Hector Davie draws on all three lectionary readings (Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14; 2.18-23; Colossians 3.1-11; Luke 12.13-21) for this week’s blog.
Every year the newspapers here report the results of the various quality-of-life polls, and the Swiss scan them with enthusiasm. Have we been beaten by the Norwegians? Whatever are the Irish and the Icelanders doing there in the top ten? If we are not up near the top of the chart, the pollsters must surely be measuring the wrong things.
There is a strongly-held belief that material wealth is the main basis for a high standard of living, and the differences in wealth between countries, even within Europe, give rise to the idea that some nations are more developed than others. This is not a Christian view. We are not here for the money. It is easier, says Jesus, for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven. Even if Chesterton’s comment is true, that ‘modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle (and) biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel’, serving Mammon doesn’t mix with serving God.
Sculpture of the camel going through the eye of a needle in St Boniface Church, Dortmund.(Mathias Bigge [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D)
Indeed the Gospel may well be far more radical than we are willing to accept. Perhaps we should take our cue from the lilies of the field, cancel our insurance policies, cash in our pension funds and give the proceeds to the poor? Or is this just an example of Semitic thought, of seeing things in terms of black and white? Is the real message perhaps the same as that of the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.’?
The Reformers held equally radical views about wealth, but tempered them with their own thoughts about work. With the right ethic, as Max Weber famously pointed out, work can easily generate wealth and it is interesting that the three cities most associated with Swiss wealth are Zurich, Basle and Geneva – the cities of Zwingli, Erasmus and Calvin.
Our Gospel reading today, however, is not about work or wages. The voice from the crowd has not been working. The money in question comes from an inheritance. The brother refuses to share it. Surely that can’t be right. As with any domestic dispute, it was the done thing to go and ask the rabbi, and it was expected that the rabbi would decide the claim.
But Jesus, as often, does not give a direct answer. Instead, he tells a parable about a rich man and his crops – his life savings. The rich man’s response to wealth is simple: build a bigger barn and sit back, eat, drink and have fun. We’ve heard the story before (not least from Ecclesiastes!) Ecclesiastes does not condemn the merry-making – it is merely rather pointless, like most worldly things. The prophet who condemns it is Isaiah, and in quite a different context.
In Isaiah 22, Jerusalem is under siege, perhaps by Sennacherib, but after Judah is defeated the siege is lifted. The prophet calls for sackcloth and ashes, But the inhabitants use the opportunity to fortify the city wall, and then give themselves over to joy and festivity, eating and drinking. How mixed-up can their priorities be! They rejoice at their good fortune; but they neglect the God who guides their destiny.
This is the nub of Jesus’ reply. Why does the disgruntled figure from the crowd want the share of the inheritance? If you or I had Jesus in person in our midst – and we do – what would we do? Listen to his teaching? Seek his healing touch? Or pester him to take sides in a family dispute? The New Testament is full of advice on how to deal with disputes, but the underlying message is that disputes have no place in the powerful love of the redeemed community
So, as today’s epistle bids us, let us set our minds on things that are above, not on the earth. Not in the expectation that God will bless us materially, as God blessed Solomon in 1 Kings 3.13, or that we can lead a toil-free lily-like existence, for God does not work that way. Yet even if we repeatedly forget God, there is one reading today, from Hosea 11, that reminds us of anther truth – no matter how far we stray, now matter how far we neglect the things that are above, God never ceases loving us.
Many years ago, Hector Davie took advantage of the Church of England’s willingness ‘to pay to train a layman.’ He is a member of the congregation of St Ursula’s Church in Berne and tries to contribute regularly to communication within the parish and beyond.