18th of the Year, 31 Jul 22
When I finished my A-Levels my father sat me down and was quite clear I wasn’t going to sit around the long school holidays doing nothing. I needed to find a job. He helped me write a CV - in fact he probably did most of the writing. He sent it off to various places which he thought might want a summer intern and where I would be fairly useful: churches, cathedrals, museums etc and there was only one reply, from Southwark Cathedral, near London Bridge, saying they had that very morning been saying they could do with some extra help. I got the job and, to cut a long story short, after two months I was offered a full time job so I delayed my start at University for a year. One of the frustrations for my father during that year of my working was that he was very keen that I should be saving money “How much money have you saved?” he would ask when I saw him, to which I gave the response echoed by teenagers throughout the ages, “Dunno.” He got so agitated about it. I think he thought I was lying and just didn’t want to tell him, but I really didn’t know. To be honest, I’m not sure I wanted to know because it probably wasn’t very much.
We all have to have some sort of relationship with money, whether we want to or not. Today Jesus tells the parable of the Rich Fool. There seems to be three things we can say about the Fool’s view of money and possessions: first, he knew how much he had. This in itself may not be a bad thing: especially when things are tight we need to have a record of where we are so we don’t get in to trouble financially, spending too much, but this can be taken to extremes. Checking each day how much is in our account or in our purse, a love of counting money, be it stuffed under the mattress or in our wallet. This can be a sign we enjoy with too great a relish the possession of money and we need to become distanced from it. Conversely, we can’t be so irresponsible as to switch off all awareness of our ability to pay our bills. The financially secure will sometimes put off knowing how much they have lest they feel guilty and need to do something charitable with their wealth.
The second thing we observe in the parable is that he had more than he needed: and it was more than in previous years hence he needed to build the barns. Most of us here today I would have thought are financially better off than our parents or grandparents, with greater assets and greater security and with a greater level of support from the state. But has that led us to be any happier? The danger with the human condition is we are geared towards becoming dissatisfied with what we have: “If only I had a bigger kitchen, or a slightly newer car, or a different coat.” Then, of course, we acquire it and we are not satisfied. The Tenth Commandment prohibiting enviousness or covetousness means we are to be on our guard against such desire for what we see others having.
The third thing to note is that the acquisition of more did not lead to a greater generosity on the part of the Fool but a more self-indulgent life style. He is full of self-congratulation, “My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy.” The abundance results in indolence, diminishing the joy and dignity of work. The purpose of the harvesting had ceased to be a sharing in God’s creativity but rather a means of the Fool doing nothing. It’s a perverse distorting of the relationship between the individual and work. The worker deserves a just pay, not so much that work becomes something that the individual does without. It can be tough when we find our jobs dissatisfying or stressful, but we should remind ourselves that it is in part through them that we are to share in the creativity of God.
What of retirement then? Well, we live in a society where we thank God the elderly are given pensions and other support when they are not able to work. It is right too that we save for our retirement when we have enough to do so but some future need does not justify a present-day miserliness or a neglect of our responsibilities. One skewering of our society at the moment is that the retired are so often not allowed to retire either because they have to work for longer or because once they are retired there is an expectation that they then become full time child-minders of their grandchildren. Many do it freely and with great delight, I know, but it is a change in society driven by financial pressures and demands and worth realising the ramifications of them.
And what of those with no work for any number of reasons? Well, in such circumstances we are called to continue to share in the creativity of God in different ways. We sew, we garden, we clean, we read, we paint, we draw, we sing, we play musical instruments, we write, we serve others, we cook, we care for the sick, we pray, we attend Mass, etc. the list could go on. Work isn’t just about being paid for something.
An important point within the parable is that the Fool saves his goods up for a day he doesn’t actually live to see. God says to him, “This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours whose will it be then?” Whose indeed. As the psalmist says, “Fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others,” (Psalm 49:10). We brought nothing in to the world and we take nothing out of the world, as Job observes, quoted also by St Paul (Job 1:21 and I Timothy 6:7). Part of our vocation to live well as Christians is to be ready to die today and to live until we’re eighty, ninety, a hundred plus years old.
In our Psalm earlier we heard the petition: “Make us know the shortness of our life that we may gain wisdom of heart.” There does seem to be an assumption in many people’s minds that folk should just keep on living. We will, of course, be sad when people die but it ought not to shock us. There is no pre-determined time of our death. God knows when we will die, as indeed He knows all things, but it is not predetermined otherwise that would diminish our capacity to make decisions about how to look after ourselves and the consequences of not doing so.
So, let’s think about inheritance, whom will we pass things on to? The billionaire Bill Gates not long ago said he was not leaving all his billions to his children because it would mean they ended up spoilt and entitled. It’s an admirable consideration, I think. That being said I can see why parents are adamant that it is to their children that their possessions go when they die. Well, the first thing to say is that it’s important that everyone has a will. Connected to this, we should make sure our funeral is planned and there are clear instructions. I can remember in particular one former member of the congregation at St Mary’s whose next of kin failed to appreciate the importance of a Funeral Mass in Church and so one was not organised by them. It was very sad indeed to see. Of course, I just got on with it anyway and we had a Requiem Mass for the person who had died.
The Church doesn’t have clear rules on inheritance as far as I am aware. On the one hand it seems to be part of natural expectation that children do inherit from their parents. There is a danger, however, that it puts slightly too much emphasis on individuals owning something rather than it being shared by the whole of creation. Private ownership of goods should always be a secondary good, second to the common destination of all goods, ie. a just sharing and common ownership of the world’s resources. I suspect there needs to be wisdom and discretion when making such decisions. If the next generation is sufficiently well off, or selfish, spoilt little whats-its, then it is probably not a good idea for them to receive more stuff they have not worked for. It’s tricky but the assumption of an inheritance is never a good basis for a relationship with money. Remember in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (St Luke 10:25-37) the fact that the son feels so entitled that he asks for a share of his inheritance early does not go well for him. He is proud with a sense entitlement, failing to be humble.
In our second reading from Colossians 3, we heard that we are to kill all these things that belong to the earthly life, including greed, and see our old nature stripped off. Rather, we are to realise our vocation to live up to the new self created when we died to sin in our baptism. It’s a life-long vocation and one which we live out faithfully through shedding things, not acquiring things. Hence Jesus says, “Do good and lend, expecting nothing in return,” (St Luke 6:35). One little story from the Acts of the Apostles, not particularly talked about a lot, reminds us too of the need to hold nothing back in our following of Jesus. There, Ananias and Saphhira sell their property so as to be able to give the money to the Apostles and thus live part of the shared life together. But they conspire and don’t give it all. They lie, Peter asserts, not just to the apostles but to God. Ananias drops down dead once the condemnation is pronounced. Be warned.
So may we be a people content to give away whatever we have. It’s a hard, hard call. May we discover afresh the joy of our work. May we know the shortness of our days on earth. One day we will worship God upon another shore and there find true light and true joy, neither of which will fade away. Amen.