Jesus was teaching and a man came and said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the family inheritance with me.”
This was not an inappropriate request. Part of the work of rabbis was to arbitrate conflicts between family members, neighbors, and coworkers.
But Jesus would not do it. Getting in the middle of family fights about inheritances was not on Jesus’ short list of the way he intended to spend his time on earth.
After saying no to the man, Jesus turned to the crowd he was teaching and he used the man’s request as a teachable moment.
He made a statement and then he told a story. The statement in one translation reads: “Take care! Be on guard against every form of greed, because one’s life does not depend upon one’s belongings, even when they are more than sufficient.” (Luke 12:15)
Jesus’ warning is specifically directed toward those of us who have more than we absolutely need. He says, “Be on guard against every form of greed,” –there is apparently more than one form of greed –“because one’s life does not depend upon one’s belongings, even when they are more than sufficient.” We need to be careful not to begin to suppose that our belongings give us life.
Then Jesus tells a story to illustrate his teaching. The story is about a rich farmer who has an unusually productive year. He doesn’t have enough space to contain his crops. So he tears down his barns and builds bigger ones. But that very night he dies. His new barns full of crops are no good to him at all. This is a tough story.
Jesus enjoyed partaking of the good things of life. So what Jesus has to say here is not about whether or not it is okay to live well. It is not a guilt trip. What Jesus is saying is that having more than we need makes us susceptible to a particular kind of delusion. The delusion is that having possessions and money to spend and being able to buy things takes away our vulnerability and mortality and susceptibility. The delusion is that our affluence somehow makes us safe and gives us security and power over our existence. The delusion is that our affluence saves us.
Let’s be realistic. There are things we can buy that make us more secure. Access to good health care does make us feel less vulnerable. Having a home makes us less vulnerable. Access to healthy food, education, therapy, safe neighborhoods – all these things that money can buy are good things, and they do make us less vulnerable and safer and they do make life better and we should try to make them available to more and more people. These things are not delusions.
But buying, owning, and amassing more than we need in order to cover over the anxiety of awareness within ourselves that we are mortal and finite is a delusion. And this is what we are in danger of doing. Be careful, says Jesus, your possessions do not give you life.
It is the temptation we all face – to try to deny the anxiety of our finitude, our mortality. Anything can happen at any time.
What if instead of masking it or trying to run away from it, we lived into it? What if every day when we begin our day we began with a ritual that said, one day I will die? It could be today. Anything can happen at any time. What can I do today to live a truly rich life, to be rich toward God? Not someday, when I have finished my education or have my dream job or have built up my pension or I am retired. How can I live a rich life today?