Monday, August 1, 2022

"I Never Saw this Coming!"


Luke 12:13-21

Proper 13/Year C

Someone in the crowd shouts out a request: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  Not the type of thing one should broach in a public setting, it may just be the oddest and most awkward thing anyone ever asks of Jesus.  For his part, Jesus’ reaction is swift and visceral: “Who appointed me to be a judge over you?” 

And then he turns to those gathered and says, “Be on guard against all kinds of greed.  There is so much more to life than having a lot of stuff.”  To underscore his point, Jesus then tells a parable about a rich man.

Turns out, the person Jesus describes is the epitome of the American dream.  His business thrives.  He is able to upscale his living arrangements while at the same time saving enough for his retirement.  To borrow the language from last Sunday’s collect, he has mastered things temporal.  All well and good, but in the process he has disregarded the things eternal.

Evidence of this is found in the phrases “he thought to himself,” “I will do this,” “I will do that,” “I will say to my soul…”  His life is a monologue.  No other voice is considered.  No other perspective is pondered.  He is not concerned with what his family might need.  He does not contemplate how he might be of benefit to the wider community.  And most certainly, he never asks what God might be calling him to do.

This week I came across a painting of today’s parable by James B. Janknegt.  You can see it in your bulletin.  The rich man, balding and slightly overweight, is alone in his house feasting on a meal when death comes calling.  In the tiny house next door, a family of eight sits around a table with few provisions, but they are happy.  Framing the scene, the artist depicts the rich man’s house when it was the size of his neighbors, shows it being bulldozed, and then rebuilt as a two-story mansion, compete with a living room and master bedroom.  Also in the frame are renderings of the rich man’s many possessions; things like household appliances, a cellphone, a laptop, and a treadmill.  If you look closely in the living room, you will see a piece of artwork.  It is a statue of a person who, tellingly, does not have a heart.  Notice in the frame’s bottom left-hand corner the rich man’s house is for sale.  He has died and all his possessions will soon belong to someone else. 

Mastering the temporal while losing the eternal.  Jesus puts it this way: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  If only someone in the audience had asked a follow-up question: “How does one go about becoming rich toward God?”

That you are here this morning tells me neither the Chinese rocket part falling from the sky landed on you nor did you win the Mega Lottery drawing over the weekend.  Even if you didn’t buy a ticket, my guess is you spent at least a little bit of time fantasizing about what you would do if you won all that much money.  I know I did.  The occasional daydream about money is one thing, obsessing about it is another.

Kathleen Vohs holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and has a specific interest in the psychological effects of money.  It began for her when she noticed subtle changes in herself once she was out a grad school and earning a living.  For example, she stopped asking friends for rides to the airport and began to take a taxi.  “It was really weird,” she told a reporter.  [Having money] “ends up changing the way you live your life in ways that are not totally expected.  You don’t make a ton of money, you’re not on yachts or other things, but you start making different choices.”  She summed up the changes in her life in this way, “I became more independent and less interdependent.”

Through various experiments involving thousands of subjects, Vohs has concluded people with money on their minds are self-sufficient, self-focused, and anything but selfless.  She states, “In all of our experiments, people who are focused of money are really good at pursuing goals, but they’re not that interpersonally kind or warm.  They’re kind of standoffish, keeping in their own head, not interested in being friends with anyone.”  It is not that they are completely antisocial, actively pushing people away.  She says they are “siloed”, insolated.  “What you get,” she says, “are highly motivated people who are not very socially sensitive.”

Vohs points out she is not talking about wealthy people per se, but about those who are chasing wealth to the near exclusion of everything else in life.  Some wealthy people, she notes, don’t think about money much at all.  They may have money – and lots of it – but it is not their focus.  Sure, it enriches their lives, but it is not what makes them rich.  They would be just as content sitting in Janknegt’s home with the table of eight as in a mansion.  On the other hand, Vohs says there are people of low or modest means who are impoverished, not because of what they lack, but because of their incessant, relentless focus on getting ahead.  Money, and making it, is all they have on their mind.     

Vohs’ research serves to highlight Jesus’ exquisite understanding of human nature.  His character in today’s parable exhibits all of what Vohs has learned through her work.  He is rich in things, but not enriched.  In a world crafted by God to be a dialogue – with one another and with the Divine – his life, as I said, is a monologue. 

There is an ancient saying which holds this: “Everything you have seen, every flower, every bird, every rock will pass away and turn to dust, but that you have seen them will not pass away.”  Something in this holds a partial clue of what it means to be “rich toward God.” 

It bids us to ponder two questions.  First, what do you see… truly see?  And second, what blinds you… occupies your vision to the exclusion of everything else?  Or, it may be you are not blinded, but wrestling with distraction.  It might be greed.  It may be something else.  The rich man never saw anything other than his possessions.  Far be it for me to suggest a better ending to any of Jesus’ parables, but I humbly offer this: After death comes to him, the rich man says to himself, “Well, I never saw this coming!” 

What do you see?