Does anyone know what this is? Yes, it’s a pie slice – but is more than that. This is a legacy, and inheritance. When my gran died, my mum inherited some of Gran’s things and she asked me and my sister if there were any mementoes that we would like. I had a look through them, and asked for a couple of things, including this pie slice. There’s nothing particularly special about it, no intrinsic value, so why did I ask for this. Well, two things really.
Firstly, my Gran was famous for her baking and her cakes. She won the annual cake and produce competition at the local Point of Ayr show so many years in a row, they eventually gave her the shield to keep. And secondly, it would be useful – we didn’t have a pie slice, so I knew that it would get used, and that when it was I would remember Gran and her love and generousity. I wonder if there is anything that you have that reminds you of somebody, and what they meant to you, that marks their legacy to you.
Today’s reading from Luke’s historical account of the good news of Jesus’ life begins with a question about a legacy, about an inheritance. But it sounds like the conversation about this inheritance had not been as positive as the ones that I had with my Mum and Gran’s legacy. It’s sadly not unusual for conflict to arise in families around inheritances, which is one of the reasons why it’s a good idea to have an up-to-date will, and to have conversations with your family about any legacies before you die. Anyway. In this case it seems that there was a dispute between the brothers about who should inherit what.
Now, their were fairly clear rules set out in the Old Testament law about who should inherit what. This was particularly important in a culture where there was such a strong link to the land. The covenant promises of God to the people of God in the Old Testament were to give them, and their children, a land where they could live and prosper. We are not told whether the dispute here was because the other brother had failed to comply with the laws of inheritance, or if this brother wanted to claim more than his fair share, all we know is that there is a dispute, and this man has come to Jesus for a ruling, a judgement, against his brother.
To be fair to the man, this in itself was not an unreasonable request. One of the things that rabbis of the time did was to give their opinion about ethical dilemmas and disputes concerning the application of the law. The fact that the man is asking for a judgement against his brother, without stating the facts of the case may be against him, but the general principle of asking a rabbi for an opinion was sound.
However, when you asked a Rabbi for an opinion, especially Jesus, sometimes you get more than you bargained for. And this was surely the case here. Jesus didn’t ask for the facts of the case, or invite the brothers to lay their arguments before him. Instead he addressed the root cause of their dispute. He warned the man about the dangers of covetousness – greed for what someone else has. And this is a strong warning – take heed and beware he says. In other translations it says, “watch out – be on your guard.” These are strong words. This is not a passive, “keep a bit of an eye out for”. This is an active attentiveness and looking out for.
It’s the attitude we should have towards a contagion. What do we do when there’s a TB or bird flu outbreak. Stockholders are on the lookout for symptoms. Precautions are taken against contagion getting onto the farm. Disinfectant baths at the gates. Birds taken under cover. This is the kind of vigilance that Jesus is talking about with regard to greed, coveting, wanting what someone else has.
And why is this vigilance so important? Why should we keep a careful watch over ourselves for any indications that greed is gaining a foothold? Because life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Our lives are not made up of the things that we have.
Jesus goes on to tell a parable to illustrate this, a story of a wealthy landowner whose land produced a bumper harvest.
The first thing I want to point out here is that Jesus does not criticise the man for having land, or for having a bumper crop. The level of his income wasn’t the problem here.
The second thing to note is that Jesus doesn’t criticise him for having barns. Having storage spaces for harvest is a normal and sensible thing to have. In fact, in other places in the Bible, God commends the building of barns.
Cast your mind back to the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. Joseph of the many-coloured coat fame. After a number of misadventures (read Genesis 37 onwards for the full story) Joseph ended up in Egypt, interpreting a dream for Pharaoh. In the dream seven thin cows had eaten up seven fat cows. With God’s inspiration, Joseph had discerned that this dream foretold seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. He advised Pharaoh to build storehouses in the years of plenty and set aside grain to be eaten in the years of famine. Pharaoh approved the plan, and put Joseph in charge of putting it into practice. Joseph did this, and so was in place to provide food to his family when their country was hit by the famine as well.
Or, from a completely different type of writing, we can go to Proverbs, chapter 6:
“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.”
So, the problem isn’t the income that the man enjoys, and it isn’t about having barns to store the harvest.
So if that’s not what it’s about, what is it about?
Well, let’s count the, “my’s” in verses 17-19 “my crops”, “my barns”, “my grain”, “my goods”, “my soul”. That’s a lot of “my’s”
And here we find the problem. The landowner thinks that everything is his, and wants to keep it. The crops, the grain, the goods, they are only his in the sense that they grew on the land that he owned. But the land was given to him, or his ancestors, by God, as a result of the covenant promise God made to Abraham. He was very unlikely to have done any of the labour – ploughing, planting, weeding, reaping – that led to the harvest. He didn’t cause the rain to fall or the sun to shine. So, the sense in which any of it was actually his was slight. It was all gift, and what did he do with this gift? Was he moved by the generosity of God to him, to be generous to others, to share out what he’d received? No – he just planned to build bigger barns.
And then he discovered the extent to which the goods weren’t his. He died and found that he couldn’t take it with him. There are no pockets in a shroud. All that he had hoarded for his own pleasure would be shared out, and he would enjoy none of it.
But, even more profoundly, he discovered that his life, his soul wasn’t his either. It also was a gift, entrusted to him, and that an accounting of his use of it could be demanded at any time, night or day. This is why it is so important to be on guard for the signs and symptoms of greed or covetousness in our hearts and minds. It is as hazardous to our lives and souls as a TB or bird flu outbreak might be to a stockholder.
So, how do we do this, what practically can we do? Well, Jesus’ teaching isn’t short of practical examples. As we read on in Luke 12, we come to verses 33 and 34
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail.”
In Matthew 16, we find this.
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? “
1 Timothy 6:
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
Also Luke 6
Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
Keeping a guard against greed is all about a reorientation of perspective. It’s about seeing that there is very little that we can truly say, “my” about. Everything we have is a gift from God – we are created by God, redeemed by God, given life by God, given things to enjoy and to share by God.
As we gain that perspective, as we see more and more clearly God’s boundless generosity to us, so we will respond with generousity to others.
As we do this, we discover that we will leave a lasting legacy in the lives of those around us, one that will have a much deeper impact than any physical wealth we might pass on. We also discover that we are storing up kingdom treasure, treasure that we can enjoy now, and that we can take with us – that we can enjoy for all eternity.
The today is the feast day of St Ignatius of Loyola, and I’m going to finish with a prayer that he wrote:
“”Take, Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my whole will, all that I have and all that I possess. You gave it all to me, Lord; I give it all back to you. Do with it as you will, according to your good pleasure.”