St. Luke uses the stories of Jesus in uniquely effective ways. He employs many classical rhetorical techniques with very impressive technical names. But they are effective because they work very simply. His best is to lull us into a false sense of security and then zing us. We have seen this several times already. We feel immediate sympathy for the potential disciple who wishes to bury his father before following Jesus. Yet Jesus seemingly coldheartedly tells them that his first responsibly is to follow him and let the dead bury the dead. (Luke 9:60) More recently Martha asked Jesus “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all preparations” Jesus’ answer is basically that he really didn’t, and Martha should join Mary at his feet. We will see this today but with a twist. (Luke 10:38-42)
The man who called out of the crowd to ask Jesus to arbitrate an inheritance issue between him and his brother is not a sympathetic character, but he would not have been seen as imposing on Jesus. Under Roman domination Jews would have gone to religious leaders for justice. His rudeness was off-putting. Calling out in the middle of a sermon was completely out of order. Also, he exposed his family to ridicule. Yet Jesus’ answer was also off-putting. He tells him that he is a different kind of leader. He is more concerned about warning his followers of the dangers of being owned by their possessions than building a base. Although asked about a matter of Justice his answer went disconcertingly beyond this. This was not welcomed by his audience but should not have come as a surprise. The sermon he was giving at the time, shared with us in the passage before this, was his command to give up everything including life itself for him. (Luke 12:10-12)
He continues to work against our expectations. The rich man who he introduces in the parable seems quite commendable. His actions are sensible, prudent and outwardly praiseworthy. As someone approaching retirement age, I would like to do the same. Yet he is called a fool. Fool in the OT has a specific meaning. It is not someone who lacks intelligence or behaves frivolously but someone who does not believe in God. The psalmist says: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps 14:1) This does not have to be spoken; indeed, the rich man may well have thought himself an exemplary Jew. He denies God by his actions. He takes his security in his possessions not in God nor does he act like God by caring for others.
Let us look at his own words. He speaks only of himself. “What shall “I do”, with “my grain” and “my barns”. Luke not only uses one internal monologue but includes a second within it “Now as for you, you have so much that you can rest, eat, drink and be merry”. This is claustrophobic, there is no room for anyone else, neither God nor neighbor. He did not look beyond the very narrow here and now. Treasure in heaven has a specific meaning. It was alms, charity which one extended to others. Luke would have expected his audience to be familiar with readings like the book of Tobit. “… give alms even of that little (you have) You will be storing up a goodly treasure for yourself against the day of adversity. For almsgiving delivers from death” (Tob 4:7–10). This is not buying one’s way into heaven but showing true understanding of what was important on earth.
The rich man is not accused of any dishonesty or wrongdoing in how he obtained his wealth. He might very well have been beyond reproach in his business practices. But how one obtains wealth is only half the picture. We are just as responsible for how we spend it. Here we must look at my least favorite Catholic Social doctrine: the universal destination of all goods.
Simply it states: ”the goods of the earth are destined for all without exclusion or exception” (See note from Catechism below) What we have is on loan from God and he will ask us to make an accounting of it. What we translate as “your life will be demanded of you” might better be read as “your debt will be called in.”. We can never pay our debt to God in full because it is infinite, but we must show our seriousness by imitating his generosity. St. Matthew reveals the same interest with the parable of the unjust steward. The king cancelled a mindboggling debt to the steward, but that steward would not give a loan extension to a fellow servant for pocket change. (Matt: 18:21-35)
Part of the reason why I find this doctrine so vexing is that the meaning of alms has expanded in 2000 years. In Jesus’ static society alms was simply individual acts of charity. People could do very little else. Now that we the people have more control over our world it means working for social changes which reflect the Kingdom proclaimed in the Gospels. This extends from providing alternatives to abortion to reducing the effects of climate change.
Alms is no longer just giving money, but investing our time and talent to attain practical and concrete ends rooted in the teachings of Jesus. We see this in our food pantry of course which requires manual labor to succeed but also with the members of our parish who take time off during elections to go to other states as ballot monitors. We see it with people who will give up their vacations to help groups like Habitat for Humanity or Jesuit relief services. I have seen it most often with people in distressed communities organizing themselves to attain a better way of life.
The goods we possess certainly include the financial and we must give alms in the traditional manner but if that is all we do we have been lulled into a very false sense of security. Our debt to the Lord can only be fulfilled when we direct our time and talents as well our money to the good of all.
FROM THE CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH:
2402: In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits.187 The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.
2403 The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.
2404 “In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself.”188 The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family.