Jesus and the Rich Fool
– The Rev. Grant Rodgers
The American political process, and especially the Republican and Democrat national conventions held over the past couple of weeks, has captivated Canadians, generating something like a morbid fascination – like a traffic accident you just can’t look away from.
Both parties are eagerly if not desperately looking for support, for the validation that comes via the ballot box, and also quite keen to enlist divine help if possible.
The Republican party began their convention with a prayer or benediction from an evangelical preacher from North Carolina that could go down as one of the worst prayers ever offered in such an important public setting. MSNBC used quotation marks around the word prayer (“prayer”) when referring to it – it is a prime example of how not to pray.
This pastor commenced with what has become a standard address for God among conservative evangelicals, “Father God,” or Fathergod (all one word), a patriarchal and sexist way of referencing God which makes God sound more like a “god” than God, in the same category as a thunder god or a water god or perhaps a garden sprite. In so many ways, this prayer seemed to shape the direction and set the tone for the Republicans’ gathering. “Republicans,” this pastor continued, “we got to be united because our enemy is not other Republicans — but is Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.” (!)
Interfaith Alliance President Rabbi Jack Moline said “I have rarely heard a more inappropriate contribution to political proceedings than the benediction by Pastor Mark Burns at the opening session of the Republican National Convention. The idea that a member of the clergy would invoke God’s name and, in the next breath, declare the candidate from the other party to be the enemy … devalues faith and disrespects the people of the United States …”
Almost predictably, but also because such attitudes had been given divine blessing and authorization, numerous speeches at the Republican convention were punctuated with shouts of “Lock her up!” and even “Execute her!” in reference to Hillary Clinton. American politics are certainly never tame, but I don’t think it has ever gone to this level of personal attack and threats, especially in the name of God.
There’s a reason why most clergy would tend to deliver a more non-partisan kind of prayer, even in a charged political setting like the Republican National Convention, and I hope you know why!
I loved Bernie Sanders’ campaign which focused on the injustices inherent in the American capitalist economic system – decrying the greed, the huge and growing gaps between rich and poor, the unreflective and unapologetic amoralism of corporations. He sounded much like a prophetic figure in the midst of it all. But in the frenzy to get nominated, even Sanders went to some extremes that were hard to claw back. His followers at the Democratic convention were angry and volatile and disruptive with Sanders trying in vain to get his followers to stop the negative and adversarial momentum against Hilary Clinton that he created in the first place, which now threatens to divide his own party.
Hatred and hostility have a kind of momentum that is hard to put the brakes on – once validated and put in motion they inevitably create violence and harm, which in turn fosters even more division. When these are sanctioned by reference to God, all hell can break loose.
In the midst of all the controversy is Donald Trump, with his garish yellow hair and orange skin, who seems to be a mix of Grand Ole Opry singer, TV evangelist, cartoon character, gangster and huckster, all rolled into one, with a bit of the Wizard of Oz and maybe the Bowery Boys thrown in. Of course Americans love him and hate him at the same time! Elvis isn’t dead – he’s alive and well in Donald Trump!
In Trump, the cult of celebrity has been taken to a new and dangerous level. Many thought Ronald Reagan was bad enough, but Trump has a lot of the same bad policy approaches and none of Reagan’s grace or personal charm, from the patronizing way he speaks to and about women, to his comments about minorities, the disabled, the press and on and on – not to mention the horrible things he says about fellow Republicans and of course, Democrats, as well as his incitements to violence among his followers.
Trump has encouraged hatred and violence, segregation, racism and xenophobia, to name a few bad habits, along with the idea of winning at any and all costs, regardless of what it does to others, to the community in general or to yourself. He is pragmatic, apparently not bothered much by principles – principles are for losers – and takes the path of maximum expedience.
Years ago, during the Falkland Islands conflict, Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie got in trouble because he prayed for reconciliation and peace instead of making a clear case for Britain being right and the Argentinians wrong. A poster showed a furious Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with the Archbishop over her knee, giving him a spanking. Runcie, a tank commander in the British Forces during the Second World War, was no doubt much better qualified than Margaret Thatcher to know that conflict is never that simple.
In his sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, in July 1982, before 2500 people including many political and other dignitaries, the Archbishop said: “Our hope as Christians is not fundamentally in man’s [sic] naked goodwill and rationality. We believe that he [sic] can overcome the deadly selfishness of class or sect or race by discovering himself [sic] as a child of the universal God of love. When a man [sic] realises that he [sic] is a beloved child of the creator of all, then he [sic] is ready to see his [sic]neighbours in the world as brothers and sisters. That is one reason why those who dare to interpret God’s will must never claim him [sic] as an asset for one nation or group rather than another. War springs from the love and loyalty which should be offered to God being applied to some God substitute, one of the most dangerous being nationalism . . . People are mourning on both sides of this conflict. In our prayers we shall quite rightly remember those who are bereaved in our own country and the relations of the young Argentinian soldiers who were killed. Common sorrow could do something to reunite those who were engaged in this struggle. A shared anguish can be a bridge of reconciliation. Our neighbours are indeed like us.”
In today’s Gospel (Luke 12:13-21), a man is trying to appeal to divine authority against his brother. Support me over someone else, bless me, I don’t care about what happens to him, I don’t care what it does to my family or to our heritage. I want what I want. As Gordon Gecko said in the movie Wall Street: “Greed is good,” and of course, there are always those who make that their creed, and it always comes at someone else’s expense.
I have been approached so many times by people whose marriages were in trouble, and early on, I would listen sympathetically as the person told me all about how terrible his or her spouse was. I might tend to get pretty incensed at the abusive, insensitive, selfish qualities of the partner being described by the “offended party.” But then I would also speak to the spouse, and discover what a terrible person the other person was who had spoken to me in the first place!
As a result, I developed a pastoral policy that whenever possible, I would speak to both parties at the same time, because it became obvious that it takes two to tango, as it were, and it is never as simple as villain and victim, betrayer and betrayed, even though individuals will paint you a very convincing picture to get you to take their side.
Rooted in the wisdom of centuries of Jewish biblical stories of conflict and rivalry between brothers and in families, Jesus takes a non-dualistic approach. He answers with a question: “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Why do we want to turn God into a judge – someone who supports division — Who chooses one over another? An appeal to a higher authority doesn’t make your case right.
Jesus will not be pulled in to taking sides – he is not about to become a moral or religious lever, a mere tool in the hands of someone who wants to manipulate things to his own ends – he will not support the politics of division. So why do so many people still try to pull Jesus in one direction or another?
God loves all. I suspect Jesus might say that we need people on both sides, that the way of God is never going to be a simple either/or, and to make sure we don’t exclude any good ideas or people from the process of trying to build better communities societies and nations. St Paul expresses this vision beautifully when he speaks of being renewed according to the image of our creator, that “in that renewal, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Col. 3: 11).
It seems to me that a bigger question in this Gospel is: Why do we want to make God less than God is – to make God serve petty purposes instead of cosmic ones? Why do we want to make out own ego the arbiter for the way things should unfold in this world?
In the prophecies of Isaiah, God proclaims: “My ways are higher than your ways.” Articulated in a slightly different way, but in the same spirit, the Islamic Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi said: “Out beyond right and wrong there is a field; I will meet you there.”
In the story he tells in response, Jesus gives the another question that is intended to change his perspective: “What if this very night were to be your last night on earth?” Jesus, instead of taking up the petty dispute, teaches about the larger effects and dangers of materialism, greed, envy, hoarding and exclusion, and warns about being mean-spirited and self-absorbed, living life with no reference to God, or the larger context of life.
Our lives are so given over to so many petty disputes, rivalries and conflict, distracting us, sapping our energy and poisoning our communities, if not entire societies and even the planet. The way of the world often pulls us into situations and behaviours we regret, and compromises our own sense of who we really are.
As we witness the polarized chaos of American politics at the moment, and some of the strange figures emerging, I would suggest that Christians of all kinds must do whatever they can not to get caught up in the politics of division, and instead to be agents of reconciliation in a world too prone to using coercion and violence to attempt to solve problems. Christians need to keep in mind the non-sectarian approach of our Lord, who included many different, even opposing, people among his disciples, and proclaimed the universal scope of God’s love in ways that shocked and challenged even his closest followers.
In this larger view that Jesus articulates to the complaining brother, he seems to suggest: let us never forget who we really are. Let us not forget that we are brothers, sisters, family, etc.. We come to church to be reminded and to re-connect with who we really are, so that we may go into the world not as angry crusaders but as ambassadors of Christ.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Hosea 11:1-11 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.
Psalm 107:1-9, 43 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he led them by a straight way, until they reached an inhabited town. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. For he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things. Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the LORD.
Colossians 3:1-11 So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things–anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Luke 12:13-21 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”