Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 31 July 2016 (18th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23; Psalm 90:3-6, 12-14, 17; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21 (find the readings here)
The man who speaks up from the crowd to interrupt Jesus with his pressing request – “Tell my brother to give me a share of our inheritance” – calls Jesus ‘Teacher’, but I wonder how much of what Jesus had been saying he had really heard. His thoughts were too snarled up in anxiety and anger about not getting a share of his father’s estate. We don’t know if his claim is legitimate or not, and Jesus doesn’t ask. He pointedly refuses to be drawn into this fight. His first words rebuff, refusing to take sides. Jesus refuses the invitation to side with one brother against the other and so contribute to the resentment and discord threatening to tear this family apart. Jesus sidesteps this dance of anger and enters the situation a different way, through the story of the rich man whom God names ‘Fool’.
It isn’t his farming skills or business sense which earns him that unflattering title. It is his splendid but isolated life. Notice how many times the rich man says ‘I” in the story. Also notices whom he talks to – no one but himself. Even his anticipated celebration is probably a party for one. And even if there were to be guests, they would not attend as friends so much as sycophants and envious witnesses to his success. He is the man the sage in the first reading describes, the one so busy working and amassing wealth that he has forgotten to ask “for whom am I labouring?” I wonder who went to the rich man’s funeral?
St Paul tells us to set our minds on heavenly things, not earthly. But ‘spiritual’ people can live like the rich fool, splendidly isolated, though the ‘wealth’ that surrounds them may be their spiritual practices and attendant self-righteousness. When Paul describes ‘earthly’ things, he speaks of evil desires, lying to one another, taking advantage of others, and greed. If our lives are oriented toward God, then they are characterised by the opposite – generosity, desires and passions that promote human flourishing, honesty, and love.
The psalm reminds us to ‘number our days aright’. Anticipation of death can put things in perspective and teach us wisdom. It can remind us of what is really important. What would Mr Fool have done if he was being rich in what matters to God? Would he have hoarded his wealth for his own benefit? And to return to the man, someone’s brother, who asked Jesus to intervene on the matter of the inheritance. What else was as stake here, besides money or land? What other possibilities were there, what alternatives to the destruction that inheritance disputes can wreak on families? Wisdom would take that path.