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)

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)

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)

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)

To See or Not To See

And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: “You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials which your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders; but to this day the LORD has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear    (Deuteronomy 29:2-4)
In the above quote, within a single sentence, Moses tells the Israelites both that they have seen  with their eyes what God has done for them . . . and that God has not given them eyes to see.  Moses must be speaking in some figurative way about seeing and eyesight to claim both things as true.  Though the Israelites witnessed what God was doing, they didn’t fully comprehend it.  They saw the events but didn’t understand the significance of the events.  They saw things happening but didn’t fully realize it was God’s own hand bringing things about.  They didn’t see God in the events.
Moses words are perhaps the description of us Orthodox at every Pascha or at every Divine Liturgy.  We see the Paschal celebration, we see heaven opened, we see on earth what is in heaven, we see Christ risen from the dead . . . and yet we can walk away without seeing God.  God is in our midst and yet we leave the Liturgy unchanged by the experience.
Israel was able to contemplate the face of God in the temple.  It was not just some mirage, but a glimpse of God’s face, however fleeting,  blink and it is gone.    “… like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”   (Psalm 103:15-16)
Yet we have to have the eyes to see it at all, to know that is what we are looking at.  What was it we saw?  Something?  Nothing?  Did we see reality before us or did we really see anything at all?  Every year at Pascha we claim to be witnesses to the resurrection.  At every Liturgy we proclaim, “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly spirit, we have found the true faith…”   Have we?  If we have, would we not be completely transformed by that experience, no longer just living in the world and for the world?
Then the LORD said, “I have pardoned, according to your word; but truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs which I wrought in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the proof these ten times and have not hearkened to my voice, shall see the land which I swore to give to their fathers; and none of those who despised me shall see it.”    (Numbers 14:20-23)
There is a warning in this Numbers passage that even those who have seen God’s glory and signs may not enter into the promised land.   Even seeing God’s glory, as wonderful and awesome as that can be, is still no guarantee that we will choose to remain with God.  We might see God’s glory but not be able to see the goal of the spiritual life, the life in the world to come where we abide with God.
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.   . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. . . .  We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brother or sister, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.   (1 John 4:12-21)
St. John can say no one has seen God, but, despite that, God can live in us even if we can’t see God.  We can fully experience God and participate in God even without seeing God!  We can love and thus have God abide in us.  We first have to love our brothers and sisters in this world, those who we can see, before we can claim to love God.   We spiritually move from the known to the unknown.  What and who we can see in this world, we can know.  If we love and let God abide in us, we come to the God of love, to that which is unknown to us, and yet abides in us.  Our hearts and our eyes can be open to see God.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  (Matthew 5:8)

Christ with Everyone

I shall not be jealous, my Son, that You are both with me

and with everyone. Be God

to the one who confesses You, and be Lord

to the one who serves You, and be brother

to the one who loves You so that You might save all.

(Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns, p. 149)

St Ephrem writes that God the Father recognize that Christ is with every human being.  The Father wishes His Son to save all.   St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22
that he has “become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”   It isn’t God’s wish that only some be saved (see for example Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11).
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people”  (Titus 2:11).

St. Paul Living On Earth as In Heaven

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)

St. John Chrysostom writes about the Apostle:

“For this Paul, who stripped down to his flesh, renouncing his body, and almost naked, encircled the whole world with his soul, having exiled from his mind every passion. And imitating the apathea of the bodiless powers, and living on earth as if in heaven, and standing with the cherubim above, and taking part in their mystical song, he easily bore everything – enduring, as if he were in another’s body, imprisonment, chains, arrests, scourgings, threats of death, stonings, dunkings, and every other kind of punishment.”

(Letters to Saint Olympia, p. 78)