Saturday, July 30, 2016

How big is your barn?

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reflection: Luke 12:13-21

One traditional Orthodox icon of the parable of the rich fool depicts labourers busily building new barns on one side of the icon, the rich man dying alone in bed on the other, and Christ dining alone at a large table in the centre.

In The Guardian, in an opinion piece on money, I was surprised to see the physicist Stephen Hawking writing about how we need to rethink our attitude towards wealth.[1]
“Is knowledge or experience more important than money? Can possessions stand in the way of fulfilment? Can we truly own anything, or are we just transient custodians ...These questions are leading to a shift in behaviour which, in turn, is inspiring some ground-breaking new enterprises and ideas. These are termed “cathedral projects”, the modern equivalent of the grand church buildings, constructed as part of humanity’s attempt to bridge heaven and Earth.  … I hope and believe that people will embrace more of this cathedral thinking for the future, as they have done in the past, because we are in perilous times. … We will need to adapt, rethink, refocus and change some of our fundamental assumptions about what we mean by wealth, by possessions, by mine and yours. Just like children, we will have to learn to share.”

Hawking’s reference to cathedrals as an image of aspirational and visionary endeavour reminded me of what we experience when we enter a cathedral: the building challenges us beyond ourselves.  I was grateful for that reminder – in the face of decline in church attendances and of doubts about the narrative of faith, our cathedrals continue to speak and call us beyond our limitations.

Hawking’s talk of ‘Cathedral thinking’ concerns the kind of thinking that is required of us all in perilous times.  It is thinking that takes us past illusion and draws us into a deeper reality.

This is exactly what we see happening in the gospel this morning as Jesus, the artful story-teller, lets us overhear the thoughts of a rich farmer. Notice how our feelings about this farmer are being shaped.  The man is rich.  The land has produced abundantly – it is the land that has produced this, not the man himself; beyond his duty of care, the land is the resource that he is dependent upon.  His thinking then evolves – since he neither can hope to consume nor have any real need for all that the land has produced, he will store the excess.  In his planning we catch no sense of any concern for the common good, but only of a preoccupation with himself; he has only a self-centred plan and a truly capitalist policy.

All of this is prefaced by Jesus’ warning to his hearers:
"Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." 

So we are warned to cherish what really matters: life is what matters and possessions are no substitute for that.  Of course in our hearts we know this, but, human nature being what we know it is, we keep forgetting this fact.  (You may remember how the ancient legend of King Midas, cursed with the fatal touch that turned everything to gold, demonstrated that truth; and we have a fair collection of  sayings, proverbs and clichés such as ‘you can’t take it with you’, to remind us.  Yet we still act as if it does not apply to us.

That we have this gospel reminds us that money is to be taken seriously, not disregarded or forgotten.  The rich landowner has taken it seriously but got it wrong.  He has hoarded rather than been grateful.  He has not looked beyond himself; and the great context of all that surrounds him is ignored.  The response to abundance should not be greed but gratitude – which in turn directs us to God and to our neighbour.

I think that it was Montaigne who said, “It’s not the want, but rather abundance that creates avarice.”  That seems to be borne out by our experience: the more some have, the more they seem to want! The super-rich 1% keep getting far richer and nothing of their excess really trickles down to super-poor!  Economic systems seem to be entrenched to protect the former and exploit the latter when, in all truth, we share this one world and we all need to share and so care for one another.

Hawking, critically disabled, has a very lucid view of possessions – he doesn’t need them – and an equally clear view of money: money is a facilitator, it helps things to happen, it can help liberate us.   It is interesting that he sees new questions now being asked, when he says:
“People are starting to question the value of pure wealth. Is knowledge or experience more important than money? Can possessions stand in the way of fulfilment? Can we truly own anything, or are we just transient custodians?These questions are leading to a shift in behaviour…” 

Jesus invites his readers into reality and into life.  Life is brief and uncertain: we are not here to be burdened with possessions but to live.  To the rich man (and us) he cautions:   '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."

Streaming from the gospel and from the scientist, I see converging lines that direct us toward a radical shift in behaviour, a different kind of society and a deeper way of living in our world with one another. Now that is ‘Cathedral thinking.’

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