The Foolish Rich Man
Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, November 27, 2005
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Planted in our hearts are possibilities, good and bad. It is possible for us to become unwholesome people filled with greed, pride, hatred, selfishness, insensitivity, intolerance, judgment, and cruelty. Or we can become people filled with love, peace, tolerance, compassion, joy. It is our decision which seeds take root and grow in us. What shall I nurture in my life? What shall I do with the time and talents that have been given me? The rich man in today's Gospel, though evidently gifted, talented and intelligent chose unwisely.
The rich man transgressed in a number of different ways. Let's examine three of them.
First, he ignored one of life's greatest teachers: death. He seems to have forgotten death entirely. He was so busy worrying about accumulating more wealth that he did not envision an end to his life. He may not have thought of death, but he sure did fear it! The parable ends with God saying to him, "Fool! This night your soul will be required of you, then whose will those things be which you have provided?"
The saints of the Church often teach that we should keep death in our minds daily. People often call think us crazy when we say that, but think about it for a moment. If we remember that we are going to die, it helps us to prioritize what we do with the time we have left. Thinking on our own mortality need not be morbid or depressing; instead it can help us appreciate life even more and live fuller and richer lives. It certainly causes us to think of God and the after-life. The remembrance of death encourages us to nurture good things in ourselves.
Here is a pithy saying, "All of us will surely die, but will any of us ever really live?" In order to really live we must not run from the remembrance of death.
Secondly, the rich man did not care for the poor. He had more than he needed and kept collecting even more, so much that he needed to build bigger barns. He forgot three important truths: every treasure in this life withers and fades, God gives in abundance so that we can share in abundance and, since all human beings are interconnected, the suffering of one equals the suffering of all.
Jesus tells us to "lay up treasures in heaven" that do not fade and can't be stolen away. This we do by nurturing goodness in ourselves and sharing it with others. The truly rich are people who are rich in compassion even though they may have nothing in the bank. If we are well-off it is not for our benefit alone that God has blessed us. It is so that we can share even more with others and lay up treasure in heaven. Attachment to wealth, selfish hoarding during our short lives on this earth will impoverish us during our eternal life in the age to come.
Humanity is unity in diversity, one in essence just as we say about the Holy Trinity. Funny! We are indeed made in the image of God are we not? In fact, the truth of the essential unity of humanity is one reason why we Orthodox should be extremely concerned about social justice. Every hungry child is my child, every tortured prisoner is my brother, every mother dying of HIV/Aids in Africa is my mother, every wounded solider is my father, everyone suffering from injustice is my neighbor. Yes, it is our job to see to the needs of our neighbors and to do all we can to alleviate suffering. Like their Savior all true Christian disciples have "bleeding hearts". After Cain killed his brother he asked God, "Am I my brother's keeper." The answer is yes.
St. Basil the Great has a famous quote for this foolish rich man and for us, "The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry, the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked, the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot, the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor, the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit." Sisters and brothers, we do not own anything. What we have belongs to God and to those who are in need. If we do not share, then we are no better than thieves.
God gives abundantly so that we can share abundantly. To those who give, God gives even more so that they can share even more. That is the truth of it.
Remember this wise saying, "All the happiness there is in the world comes from thinking about others, and all the suffering in the world comes from preoccupation with yourself."
Lastly, the foolish rich man, by not remembering death and by hoarding his wealth and robbing the poor, failed to "lay up riches in heaven where neither rust nor moth destroys, where man cannot break in and steal." Thus, he ignored God whose treasures are eternal. "Seek first the kingdom of God," Jesus taught, but to do that we must stop trying to establish our own kingdoms here. Far from trying to ignore and escape death, Jesus teaches that we must embrace it, "Take up your cross and follow me."
To save our lives we must lose them. To preserve our lives we must give them up. To become great we must become small. All that God teaches is contrary to conventional wisdom. As Christians we are therefore called to be compassionate revolutionaries, to subvert the normal order of things with the radical leaven of the kingdom of heaven.
The foolish rich man ran away from death and discovered himself racing into its arms. He stole from the poor by hoarding his wealth and found himself impoverished in eternity. He ignored God who alone had the power to give him what his heart truly desired - peace, security, eternal life - and ended up empty handed.
While we are able, while the light of day remains, let us learn from the foolish rich man, turn away from our own foolish ways and begin laying up treasures in heaven.