Reuben Smith liked his comfort. Reuben lived in Buffalo, N.Y., and like most of the citizens of the snowy north, he probably spent a lot of time indoors, stretched out by the fire. When Reuben sensed that he was headed to the great beyond, he made some plans. He selected a new recliner chair of upholstered russet leather and, when the time came, was interred in a sitting position, with a checkerboard on his lap. A practical man, Reuben also ordered that he be dressed in a hat and warm coat, and that a second key to the tomb be placed in his coat pocket. The other key was to lock the entrance and to be destroyed.
Reuben made the classic mistake of thinking that, whatever it is you have, you can take it with you. He was hardly the first, of course; the Egyptian Pharoahs were and probably still are the world champs when it comes to hoarding by the deceased. It takes either a masterfully constructed (if mistaken) view of the afterlife or a wild type of greed to act this way. This isn’t the meaningful and sometimes even charming practice of being buried with a beloved Bible or trinket or picture of loved ones – I’m reminded of Humphrey Bogart being buried with a whistle in case Lauren Bacall wasn’t easily found in Purgatory – this is mere foolishness.
Being a fool was not taken lightly in the ancient world. Being a fool could get you dead real fast, and so could calling someone a fool who was, say, carrying a big stick. “In the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament a fool was anyone who fails to notice how the world works, thus adapting himself accordingly. Fools are the ones who spit into the wind, who saw off the branch they’re sitting on, who are constantly trying to row their boat against the current because they simply do not pay attention to how life works. Fools, the old adage has it, are often in error but never in doubt…the more foolish a person is, the more likely it is that he or she will become more and more isolated as time goes by. People give up on fools…the fool becomes an island unto himself.1
And so we turn to the parable we just heard. What does the rich man say? “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’” The rich man is talking to himself; there’s either no one he can talk to or he doesn’t bother with anyone else. But what does God say to him? “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Contrary to some teaching I’ve heard in the past, what God just said there is not the equivalent of “Live for today,” no matter what the Grass Roots sang. This is not Jesus saying you shouldn’t plan for tomorrow or that you should live in the moment or whatever the last thing Oprah said. This parable is about our relationship with God, each other, and our stuff.
A fool might not notice, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that stuff, our wealth or lack of it, separates us. Rarely does money bring us all together. The young man who prompted the parable we heard, he wanted Jesus to mediate the dividing of an estate between himself and his brother, but that means that their father’s will was not yet legally relevant; that means that their father was still alive, but the stuff meant more to the brothers than either their father or each other. Wealth is not a bad thing, of course, until it preoccupies us, until it makes us feel more important than others; until it makes us feel like there is no god that can touch us, no god good enough for us.
The opposite of all of this is not poverty, of course, but rather wisdom. God has offered us wisdom – it even pleases God when we ask for His wisdom. I’m thinking of the story of when God appeared to Solomon and said to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon answered God, “Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?” God said to Solomon, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, possessions or honor, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over whom I have made you king, therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you.” Solomon got wealth and all the rest as well.
God’s wisdom is sometimes confounding; the Cross of Christ looks pretty foolish in the eyes of men, right? But that greater wisdom is there and we find it by being in relationship with God and those made in the image of God, never foolishly separating ourselves from either. We too can ask for wisdom, in the confidence that God has already given it too us in Christ, who is the power and wisdom of God.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-13c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel