From Jonathan Bailes
Five weeks ago tomorrow my wife gave birth to our third child: Lucy Catherine. Lucy’s birth has given me great joy, but, I must admit, it has also provoked an increase in my anxiety about finances. After all, I now have three children to feed and clothe, three future drivers to insure, and three college tuitions to consider, not to mention the myriad expenses associated with everything from participation in sports to unforeseen medical needs. And so, quite honestly, I tend to feel a little envious about the rich man in Jesus’ parable. He has so much grain and goods that he’s having to build new barns just to store it all, and while Jesus doesn’t tell us whether he has any kids or not, I bet those barns full of grain could easily cover college expenses, not to mention ballet lessons and birthday parties. But then, the more I think about it the more familiar that rich man starts to seem. I may not have any barns, or even a reasonably sized shed or two, but I do have enough money in the bank to cover this month’s expenses and health insurance to defray the cost of any medical need that might arise. Plus, I have family members and friends who would keep us from ever falling into true poverty. That is more than many people can say. My assumption would be that all of us, or at least a vast majority of us, at Church of the Cross share some similarity to the rich man. In which case, this parable may be speaking directly to all of us.
Where does the rich man go wrong? Why does Jesus call him fool? I imagine that his first mistake is not paying attention to where his wealth comes from. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “There was a rich man who acquired many crops,” but rather, “The land of a rich many produced plentifully.” Jesus says nothing about the man’s contribution to this crop. His gain was a gift, a gift of the land, a gift of God, sort of like the gift of manna that appeared on the ground six days of the week for forty years as food for the wandering people of Israel and very much like the money that keeps me and my family fed and clothed.
If his first mistake is in failing to see his goods as gift, I think the rich man’s second mistake is misunderstanding the point of these goods. Just like the two wealthy people Jesus indicts later on in Luke, this man seems to imagine that wealth is for keeping and for personal security and comfort. He hordes what he has because he thinks that by doing so he will be able to give his soul rest and joy. The irony is that he dies, just like we all do, and all that wealth can do nothing for his soul. As Augustine says, “He did not realize that the bellies of the poor we much safer storerooms than his barns.” This stands in sharp contrast to Zacchaeus, whom we meet later on in Luke. He repays everyone whom he defrauded and he gives half of his wealth away to the poor. Jesus doesn’t call Zacchaeus a fool. He tells Zacchaeus that salvation has come to him. Zachhaeus, it seems, was learning what it means to be “rich toward God.”
In his sermons on Deuteronomy, Mark has been challenging us toward greater generosity as an expression of justice and in imitation of the God of Israel. This is not an easy thing for me to think about right now, since—did I mention?—I now have three children. But I think that this parable helps in applying that challenge by posing some questions to the heart. Do I recognize the source of my income as a gift? Am I under the foolish delusion that financial security can give rest to my soul? What do I think is the purpose of my possessions? These are not easy questions to ask nor simple questions to answer, but I think that Jesus wants us to think about them and to consider whether we are more like Zacchaeus or more like that rich fool.
I study theology at Boston College and am currently working on a dissertation on the fourth-century church father Gregory of Nyssa. My wife Rachael and I are both uprooted Southerners preparing ourselves for our fourth New England winter. We live in the Cleveland Circle area with our (now) three kids.