July 31, 2022
The Richness of Life
Many people in the United States have such an abundance of possessions that they don’t even notice it. It feels normal to have things in excess. For others in the same culture, paying rent or the mortgage and having enough to buy food is a struggle. Scarcity is a daily reality.
Someone in the crowd asked Jesus, “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13). It feels urgent. Is he being impatient? Is his brother refusing to give him a fair share of the estate? Is he being greedy? Is he desperate because he is unable to pay his debts or care for his children?
We don’t know who is living in abundance of possessions and who is living in scarcity in this story. Whether we are rich or poor, greedy or needy, we can fall into the trap of thinking that an abundance of possessions is what life must be about. Having enough to live and be safe is important for everyone. But having as much as possible while others go without is outside of God’s good intentions for human community.
Jesus points beyond abundance of possessions to finding the key to life in an abundance of something else: being “rich toward God” (v. 21). What could this mean? First, it means knowing that God provides abundantly for us and for all, so we live with gratitude to God for all we have. Second, it means knowing our only true security is in God’s love and grace, which we always have. Third, it means responding to the God of abundance with the same generosity toward others. Being rich toward God means being generous toward our neighbors.
Why is this the key to life, and not abundance of possessions? Because we are created to live in relationship with God and each other. And in living generously toward each other we participate in the goodness of God. That is the richness of life.
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The Readings in the Bible
By the 80s, the world not yet having come to an end, Luke speaks less of an imminent eschaton than about both the on-going needs of the church and the world and the believers’ life-long religious values. In both his Gospel and Acts, Luke criticizes the rich who ignore the poor and praises those who give alms and contribute to the needs of the nascent church. This parable is found only in Luke. Luke may have in mind Ecclesiastes 8:15, which is summarized in the saying “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
Ecclesiastes was written about 300 years before Christ. Traditionally the speaker was identified as wise king Solomon, who lived 600 years earlier. The book is cast as the memoir of a teacher of the assembly, Qoheleth, a disappointed old skeptic who sees through the futility of the world’s values and who knows that goodness is not always rewarded. Ecclesiastes thus rejects the wisdom movement as expressed in for example the book of Proverbs. The closing epilogue (12:9-14) was perhaps added by a later hand. “Vanity,” hebel, repeated thirty-eight times in the book, means vapor, mist, a substance that disappears, thus emptiness, meaninglessness. These early passages lay out the author’s disillusionment.
The author of Colossians, likely Paul or his disciple, understands that baptism radically alters the believer. At least some Christian communities baptized adults naked, and it is likely that this practice stands behind the language of “stripping off” the old self and donning the new clothing of Christ. The author repeats his message that the baptized already have received sufficient knowledge of God. Paul’s manifesto from Galatians 3:28 is repeated here, without reference to male and female: see the explicit androcentrism in Colossians 3:18. The noun Scythian, similar to barbarian, suggested a savage from the north. Despite what the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, this author asserts that God will indeed punish evildoers.