13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Rabbi, tell my brother to share with me the property we inherited.” 14 But Yeshua answered him, “My friend, who appointed me judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 Then to the people he said, “Be careful to guard against all forms of greed, because even if someone is rich, his life does not consist in what he owns.” 16 And he gave them this illustration: “There was a man whose land was very productive. 17 He debated with himself, ‘What should I do? I haven’t enough room for all my crops.’ 18 Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and I’ll store all my wheat and other goods there. 19 Then I’ll say to myself, “You’re a lucky man! You have a big supply of goods laid up that will last many years. Start taking it easy! Eat! Drink! Enjoy yourself!”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night you will die! And the things you prepared — whose will they be?’ 21 That’s how it is with anyone who stores up wealth for himself without being rich toward God.”
The term Luke uses for greed has a long history in Greek; pleonexia was defined by Greek philosophers and moralists as one of the worst human faults, a grasping, avaricious desire for more than one’s due share. It is pertinent this week when the pleonexia of so many rich people’s round the world has been revealed in the documents leaked from Panama. I wonder how David Cameron feels when he sees himself keeping company with the kind of robber barons who rule Russian and China. But perhaps, actually those who have dodged tax in this way feel no shame because the imagine everyone would do it if they could. PLeonexia has no morals, but many ordinary people in the world are not greedy and remain content to contribute to the common good. It’s just a pity the shameless rich are also often in power, because otherwise we could hang a few of them from lamp-posts if their behaviour became too nauseating.
Jesus told a story to illustrate his point. It is a beautifully simple tale, enlivened by the way in which the main character addresses himself and rehearses what he will say. This self-satisfaction is wonderfully rendered in just a few words. The man is obsessed with himself, his material achievement, and his capacity to increase his productivity. It is a personal example of the manic drive for economic growth which is at the heart of capitalism.
The logic of the story is difficult to grasp in modern translations that do not use the word “soul”. In the original the rich man speaks to his own soul, planning his life of ease. In the denouement God tells him, “this night I will demand your soul.” God acts as a creditor who is recalling his loan, and the rich man has a soul of no value. The things he considered as riches are not legal tender with God, and will only be of use to his heirs. Jesus advised his hearers to “store up treasure in heaven” by a acts of compassion, forgiveness and justice,,which are God’s currency.
It’s a wonderfully brief, characterful, witty, story that leaves no one in any doubt about Jesus’ teaching. The only difficulty lies in the refusal of many church members to accept it and apply it in their own lives. Few of us are quite ready for the warning Jesus issued. After all, perhaps we won’t die just yet, or even soon, and surely it’s OK to enjoy what we have earned. Well yes, but how will we make our returns to God when the time comes?
The truth of Jesus’ teaching is evident when we share experiences of justice, generosity and beauty, the real wealth of our fellow creatures. At such times we know what matters. Christian faith encourages us to trust this kind of wealth in all circumstances.