Scripture for this Sunday: Hosea 11.1–11; Psalm 107.1–9, 43; Colossians 3.1–11; Luke 12.13–21 (parable of the ‘rich fool’)
In 1970, Kenny Rogers had a hit with a song called ‘The Gambler,’ whose refrain includes the lines, “You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table; there’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.” I’m sure that Jesus would have used this line in his parable about the rich fool, had it been available to him at the time. Or, more colloquially, he might have simply used the quip, “You can’t take it with you.”
The parable is about mortality and what is of value in life. John of the Cross said, “In the twilight of life, God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human successes, but on how well we have loved.” And how well we have loved has to include our relationship with all of the created order, including, but not exclusively, those with whom we have the closest, loving relationships, especially those in greatest need.
This week a guinea pig died. He was more than 8 years old, which is quite elderly for a guinea pig. He died quietly; he just went to sleep and didn’t wake up. He has been deeply grieved by a group of young people in Canada – and by me, too, since I brought him into our household. And he has given a number of people the opportunity to love and to love well, because he was indeed well loved and cared for. So I suppose that you could say that, by the standard of John of the Cross, he was an investment in being judged well by God.
But he was just a guinea pig. Not even a cat. Not a dog. Certainly not a horse. Just a humble guinea pig. Sometimes I feel a little guilty that we left our kids in Canada with enough, but not a lot. Their ability to create clutter on a limited budget is quite remarkable, but that’s not the point here. We left them with someone to care for, someone to love, and enough resources to get by. No need to build bigger barns for them. No, the bigger barn in this case is probably the storage unit in which we have stored stuff that we don’t use now, but might one day. But let’s set that aside for now. The point is, that the young people loved this small creature well – very well.
But what about the storage unit? I have to admit, that our family, like many human families, does become attached to ‘stuff,’ something that the late George Carlin used to parody satirically. As in, “A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.” And, “Storage! Imagine that. There’s a whole industry based on keeping an eye on other people’s stuff!” Well, indeed there is – a storage industry and an anxiety industry and a decluttering industry, all directed toward making it possible for us to relax, eat, drink, and be merry, like the rich man in the parable – with bigger barns to protect things we don’t really need.
It’s funny – until we line it up with Jesus’ parable, which at the time was probably funny, too – at least – right up until the point where God makes an entry into the story (note that God doesn’t make a personal appearance in many of Jesus’ parables). Because then God enters the scene and reveals the grim reality of mortality.
And then the dealing is done. And the time for counting comes. And what is counted is what John of the Cross said, not the accumulation of stuff in houses and storage units. I have a feeling that the loving kindness bestowed upon one small, dependent mammal will count for more than the entire contents of myriads of storage units.
The caring and kindness bestowed upon those in need, those who are unwell, those who are lonely, those who are afraid – all of that counts far more than any stuff that we can accumulate, any rules we feel obliged to follow blindly, and judgement we may feel justified in making about one another. For example, instead of passing judgement upon refugees, we might ponder how “loving well” applies in such a context. Here’s a hint: it doesn’t involve building bigger national or personal barns.
So do we really need a check list of nasty sins, if the real parameter of judgement is loving well? The letter to Colossians contains an impressive list of nasty sins that used to read like TV after 9pm, but now sounds like the daily news. In reality, the author simply wants to redirect the community of faith to loving well. But all those sins are not the primary cancer afflicting our society. That is apathy, or indifference.
Donald Trump famously said three years ago that he could shoot someone in cold blood in broad daylight in New York and people would still vote for him. Today, chillingly, that looks less like a caricature and more like a blunt reflection of the loss of moral standard amongst the American electorate. Certainly, I have to wonder what’s wrong with a society that bemoans the repeated shooting of people in public places, but does nothing other than offer thoughts and prayers. And don’t feel smug not to be American. Look at 10 Downing Street and wonder whether moral fibre counts any more.
Two fairly well-known quotes apply here. John Stuart Mill (1867): “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” And John Philpot Curran (1813): “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”
We are the hands and feet, the heart and mind of the body of Christ in the world today, so what are we doing? What are we not doing? What are we allowing to happen because we look on and do nothing? Where is our vigilance?
Are we simply building bigger barns, one way or another, or are we loving well? In the end, it is not for us to do the counting, nor is this the time. But the dealing is being done, and the best we can do is to try to play our hands as followers of Christ – loving well, as he did.
And if you really don’t know where to start with the process of loving well – then if you can’t think of anything else, go and buy a guinea pig. And then go home and sit and watch videos of Syrian refugees.