he can spend the rest of his life in ease, eating and drinking and making merry: “Fool!” – which, in the Greek, is even “richer”: “You stupid, unthinking one with no understanding or sense! This very night” – and now I translate directly from the Greek – “they will demand back your soul that was entrusted to you by God.!” In other words, there is something even more precious than silver and gold that we possess; something that we have had from the beginning of our existence long before we began to acquire any silver or gold, something that we have whether we are rich or poor. It is our soul, our life; but the meaning of the verb in the Greek means that our soul doesn’t belong to us, it isn’t ours to do with as we please. That’s why it will be demanded back from us, as though it has been entrusted to us by someone else. The very way in which the rich man addresses his soul – “I will say to my soul,” is how it would be translated directly from the Greek – indicates that somehow the rich man in his “ego” identity is distinguished from his soul that makes him to live, as though his soul, his life isn’t his but belongs to another. And so it does. It belongs to God, and it was entrusted to us by God to do something with it. You may also have noticed that when I went directly to the Greek, I translated the verb as, “they will demand to have back your soul that was entrusted to you by God” instead of: “your soul will be required of you.” The text in the Greek is much more ominous than the English translations. “They” could be either the angels who will come to collect your soul that belongs rightfully to God; or they could be the dark spirits who will gather round your body and demand to have your soul because you gave it to them by chasing after the riches of the world, “walking according to the aeon or the life of this world, according to the one who rules the powers of the air that even now is working in the sons of disobedience.”
Perhaps now you begin to feel the force of what the Lord says next to the rich fool. We might paraphrase it like this to bring out its meaning: “And when you stand before the judgment, with the dark spirits and the angels of God clamoring to the just Judge for the rights to your soul, tell me – all of these earthly riches you have acquired for yourself – how will they save you? Do you think that the angels of God or the dark spirits have any use for silver and gold that perishes? What they want is your heart; they want your life.” One thinks immediately of the Lord’s words: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” We show by the kind of riches we chase after and live for where our heart is, where we want to be. “So, when you stand before the just Judge, what will the riches you have acquired in this life tell the just Judge about where you want to spend eternity: with his holy angels or with the spirits of darkness?”
Precisely because God is love, he is Judge. Love does not force itself on anyone; if it did, it would not be love. As love, God gives us exactly what we want, according to his righteous judgment. If we have devoted the energy of our life to acquiring the riches of this world, gold and silver, fame and glory, then we have shown that we do not want the riches of God; and as love, God won’t force them on us.
We only fool ourselves if we think we love God as we should and that we are not immersed in love for the perishable wealth of this world. So, let me devote a minute or two to a description of the heavenly riches of God the bible calls on us to pursue rather than the riches of the world, as a way of fanning in our hearts the ember of desire for the heavenly riches of God over the perishable riches of silver and gold. I would then like to offer concrete ways by which we can begin to put a desire for God’s riches into action.
The life given to us by God in the beginning was his own breath: “And God breathed into Adam’s face the breath of life, and Adam became a living soul.” The biblical understanding of man is that he lives by what he eats – and so God, having brought man into being and given him life, gave him to eat from every tree in the Garden, including the Tree of Life. From our liturgical texts, we are taught to see the Tree of Life as the Cross, and Christ as the fruit that the living tree of the Cross carries like a cluster of grapes full of life. Identifying the Tree of Life with the Cross tells us that the way we approach the Tree of Life to partake of its fruit is by turning away so as not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The life that grows from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil comes from the dust and returns to the dust. Its fruit is death. The life that grows from the Tree of Life is the very Word of God himself. As the life of God, its fruit is the eternal life of the Spirit that partakes of the unsearchable riches of God. It is not good and evil but good and very good: effervescent, beautiful, brimming like a gurgling mountain brook with divine life, breathing the Breath of the Eternal as clean and pure and bracing as crisp mountain air.
As the fruit of the Word of God, the fruit of the Tree of Life is given also in the word of his teaching, his commandments and his precepts. The teachings and commandments of God are filled with God himself. They are words of light and life; so that he who lives by the commandments of God walks in the light as he is in the light. Indeed, according to the Proverbs, he who pursues the Wisdom of God and finds her receives a “treasure that is better than silver or gold. She is more precious than jewels. Long life is in her right hand (this, we might say, drawing from the imagery of St Irenaeus who likens the Son and the Spirit as the right and left hands of the Father, is the Son of God that was born of her); in her left hand are riches and honor (the eternal life of the Holy Spirit). Her ways are ways of beauty; all her paths go forth in peace; and all those who lay hold of her become a tree of life.”
We have all sinned; there is none who is righteous, no not one. The Orthodox Church shows us the beauty and goodness of God with such vividness that we spontaneously confess from our heart that “we are the first of all sinners. We have squandered the life that God has entrusted to us in laziness and idle living. Too long have we been sated with the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud. But there is forgiveness with thee.” This is the hope of those who follow Christ.
The God of love is a Judge of righteousness and mercy. We see that we have sinned, that we have not used the life he entrusted to us to acquire heavenly riches; but we also see “how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who proclaims the Gospel, our Lord Jesus Christ.” In that vision there is born in our hearts desire for the riches of God; the more we give our hearts to the pursuit of those riches, the more we desire them. And God gives to us what we want in our heart.
The first step, then, in becoming rich in God is to want God in our heart. Reflect on what your heart truly desires: the riches of silver and gold that cannot save us from death, or the riches of the Spirit, in which we can grow in Christ into the image and likeness of God? The next step is to become a student of the Lord’s commandments in order to begin walking in them; to come down, like Zaccheus, from the tree of good and evil, the tree of this worldly life, and begin making our way from our belly to our heart and to the Tree of Life that grows there as it grows in the Garden, in order to eat with Christ and his bride, his Holy Church, at the Eucharistic table. This means pursuing the riches of humility by acknowledging and confessing our sins, renouncing greed and laying hold of kindness and goodness and mercy in the way we engage our neighbors and even our enemy. It also means that we become conscious of how we manage our material resources: our money, our silver and our gold. We are permitted, even commanded, in the bible, to use our worldly wealth to take care of our needs and those of our family. St Paul exhorts those in his churches to work with their own hands that they not make themselves a burden to anyone. He goes so far as to say that he who does not provide for the needs of his own family is not worthy to be called a Christian. But he also commands us to give of the wealth we acquire beyond our needs to those who are in need.
As we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ on Christmas Day, in whom are the unsearchable riches of God’s grace, we can pray with the Proverbs, that God’s Holy Wisdom would remove far from us falsehood and lying; that he would give us neither poverty nor riches, but that he would feed us with the food that is needful for us, the Living Bread of Christ our God. And, with St Paul we can pray: May Christ God grant us, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened through his Spirit in the inner man, that our hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery in Christ, and that God will supply our every need according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. Amen.