The Gospel for July 31st, 2016: “Saying Against Greed” and “Parable of the Rich Fool”
Reflection: Justice and Salvation are Only Possible through Jesus
Today’s reading in its excerpted form is a well-crafted point that functions as effective moral instruction. This is a fairly typical example of Jesus in His role as teacher. What I mean is that lines 13-15 introduce this problem where a brother is not sharing his inheritance with another brother, a move that can be easily understood as greed. This prompts Jesus to make a cautionary statement against greed with, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions” (15). That point made, he follows up with a parable to illustrate the insidious and futile nature of greed by telling the story of the rich fool who saves his bounty for a life of leisure, failing to recognize, until God points it out to him, it is foolish to save for a life in this world that could end at any time (16-21).
Even though as a writer I understand the value of clarity, there is a danger in passages like this to reduce Jesus’s message to codified moral instruction. In other words, to read greed is bad; share your bounty with others. Such simple messages, though truthful, sometimes fail to give the reader a sense of the far-reaching scope of every one of Jesus’s moral teachings as they relate to salvation. Fortunately, there is a clue to that larger picture in Jesus’s response to the man who asks Jesus to intercede on his behalf so that he may receive his rightful portion of the inheritance kept by his brother. Jesus asks him, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator” (14)? I think it is reasonable to wonder about that question. Isn’t Jesus judge and arbitrator? Aren’t there many clues throughout the Bible that suggest He will come again to judge the living and the dead? Is Jesus objecting to the greed in the man’s question? Or is He leading him to the fact that Jesus has been appointed judge by God the Father in heaven? Such questions lead us to a deeper, more meaningful interpretation of Jesus’s role as savior.
Let’s start by considering the man’s request: “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me” (13). He is seeking justice, the law is on his side, and Jesus has the moral authority as teacher to settle this dispute. So, in worldly understanding, this man has done nothing wrong. Yet in the way Jesus responds, it is unclear who is being condemned as greedy. It could just as easily be the slighted brother for concerning himself with obtaining his rightful part of the inheritance as the brother who is keeping it from him. It is in that possibility that I want to direct my interpretation and point out that it has been heavily influenced by my reading of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Christ. Rutledge asks her readers to reconsider how we understand words like justice and justification and their relationship to mercy. Often, we want to separate them and only consider the need for punishment or in contrast move quickly past justice to forgiveness in an effort to be merciful. Both of these understandings are misguided because they fail to understand justice in light of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Justification, according Rutledge, is better understood as rectification. Jesus’s death and resurrection are necessary to make right for all corporate sins of humankind. He comes, not strictly to judge in the worldly sense, but to save us from sin. Whether the sin is greed or pride or any other manifestation of separation ourselves from God, we cannot do this for ourselves. We need to Jesus and the grace He has provided by dying for our sins on the cross.
This helps explain why Jesus does not accept the role of judge and arbitrator in this reading, and why he does not assign blame for greed to one brother or the other. We all share in the power of sin, which we cannot escape without Jesus. If this act of injustice is seen only in worldly terms, our path to salvation may be misunderstood. Single acts of righteousness by humans do not cancel out the overwhelming power of corporate sin. They draw us closer to our savior as we share in His unselfish love, but their good should not be seen as redemptive without Christ. If the one brother gives back to the other his portion, he is still a sinner. If the other brother turns the other cheek and resists the temptation of greed or anger at the injustice, he is still vulnerable to sin without relying on the grace that helped him to do right at that moment. I read today’s gospel in this way to avoid a legalistic understanding of the message. If I do a certain number of truly unselfish acts, I have not proven my worthiness to Jesus as judge or arbitrator, allowing me to “rest, eat, drink, be merry” (19). For humans, sin persists, as does Jesus’s grace and mercy. So the press of the gospel persists. We go to Jesus daily, hourly, minute to minute, as sinners, humbly turning to Him and attempting to participate in His love. Sometimes we need to hear the more theological wording of John’s gospel to fully grasp the nature of sin and Jesus’s role as savior. In John 12, He makes his role plain: “And if anyone hears my words and does not observe them, I do not condemn him, for I did not come to condemn the world but to save the world” (47). He did not come as judge to condemn, but as a savior to save willing participants. When we treat justice as the world does, we become shortsighted and greedily see sin in terms of our own actions, either for or against our credit personally. Jesus does not want us to forget that not only do we share in sin with all our brothers and sisters and but also in their salvation as well. The goal is to save us all. He asks us to turn to Him for that mission and give our lives to help.