The rich fool might have known that he was a rich fool when he realized that his biggest preoccupation was with how to store his extra possessions.
If that didn’t tip him off, the rich fool might have known he was a rich fool when he spent so much time talking to himself instead of to other people. He might have noticed how stagey he was, asking himself questions filled with clunky exposition: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” It sounds like a bad play. And then he might have heard his own tone when he was supplying his own handy answers: “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” This not only allowed him to be a self-centered hoarder, it allowed him to be the hero of his own boring little story of hoarding. He might have noticed that he was applauding himself for coming up with solutions to his own problems. Dull.
You know, you can tell you’re really a rich fool when you not only talk to yourself, but you talk to your own soul. You address it as “Soul” (“Soul, you have ample goods stored up for many years: relax.”) Yes, you tell your soul to relax. In fact, you tell it to eat and drink, which souls don’t do. It seems you’ve confused your friend “Soul” with that other nice friend, “Body.” What you don’t have is an actual friend, someone to interrupt the little success story you’re telling yourself. Or someone outside your own head with whom you can actually eat, drink, and be merry.
It’s easy enough to see that the rich fool wants too much wealth, power, control, and self-satisfaction. It’s easy enough to see that he can’t acknowledge the possibility of death. But let’s go out on a limb this morning and test another possibility: that the rich fool simply doesn’t want enough.
St. Paul tells us that greed is idolatry, and that’s crucial to hear. Greed is worshipping something that has no life in it. Greed is making sacrifices to an inanimate object. Now most of us would hesitate to bow down and offer sacrifice to a lifeless object, but we do live in a world that demands bitter sacrifice all the time: unrelenting perfectionism, status, a professional reputation, our brand. Perpetual mobilization. It may not even be our greed—we may just be trying to carve out a place for ourselves in a tough economy—but to get along in this world we are likely to be asked to sacrifice to someone’s greed as if it were in fact a god.
So I don’t want to let this rich fool off the hook too easily. He is certainly greedy, and I don’t have to tell you that greed is eating away at everything we care about. I want to distinguish, though, between this flat, self-centered, unimaginative greed (“What will I do? I know, I will build a barn.”) and true desire.
Imagine if the rich fool had known true desire. Imagine if he had a little hunger in him for something that actually showed him the face of God. Not a barn full of dead possessions, but a life full of love and paradox and aching need and rich satisfaction.
Imagine that fool lying on his bed at night, troubled by the poverty of other people, hungry for a world in which no one was turned away from the table. Think of the joy the next day might bring, as he learned to give and to welcome others. Imagine that he craves justice, or beauty, or forgiveness. I think I’d settle for a vision of this rich fool picking up a book and wondering what’s in it.
Imagine what it would look like if, in a fit of distinctly anachronistic self-care, the rich fool decided that he actually wanted his soul to eat or drink. Instead of telling his soul to go nosh on something in that odd offhand way he uses, he could issue a real invitation. “Come to brunch with me!” he might say. “Let’s see what happens when the body and the soul and the mind sit down together to enjoy a feast!” Again, I admit that this is a new-age idea that would have sounded funny to Jesus, but I suspect God might prefer even warm-hearted self-preoccupation to the flat, dry, dull folly of our rich hero.
Is it possible, in this world full of towering heaps of stuff, that we simply don’t want enough? Is it possible that we don’t want the frozen expanse of the Arctic, that we can’t bring ourselves to love polar bears? That a beautiful, pristine ocean not filled with plastic is not enough to spark our imaginations? Don’t we love good schools and flourishing communities? Are we inured to the beautiful faces of the tiny children of immigrants on our southern border? Wouldn’t the blessings of peace be something to celebrate? Wouldn’t you love to luxuriate in justice?
This morning, I found myself perturbed that I had to revise this sermon to register that there had been two mass shootings in this country on Saturday. I was shocked and horrified, of course, but also perturbed, and I felt guilty. But it is occurring to me now that the real trouble is that I am not perturbed enough. I would tell anyone that I love gathering with you here on a Sunday morning in worship, that I love God and the liturgy and the church. But maybe I don’t love them enough if I can adjust my expectations to include a threat against peaceful public assembly.
Do we love each other, friends and strangers, enough to build a society in which it’s possible to gather in peace? People of all races and genders and ethnicities, unafraid that we will be targeted by violence? I can’t stand in front of you and say that I know the exact answer to gun violence but I can say that money and lobbyists keep us from having the open, rational, healing conversations that we desperately need.
It’s a terrible paradox that as greed strips us of everything that matters, we may discover that we’ve never truly wanted any of it enough.
Let’s not be fooled by the glitter and trash that come with greed. Let’s not fall for the dry self-congratulation that comes with having too much and loving none of it. No, the next time that idolatrous image threatens to cloud our vision of God, let’s remember what God says. Our lives are fragile. Our earth is fragile. Our cultures are fragile. Love them rightly, in the name of God. Love everything as God loves us.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
4 August 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia