Managing our Wealth and our Investments

The Gospel Lesson from Luke 12:16-21, occurs within a larger context in Luke’s Gospel and the context helps us understand the lesson.   The immediate context is Luke 12:13-34.

One of the multitude said to him, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

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The first thing to note is that the parable of the rich fool follows immediately upon Jesus warning against covetousness or greed.  Jesus does not believe that life is a game where whoever accumulates the most stuff wins.   Life is far more precious than how much you own or what you own.

What is wealth?   Not just property, money, material possession.   What about your relationship to the living God?   Is that not the most valuable commodity we can own?

There are countless other intangibles which are incredibly valuable to us, such as: salvation, health, wisdom, special talents, peace of mind, a loving family, good parish, long life, great job, good habits.  These are all priceless possessions for us, and can be had by people with no money.

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According to the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, our true investments are our every action toward family, friend, neighbor, stranger, the poor and enemy.  The profits from those investments await us in the Kingdom of God.

God will not ask you on the judgment day how your stocks fared on Wall Street.  He will not ask you whether you supported tax cuts or deregulation or what you rate of return was on your 401K.

And with all this in mind we hear Christ’s parable:

And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And 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; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

God owns everything.   You might hear a priest say at the graveside before a burial these words:  The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who dwell therein. (Ps 24:1)  They remind us that we cannot take our wealth with us beyond the grave.  Our blessings are given to us to use for the benefit of others in this world.  God is the true owner of everything.  But he does seem to give us in the next life all the blessing we gave to those in need.

3754785121_5587ea2f09_nSt Basil the Great speaking to those who did not give much to charity in their life time but promised to leave a donation in their wills to the poor  upon their death, has them say:  “’when my life is over I will make the poor to inherit the things I formerly possessed, and in a written testament will declare them to be the owners of my property.’  When you no longer exist among human beings, then you become a lover of humanity.  When I see you dead, then I shall be able to say that you love your brother.  . . . when you are lying in the tomb, and decomposing into earth, then you … become big-hearted.”  (Sermon to the Rich)   Basil goes on to say, as you can’t do business after the market closes,  as you can’t win an Olympic medal when the games are over and as you cant show your valor once the war has ended, so too you can’t postpone godliness until the afterlife.

His comments have a humorous edge to them, and yet are deadly serious.

The message of the Gospel is not so much that you should never make provision for life, for your family, for the future, but that you should not be self-centered, self-absorbed, practicing self-preservation.  Christ speaks bluntly however against greed and covetousness and selfish excess.  Remember Christ’s own teaching that God’s commandments can be summed up in two precepts:  love God and love your neighbor. This is what the rich fool ignored.  He mentions no one but himself.

After the parable, Jesus went on to say:

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith!

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And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

What is the effect of prosperity on us Christians?    Does prosperity make us  more generous, loving , compassionate, merciful, kind, patient, peaceful, virtuous?  Does it help you to be a disciple of Christ?  to be a Christian?

Is prosperity the highest virtue in life which we should be pursuing with all our soul, heart, mind and strength?  What about with our investments, what should we be doing with them?

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Don’t strive for riches, strive to hear the Word of God and live by Him.  That is what Christ taught.  You live in the world and you are not forbidden to be successful, but use your prosperity and blessings for the good of others.  Practice the commandment to love one another.

Prosperity is not a virtue, but a blessing.  Wealth is not a virtue but a blessing to be shared. The parable reminds us of the truth that  Money is a good servant, but a bad master.

The Folly of the Wealthy

Then the Lord Jesus spoke this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. ‘And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:16-21)

St. John Chrysostom comments:

Why are you so concerned about fleeting things that must be left here? Nothing is more slippery than wealth. Today it is for you; tomorrow it is against you. It arms the eyes of the envious everywhere. It is a hostile comrade, and you acknowledge this when you seek every way to bury and conceal it from view. While the poor are prepared for action, the wealthy wander about, seeking where they may bury their gold, or with whom they may deposit it. Why do you seek your fellow slaves, when Christ stands ready to receive and to keep your “deposits” for you. Those who receive treasures in trust think they have done us a favor. But with Christ it is the contrary, for He says He has received a favor when He receives your deposited treasures. For the guardianship he provides He does not demand a fee, but instead gives you dividends.

You are a stranger and a pilgrim with regard to things here. But you have a country that is your own in the heavens! Transfer there all that you possess…

Would you be rich? Have God for your friend, and you’ll  be richer than all men!

(Sermon: The Rich in This World, pp. 4-5, O Logos Publication)

Counsels on Confession

The person who possesses knowledge and knows the truth confesses to God not by reminding himself of things he has done, but by patiently enduring what happens to him.  (St. Mark the MonkCounsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 2664-2666)

As we move into the Nativity Fast, it is a good time for us to examine our consciences to see what is in our hearts, and to know of what we need to repent in order to follow Christ.  For basically repentance is removing all those obstacles from our hearts and lives that prevent us from being faithful disciples of Christ.  Confession occurs not just when we go to the sacrament, but daily when we admit our faults and failures to our Lord.  As St Mark the Monk notes above confession occurs daily when we realize that much of what happens to us is the result of our own choices and because we live in a fallen world.  When we recognize the effects of the Fall on our daily lives, we are admitting that the power of sin in the world is noticeable – both in how we behave and how others behave toward us.  The fact that life is not fair, that sin abounds, tells us this is the world of the Fall.  There is a reality that the only person we can change in the world is our self.   [This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for justice.  It does mean that we must never cease struggling against the sin which is in our own hearts.]

St. Basil  the Great rejected any idea of predestination or pre-determination based on the inescapable power of original sin.  If everything is predetermined by original sin or by genetic makeup then indeed even efforts for justice, correction and reform are worthless since we would only be struggling against an all-powerful fate over which we can never win.  We are to wrestle with those parts of our self over which we actually have control – the only sins we commit occur in those things over which we have control.  Some in the Patristic age thought even doing something once did not constitute sin.  It is sin only if we repeat the action knowing it is wrong – doing it once is a mistake, repeating it is sin.   As St. Basil notes, it really doesn’t do any good for legislators to pass laws forbidding something over which a person has no control anyway.  St. Basil is speaking rhetorically, for he believes people do make choice, at least some.  Not everything we do is predetermined in us.

“If the origin of our virtues and of our vices is not in ourselves, but in the fatal consequence of our birth, it is useless for legislators to prescribe for us what we ought to do, and what we ought to avoid; it is useless for judges to honor virtue and to punish vice. The guilt is not in the robber, not in the assassin: it was willed for him; it was impossible for him to hold back his hand, urged to evil by inevitable necessity. Those who laboriously cultivate the arts are the maddest of people. The laborer will make an abundant harvest without sowing seed and without sharpening his sickle. Whether he wishes it or not, the merchant will make his fortune, and will be flooded with riches by fate. As for us Christians, we shall see our great hopes vanish, since from the moment that one does not act with freedom, there is neither reward for justice nor punishment for sin. Under the reign of necessity and of fate there is no place for merit, the first condition of all righteous judgment.”    (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 3624-31)

For St Basil the failure of predestination thinking is that it tells us nothing matters.  Not only can we incapable of  resisting sin – we also are incapable of change so repentance is impossible. Predestination means even goodness and success will only happen by fate, so no use trying to do good either.  No use planting crops or working hard since fate determines everything including whether there is food to eat.  Might as well just sit back and wait and see what happens.  But at this point even many predestination believers can see that it does matter if you try – there is food to eat only because people work hard to make it so.  There are roads, bridges, stores, internet and electricity only because people make the effort to make it happen.  Everything is not just unfolding by fate, people are making decisions and acting on them.  What we do matters and changes the course of human history.  The same is true about our behavior good and bad.

It is because our behavior matters and does affect both others as well as our self, that the examination of conscience and the confession of sins is important.  We are by nature relational beings, we need to consider how our behavior, thoughts and even our attitude is a reflection of whether or not we are guided by the Gospel commandment to love one another as Christ loves us (John 13:34).  Admitting our sins, faults and foibles is not failure but rather how we show that we recognize Christ’s lordship over our daily lives.  Confession is acknowledgment of reality, of what is in our hearts, as shameful as it might be, as reluctant as we are to admit it.

Do not conceal your sin because of the idea that you must not scandalize your neighbor. Of course this injunction must not be adhered to blindly. It will depend on the nature of one’s sinfulness.”   ( St.  John Climacus, Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life, Kindle Loc. 1624-25)

St John Climacus recognizes that admitting one’s sins is a good thing, and yet it has to be practiced with wisdom and discretion.  Just a fear of scandalizing others is not in itself justification for concealing one’s sin (note he said sin, he didn’t say every thought that comes into your head, just your sins.  The behavioral sin might be obvious to others, but we don’t need to discuss with everyone every errant idea that passes through our minds).  However, as he also notes, he is not putting down an unbreakable rule – one has to use wisdom in knowing when to openly admit to one’s sins.  There are some things we do which it is not wise to tell everyone.  We need to confess those to our father confessors, to those who are better prepared to deal with humans as fallen sinners.  If we are honest to our self about our sins, we recognize also how our sins impact our lives and the lives of those around us – especially the ones we love.  Instead of becoming bitter for sin or blaming others regarding sin, when we recognize its power in our life, we can make an effort to correct it and to find the better way to love others or at least to own it and repent of it.

 

Finding the Hidden Lord

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Today in Orthodoxy we begin the Nativity Season.  Of course, in Orthodoxy the season begins with a fast that lasts 40 days and 40 nights.  All around us, cultural Christmas is gearing up its shopping season with sales, Christmas decorations and sweet treats.  We are supposed to stand with Christ.

St. Mark the Ascetic writes:

The Lord is hidden in His own commandments, and He is to be found there in the measure that He is sought.   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 3420-21)

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Looking to gift wrap, presents, festal deserts and Christmas decorations will not help us find Christ.  He is hidden in His commandments.  So we need to seek the Gospel commandments of Christ to find Christ this Christmas season.  He will be found in those commandments to that degree that we seek Him.  If we seek first the Kingdom of God, we will find Christ first.  If He is last on our list, He will be hard to find.

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If we believe He is Lord, we will seek His commandments to do His will, and then we will find him.  To keep His commandments, we have to know what they are and where to find them.   Time to read the Gospels and go to church.   This is the first day of the Nativity Season and Fast.  We are just beginning the search.

As St. Maria of Paris said on the verge of World War II, living as a Russian refugee in France having fled the Bolshevik revolution :

8187082426_c5b1c05faf_n“... we must not allow Christ to be overshadowed by any regulations, or even any piety.  Ultimately Christ gave us two commandments: on love for God and love for people.  There is no need to complicate them, and at times to supplant them by pedantic rules.  As for Christ, he is not testing us at present by our deprivations, by our exile, or by the loss of our accustomed framework.  He is testing us – when we find ourselves deprived of our previous living conditions and our way of life, when we are granted our awe-inspiring freedom – to see whether we can find him there, where earlier we had never thought to seek him.”  (Pearl of Great Price: the Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, p 73)

Racism, Prejudice and the Good Samaritan

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“Orthodoxy condemns in an irrevocable manner the inhuman system of racial discrimination and the sacrilegious affirmation whereby such systems claim to be an in agreement with Christian ideals. When asked “who is my neighbor?”, Christ answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Thus, He taught us to demolish all barriers of enmity and prejudice. Orthodoxy confesses that each human being – independently of color, religion, race, nationality or language – is a bearer of the image of God, is our brother or sister, an equal member of the human family.”  (from The 1986 Chambesy statement, found in For the Peace from Above, p. 82)  

See also my post Feeling the Sting of the Good Samaritan Parable

The Significance of Vespers

“…the recovery by the Church of the true spirit and meaning of the liturgy, as an all-embracing vision of life, including heaven and earth, time and eternity, spirit and matter and as the power of that vision to transform our lives… For, as we have seen, the only real justification of the parish as organization is precisely to make the liturgy, the cult of the Church as complete, as Orthodox, as adequate as possible, and it is the liturgy, therefore, that is the basic criterion of the only real “success” of the parish.

Let the Saturday service – this unique weekly celebration of Christ’s resurrection, this essential “source” of our Christian understanding of time and life, be served week after week in an empty church – then at least the various secular “expressions” and “leaders” of the parish: committees, commissions and boards, may become aware of the simple fact that their claim: “we work for the Church” is an empty claim, for if the “Church” for which they work is not primarily a praying and worshiping Church it is not “church”, whatever their work, effort and enthusiasm. Is it not indeed a tragic paradox: we build ever greater and richer and more beautiful churches and we pray less and less in them?…

All conversations about people being “busy” and “having no time” are no excuses. People were always busy, people always worked, and in the past they were, in fact, much busier and had more obstacles to overcome in order to come to Church. In the last analysis it all depends where the treasure of man is – for there will be his heart. The only difference between the present and the past is – and I have repeated this many times – that in the past a man knew that he had to make an effort, and that today he expects from the Church an effort to adjust herself to him and his “possibilities.”

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “Problems of Orthodoxy in the World,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 1965, pp. 188-189)

Feeling the Sting of the Good Samaritan Parable

Many people have noted that Jesus was not crucified because he tried to please the powers that be or because He told stories that were too hard to understand.   He was executed exactly because his actions caused apprehension to the people in power, and his teachings and parables clearly stung those who held positions of authority.

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Perhaps as one way of understanding the sting of the parables we Americans might consider the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) retold in a way that we feel what Christ’s listeners would have felt.  To do so we may have to tell the parable in two versions so that the opposite pole antagonists in America can hear the parable with the same burning bite Christ’s audience would have felt. [And note, I kept the story in the “he” just to be consistent, but you can tell the story in the “she” for the same effect for the point of my retelling lies not in the gender of any of the people involved.]

Version 1

A Republican went down from a red state to a blue state, and fell among illegal immigrant thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain Orthodox priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a successful business person arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Democrat, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, brought him to the emergency room, and staid up with him all night making sure he was cared for. On the next day, when he departed, he took out his credit card and told the hospital billing department, ‘Take care of him; and since they stole his wallet and he doesn’t have any money, or an ID, or an insurance card, whatever  you spend, charge it to my account.’ “So,” Jesus asks, “which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And we said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said,, “Go and do likewise.”

Version 2

“A Democrat went down from a blue state to a red state, and fell among gun toting thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain Orthodox priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a community organizer arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Republican, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, brought him to the emergency room, and staid up with him all night making sure he was cared for. On the next day, when he departed, he took out his credit card and told the hospital billing department, ‘Take care of him; and since they stole his wallet and he doesn’t have any money, or an ID, or an insurance card, whatever  you spend, charge it to my account.’ “So,” Jesus asks, “which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And we said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said,, “Go and do likewise.”

In America today, we seem totally divided as Democrats vs Republicans – every bit as divided as were Jews against Samaritans. But we claim to be a Christian nation.  So are we going to stop beating each other up like a bunch of thieves, leaving the others for dead?  These thieves are not the heroes in Christ’s parable.  Are we instead going to understand that what makes America great, what has been a strength sparking our ingenuity is our very diverse population?   The melting pot forged an American alloy which has proven quite strong and resilient in a world of adversity.

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We don’t have to agree on every issue, and in fact that is going to be impossible in a diverse culture.  But what makes our nation strong and great is that we have found ways to unite ourselves as a people despite our disagreements.  We were able to unite very diverse peoples in our Revolutionary War and we defeated the most powerful empire of that day.  Our Founding Fathers found the way to get people who disagreed on a great many things, and who had greater loyalty to their state than to a country, to work together as one nation under God to form these united states, a more perfect union.  The lessons and examples are there to be learned.

Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand…”  (Matthew 12:25)

Every Neighbor is Christ

The Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) deals with several questions which were asked or Jesus or implied in a conversation He had with a Jewish lawyer.  There are the stated questions of the lawyer:  Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  “And who is my neighbor?”  And there are the questions Jesus asked in return: “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”  and  “ which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”  Implied is the question: who is the person to whom I can be a neighbor?

Through the centuries Christians have attempted to live the Gospel commandments and to establish rules and guidelines to help each other fulfill the teachings of Christ.  St. Benedict of Nursia was one monk who attempted to help his fellow Christians follow Christ.

For it was the central purpose of Benedict’s Rule to teach novice monks how to “renounce themselves in order to follow Christ,” how to “advance in the ways [of Christ] with the Gospel as our guide,” and, by persevering in the monastic life, how to “share by patience in the passion of Christ and hereafter deserve to be united with him in his kingdom” – in a single formula, “not to value anything more highly than the love of Christ.” The love of Christ, moreover, modified one of the basic impulses that had originally led to the rise of monasticism. “Deep in the monastic consciousness is solitude,” writes a historian of Western asceticism. But, he continues, “you discover to your vexation that deep in the Christian consciousness, ran the axiom that you must receive strangers as though they were Christ, and they really might be Christ.”

Therefore, quoting the Gospel (Matt. 25:35), Benedict specified in his Rule: “All guests coming to the monastery shall be received as Christ.”

(Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries, Mary Through the Centuries, pp. 143-144)

Treat the person you meet, neighbor or stranger, as you would treat Christ.

Samaritans Good and Bad

Luke’s inclusion of several narratives about Samaritans demonstrates also his interconnection with peace and justice, as God’s gospel way in Jesus Christ to overcome enmity and evil. The lawyer by seeking to justify himself draws forth Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. In the face of God’s love commands, the lawyer seeks self-justification. In contrast, Jesus’ parable shows love compassionately aiding not only an unknown neighbor, but a known enemy – and the hands of love are those of a Samaritan! The narrative shifts from the question, “who is the neighbor whom I am commanded to love?” to another, “am I a loving neighbor even to the enemy?”

To be such a neighbor ensures one of eternal life, and it does not test with evil intent the Teacher of truth and life. The Good Samaritan story climaxes Luke’s first segment in his Journey Narrative, which is thus framed by the Samaritan theme, for in 9:54 the disciples wanted to rain fire down upon a Samaritan village because of its rejection of the journeying prophet Jesus (cf. 2 Kgs. 1:10, 12). But Jesus rebuked them (9:55), thus expelling their evil desire.

(Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace, pp. 143-144)

To Be Human Is To Be Like God

We can begin to expand on this by looking at what it means to say humanity is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6), a metaphor that is scarce in Scripture but that has come to play a huge part in Christian discussions of the uniqueness of human beings. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image’” (Gen. 1:26). Today there is fairly widespread agreement that, as used in Genesis at least, image does not refer to a possession or endowment (like mind, reason, free will) but is a relational term. That is, it makes no sense without considering our relation to God – as God’s unique “counterpart” or covenant partner (we can know and love God in return) – and because of that, to other creatures, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate.

Crucial also is the notion of representation: as God’s counterparts, human beings are God’s earthly representatives, his vice-regents, in the way that an ancient monarch was seen to represent a god or a physical image to represent a king. Bound up with this is the idea of resemblance or similarity: as God’s partners, humans are in some sense like God (hence the pairing of image with likeness). In short, to say that we are created in God’s image is to say that we are created as God’s unique counterparts and hence God’s representatives on earth, embodying, as creatures and alongside other creatures, the action and presence of God in and to the word.”

(Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth, p. 202)