Gospel for the Eighteenth Sunday (31 July 2016)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable:
“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:13-21 – NRSV)
This text is unique to Luke though the fundamental theme of the parable – the call to the God -centred life – ie the Kingdom – which eschews all manner of greed and selfishness – permeates the Gospels. See for example Mathew 6:19-21 (“Do not store up treasures for yourself on earth .... ”) and Matthew’s account of the Last Judgment in 25:31-46. And of course Luke strongly emphasizes this theme – see for example 12:33-34 (“Sell all your possessions and give alms.”) and his story of the rich man and Lazarus in 16:19-31. The First Letter of John continues the same theme: “If a man who was rich enough in this world’s goods saw that one of his brothers was in need, but closed his heart to him, how could the love of God be living in him?” (1John 3:17)
Greed and avarice appear in the lists of vices found throughout the Christian Scriptures – see Mark 7:22, Romans 1:29, Ephesian 4:19 & 5:3 and Colossians 3:5. In the last mentioned reference avarice is identified quite simply with idolatry. In a sense greed mimics the never-quite-satisfied hunger for God in all of us. Greed thus transfers our yearning for God to a yearning for possessions. In doing this, it prompts us to displace God with ourselves. Greed thus misses the essential point that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”. One commentator writes: “The term pleonexia (“greed” or “avarice”) names the vice that always seeks more possessions: Plutarch says “pleonexia never rests from acquiring to pleon (‘more’).” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 198.)
In the Greek culture of the time we find something of the same stress on the shunning of greed. Diogenes Laertius, in The Life of Pythagoras, tells us: “(Pythagoras) was the first person, as Timaeus says, who asserted that the property of friends is common, and that friendship is equality. And his disciples used to put all their possessions together into one store, and use them in common.” (Chapter VIII. From The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius, translated by C.D. Yonge, Henry G. Bohn, 1853.
Josephus notes that the Essenes had similar ideals: “These men are despisers of riches, and so very communicative as raises our admiration. Nor is there any one to be found among them who hath more than another; for it is a law among them, that those who come to them must let what they have be common to the whole order,—insomuch, that among them all there is no appearance of poverty or excess of riches, but every one’s possessions are intermingled with every other’s possessions: and so there is, as it were, one patrimony among all the brethren.” (Wars of the Jews, 2:122)
The late first century Christian text, The Didache, along with a lengthy list of behaviours to be avoided, lists greed: “You shall not be greedy or avaricious”. (M W Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations (updated edition), 2:6, Baker Books, 1999, 253.)
A Christian man called Justin – one of a group martyred by the Roman authorities in 165 – writes in defense of the Christians: “Those who are prosperous and who so wish, contribute, each one as much as he or she chooses to. The collection is deposited with the president (of the Eucharistic liturgy) who will take care of the orphans and widows, those who are in want on account of sickness or any other cause, those who are in prison, and the strangers sojourning among us, in a word, he (ie the one who presides at the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup) is the guardian of all who are in need.” (St Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67.)
Gregory the Great – Bishop of Rome, died in 604 – noted in a homily on the rich man and Lazarus: “The rich man here is not blamed for stealing the goods of others, he is blamed for not parting with his own.” (St Gregory the Great, “Homily on the Rich Man and Lazarus,” from his Homilies on the Gospels, 40:3.)
The extraordinarily rich and creative tradition of monasticism and the vowed (religious) life in Christianity are ongoing expressions of this same theme. In fact it is probably fair to say that the only people who have successfully lived the “communist ideal” have been people with some kind of religious motivation – and that includes tribal groups.
The 4th century saw a radical shift however. Whilst the Gospel ideal indicated in the foregoing may have been kept alive in some parts of the Christian community, it was quickly overtaken in other parts after the advent of Constantine. Historian Peter Brown writes:
“What Constantine and his successors had brought to the Christian churches as peace, wealth, and above all, the ability to build up, at a surprising rate, a strong local position. Constantine faced an institution that had already shown itself able to mobilise and redistribute wealth for religious causes. He emerged as a Christian donor of overpowering generosity. The great basilica churches (true ‘royal halls’, as the name basilica, from basileus, ‘king’, implies) that he set up in Rome (Saint Peter’s and San Giovanni in Lateran), at Antioch (a large, golden-domed octagon opposite the newly built palace quarter across the Orontes), and, above all, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, were sermons in stone. They spoke more loudly of the providential alliance of the Church and Empire than did any imperial edict or the theorizing of any bishops. .... Such buildings made palpable the emergence of a new style of urban leadership. Bishops and clergy received immunities from taxes and from public services. In each city, the Christian clergy became the one group to expand rapidly, at a time when the strain of empire had brought other civic associations to a standstill. Bound by oath to ‘their’ bishop, a whole hierarchy of priests, deacons and minor clergy formed an ordo in miniature, as subtly graded as any town-council, and as tenaciously attached to its privileges. Constantine expected that the bishop would act as exclusive judge and arbiter in cases between Christians, and even between Christians and non-Christians. Normal civil litigation had become prohibitively expensive. As a result, the bishop, already regarded as the God-like judge of sin among believers, rapidly became an Ombudsman of an entire local community. Imperial supplies of food and clothing turned the ferociously inward-looking care of Christian fellow-believers for each other, that had characterized an earlier age, into something like a public welfare system, designed to alleviate, and to control, the urban poor as a whole. In a world where .... the business of administration had always been delegated, at a local level, in such a manner as to mobilize a wide variety of participants, the emergence of the Christian clergy as a privileged and ambitious local group was a decisive change: for it took place in an area that affected the entire structure of the Roman Empire.” (Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity AD200-1000, Blackwell Publishers, 1996, 38-39.)
“Teacher, tell my brother ....”: Jesus is approached as a Rabbi, to apply Torah concerning an inheritance. See Deuteronomy 21:15–17 and Numbers 27:1–11; 36:7–9. Jesus is effectively saying: “I am not a Rabbi; I am not here to teach or apply Torah; I am here to proclaim the Kingdom”.
all kinds of greed: The Greek word pleonexia (“greed” or “avarice”) names the vice where enough is never enough. One commentator notes that “Plutarch says ‘pleonexia never rests from acquiring to pleon (‘more’)’”. .... It is prominently featured in NT vice-lists (Mark 7:22; Rom 1:29; Eph 4:19; 5:3). Colossians 3:5 flatly identifies pleonexia with idolatry, an equation having much truth.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 198.)
thought to himself: The Greek word dialogizomai (διαλογίζομαι) – literally meaning to reason, consider, ponder, is used in a pejorative sense by Luke. See see 2:35; 5:21–22; 6:8; 9:46–47. Johnson remarks: “Given the fact that the protagonist of the story has already been identified as a ‘rich man’ (and therefore a negative character in Luke’s taxonomy”, we should translate with the English word “calculated” rather than simply “thought”. (Johnson, op cit, 199.)
relax, eat, drink, be merry: A catch phrase to describe the hedonistic approach to life, divorced from the expectation of future life or judgment. See Qoheleth 8:15 and Tobit 7:10. See also Isaiah 22:13, “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” and its citation by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:32. Luke will shortly condemn a life devoted to such pursuits, 12:29. This is all summed up beautifully by Luke a few verses on: “And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (12:29-34) In other words, the true source of peace – “relax” – is not found in possessions but in the Kingdom of God which comes to us as gift rather than achievement.
In Luke 10:38-42 – the Gospel for the Sixteenth Sunday – we heard Martha ask Jesus to sort things out with her sister Mary. Jesus’ response is to invite Martha – gently but firmly – to reflect on herself. In today’s Gospel, “someone in the crowd” asks Jesus to sort things out with his brother for not dividing “the family inheritance” with him – see Luke 12:13-21. Again, Jesus invites the man to think about his own life and what he really values.
Jesus has not come among us as a problem solver or even as a moralist. He does not tell us the way, he is the way. He is the embodiment of God in our midst. He offers us his very life that we too might live beyond the superficial and the insubstantial, that we might become who we are as God’s creation through him, with him and in him.
In order to receive what is on offer here, we must choose to respond, making ourselves available, getting out of the way, as Meister Eckhart says. And greed certainly gets in the way!
In the Book of Acts, Luke notes that “the whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; no one claimed for his own anything that he had, as everything they owned was held in common” (4:32). This description of the first believers in Acts remains to this day a primary reference point and even a template for Christian living. St Clement of Rome – referred to by both Irenaeus and Tertullian as Bishop of Rome (88 – 99) – wrote: “In Christ Jesus, then, we must preserve this corporate body of ours in its entirety. We must each be subject to our neighbour, according to our special gifts. The strong are not to ignore the weak, and the weak should respect the strong. The rich must provide for the poor, and the poor should thank God for giving them someone to meet their needs.” (St Clement of Rome, First Letter to the Corinthians, 38:1-2.)
A story from the Desert Fathers is instructive: “One of the monks called Serapion, sold his book of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: ‘I have sold the book which told me to sell all that I had and give to the poor’.” (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, New Directions, 1960, 37.)
The Society of Mary (Marist Fathers) is one of hundreds of institutes in the Catholic Church offering people the possibility of living a life where nothing is owned by the individual, everything is shared in common. The Founder of the Marist Fathers, Fr Jean Claude Colin (1790-1875) often quoted Luke 4:32: “cor unum et anima una” – the first disciples were of “one mind and one soul”. He also was strong in his warnings concerning the temptations inherent in the three forms of power – the power of money, decision-making and personal prestige.