This sermon was delivered on the Ninth Sunday of Luke (Luke 12:16-21), November 17, 2019, at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Shrine Church in Flushing, New York.
TODAY WE WERE GIVEN a short and potent word from the Lord. He tells us of a rich man who was successful in his business. His profit began to multiply so much that he reached a point of crisis: what to do with the increasing wealth? He resolved that he will spend money to demolish his existing barns, and build larger ones. These new, larger barns will store his increasing reserves so that he can live a life of luxury.
He chose poorly.
In Jesus’ telling of the parable, it is none other than God himself who speaks to the man. There was no angel or allegorical figure delivering God’s message. It was God himself. And I don’t know about you, but if the living God appeared to me and his first word was “Fool!” I would disintegrate. There would be no question in my mind, no ambivalence that I had made a grave mistake.
That Jesus has this condemnatory message come directly from the mouth of God should tell us something. What was it about this man wishing to relish in his profits that was so distasteful to God? What was the grave mistake? What would have been the correct answer? We will turn to an unexpected source to begin our inquiry: the wedding service.
When a man and woman come into the Church to be married, a number of special petitions and prayers are made on their behalf by the Church. One of them reads as follows:
…give them of the dew from the Heavens above, and of the fatness of the earth. Fill their houses with bountiful food, and with every good thing, that they may have to give to them that are in need.
The Church is asking God to bless the newlyweds with material abundance. Why? So that they can say to themselves like the rich man in today’s parable “we have ample goods laid up for many years; let’s take it easy, eat, drink, and be merry”? No. It is so that “they may have to give to them that are in need”.
An example of what this might look like comes to us from another unexpected source. In the lives of the so-called Desert Fathers and Mothers—Christian ascetics who chose to live celibate lives in remote areas, forsaking all worldly comforts—a story comes to us about just such a marriage.
Two monks wanted to get a sense of how far they had advanced in the spiritual life. Seeing they were being a bit vain, and wishing to teach them a lesson, God advised them to go into a nearby town to see how a certain married couple lived. When the disciples finally found the home, they knocked at the door.
The wife, Mary, answered and welcomed them in. After her initial hospitality to them, they excitedly began to state the reason for their visit, but the she was reluctant to say anything. She explained that her husband, Eucharistos, would be home soon from tending his flock of sheep. Upon the husband’s return, he was happy to see that they had such visitors. But his joy turned to consternation when they began to inquire about his life. What was it about them that was so special?
But because the visitors insisted they had been sent by God, in his humility, the husband finally yielded. As he described their way of life, he then gave the following detail: “we make our living tending to a flock of sheep. From what we earn, with God’s help, one third we give to the poor, one third we use for hospitality to others, and one third we use for our own needs.” The monks were amazed and returned to the desert giving thanks to God.
This glimpse into the economics of a pious household sees the blessing invoked by the Church during a wedding fulfilled. It also illustrates for us the opposite of what was heard in today’s Gospel passage, in a tangible—even if challenging—way. This little story highlighted a faithful couple working primarily with concern for those around them, even putting themselves last. How sharply this contrasts with the desire of the rich man to have an easy life for himself.
But why did Christ speak so sharply about this? Quite simply, it is because this way of thinking, of storing up wealth for one’s own enjoyment and relaxation, flies in the face of the who God is in his very essence. It is God who humbled himself and gave up the wealth of heaven to become one of us, to be mocked, beaten, and crucified for us. God himself is wealthy, for he possesses everything, yet he was willing to give all of that up to save us. He gave his only son so that whoever would believe in him might have eternal life.
And each one of us who has been baptized has been enlisted into the service of this Son. When we had the prayers of exorcism read over us, one of the spirits banished from us was that of greed. We explicitly rejected the pomp of the devil. We were all anointed on our back with holy oil as the priest repeated the words of Jesus: “If any one wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” The same words were repeated when the priest placed the the baptismal cross around our neck. We participated in the death and resurrection of Christ in the waters of baptism. We cast off the old way of thinking. We approached the chalice for the first time with “fear of God, with faith, and with love.” Everything about becoming a Christian goes against selfishness, luxury, and comfort.
Thus, every movement towards such things is a movement away from Christ. More to the point, if we are after the easy life, the glamorous life, a life of praise and popularity, a life of status, a life of comfort—especially at the expense of the comfort of those whom we could have helped—we have no place with Christ. Then the only role he will play in our life is that of Judge in a horrifying last moment, when we hear his voice thunder the dreaded word:
We have just begun the Nativity fast. Our parish is collecting food to deliver to those in need for the secular Thanksgiving holiday. The weather is getting colder and the days shorter, so we will have plenty of opportunities to empty our “barns” a little for those in need. I challenge you—actually, Christ challenges you—to find a way to give a little more than you have before. Buy one less coffee for yourself every week. Let your family have a meager dinner one night because you purchased groceries for a family in need. If you pick up three shirts to buy next time you go shopping for yourself, put one back before you check out. If it’s not already near the top, move the Church one line higher on your budget for the new year.
By starting with small, incremental acts of giving, we increase not only the likelihood that we will discover the joy of generosity and self-denial, but also the likelihood that when our soul is ultimately required of us, we will hear those hoped-for words: “Well-done, good and faithful servant!” and not the dread word, “Fool!” May God indeed fill our homes and hearts with every good thing, so that we, in turn, may imitate him.