In the 1980s, during the heyday of the “Yuppie” (Young Urban Professional), the following joke was going around Los Angeles in general and Malibu in particular where I was the Vicar.
A Yuppie was driving through Malibu Canyon in his new Maserati. Losing control of the car, he skidded and crashed, the car going over the embankment and down to the canyon floor, where it burst into flames. Luckily the driver, clad in what was left of his Armani suit, escaped and stood there watching his car burn. A passerby stopped and tried to see if he could help.
“My Maserati, my Maserati!” cried the Yuppie in despair.
“Forget about your Maserati,” said the passerby. You lost your left arm in the accident!”
The Yuppie looked at his empty coat sleeve, back at the passerby, and then down at the flaming ruins. He started to scream once more:
“My Rolex, my Rolex!”
In some ways that joke makes one of the points in Jesus’s parable of the rich fool better than any sermon might. 1980s Young Urban Professionals were not the first and will not be the last people on the planet who, to use Jesus’s words, “store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God”. Approached by a man who wanted him to split his inheritance with him, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool:
"The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then 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; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'’” [Luke 12. 16b-20]
It is human nature to seek security, and one of the ways we delude ourselves is into thinking that things (possessions, weapons, status, achievements, power) will insulate us from the consequences of our fragility. The rich fool is a fool not because he is rich but because he thinks that being rich inoculates him from the dangers and vicissitudes of life. Our real problem, of course, is that we are vulnerable to the changes and chances of living in the world. We cannot live very long open to or conscious of our vulnerability. So we place our hope in things that promise to make us safe.
The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived this way too, until his resistance to the Nazis landed him in a German prison in World War II. When he was in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote notes for a possible book about the idea of insurance as an advanced version of this problem. In his book outline, Bonhoeffer wrote of what he called
The safeguarding of life against ‘accidents’ and ‘blows of fate’; even if these cannot be eliminated, the danger can be reduced. Insurance (which, although it lives on ‘accidents’, seeks to mitigate their effects) as a wetern phenomenon. The aim: to be independent of nature. [Bonhoeffer, "Letters and Papers" from Prison, p. 380]
I want a life free of accidents and blows of fate. In revolt against my own vulnerability, I think that I can spread risk and so make it go away. But Jesus tells us what Bonhoeffer and others have had also to learn, often at great cost: to be alive is to be at risk. If by “safety” we mean invulnerability to accidents and blows of fate, then the only time you’ll ever be perfectly safe is when you’re dead.
When we hear the parable of the rich fool, our thoughts usually go first to the question of possessions. We do invest ourselves in our things, and to the extent that our things serve as idols diverting our attention from God, they can be pernicious. But a lifetime of experience has convinced me that possessions are not the only false bet we can make with the universe. We also place a high valuation on other passing, illusory things too, like accomplishments and reputation. If my Maserati or my Rolex won’t save me, maybe my Ph.D. or my résumé will.
As I thought about these things I noticed a story earlier this week about Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize laureate retired Archbishop of Capetown who has, since his retirement, continued to be a voice for reconciliation and justice on the world stage. He’s nearing 80 now, and an article in The Guardian (July 22, 2010) proclaimed in banner headlines, “Archbishop Desmond Tutu announces retirement from public life”. Here, in part, is part of what Desmond Tutu said:
Instead of growing old gracefully, at home with my family, reading and writing and praying and thinking, too much of my time has been spent at airports and in hotels. The time has now come to slow down, to sip rooibos tea with my beloved wife in the afternoons, to watch cricket, to travel to visit my children and grandchildren, rather than to conferences and conventions and university campuses. I have done as much as I can and need time to do things I have really wanted to do. I do want a little more quiet. ["The Guardian", 7/22/10]
Now at first glance Archbishop Tutu’s announcement seems unrelated to Jesus’s parable of the rich fool. Certainly no one could ever accuse such a beloved and prophetic religious leader of using his possessions to insulate himself from the fragility of life. But there is a sense in which what Tutu says connects directly with Jesus’s teaching in today’s parable. “So it is with those who . . . are not rich toward God.” In deciding that he has reached a point in his life where he needs to direct his energy to people closer to home, the Archbishop has demonstrated enormous wisdom. He has accepted, acknowledged, made peace with his own fragility and his own mortality. In the public sphere, he has done all he can to advance God’s work. He understands that he has a limited time left on the earth. And he has readjusted his values and priorities in order to use that time in a way that will further his spiritual journey.
In one sense, there is nothing new in this: in many world cultures, the transition from maturity to age is a movement from achievement to wisdom. So there certainly is precedent for Archbishop Tutu’s movement from a life of action to one of contemplation. But there is more to it than that. In exiting the world stage, Desmond Tutu is giving up a lot of the benefits of public life. He has influence, celebrity, and an audience wherever he goes. He loves people and people love him. And now, he is willing and ready, at age 80, to give up the adrenaline rush of world celebrity (itself a kind of false security) for a new adventure: going within, deepening his knowledge of himself and his connection to his family. And he’s doing this, I believe, precisely because he knows what the rich fool in Jesus’s story does not know. He knows, in Jesus’s words, that “one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”—be they material or otherwise. He knows that his life is finite and he is fragile. And he knows that there is no cure for that condition. The only way out of living in terror of one’s finitude is to learn to live into it.
In today’s reading from Colossians, Paul gets at what Jesus tells us by a different means:
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. [Colossians 3.1-3]
According to Paul, you and I have been “raised with Christ”; we are to set our minds on “things that are above.” For a Christian, life only makes ultimate sense from God’s point of view. We only see and know ourselves partially. As Paul says, our “life is hidden in Christ with God”. To quote another mid-20th century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, even though human life is fragmentary,
The fragmentary character of human life is not regarded as evil in Biblical faith because it is seen from the perspective of a centre of life and meaning in which each fragment is related to the plan of the whole, to the will of God. ["The Nature and Destiny of Man", I, p. 168]
In other words: what looks partial and incomplete from our point of view looks complete and whole from God’s. Standing, as each of us does, in the middle of an incomplete process, our lives can look chaotic or worse. That is why we reach for signs and symbols—even false ones like things, achievements, or power over others—as ways of reassuring ourselves that it all makes sense. But God does not see your life as you see it. God sees your life from God’s point of view, intimately connected with all the rest of God’s creatures in God’s world. So what is hidden to you is absolutely manifest to God. And what is most clearly manifest to God about you is this: you are made in God’s image, worthy of dignity and respect. You matter. And because you matter God calls you to share with God in the redemption and reclamation of the world.
The rich fool did not know that about himself, and so squandered his life in trying to play it safe. He said, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Jesus says to you: from God’s point of view, your life is beautiful and holy and whole. You are more valuable than any of the lesser things on which you set so much store. Those things—possessions, achievements, power, privileges—will not save you. Only the abundant, unconditional love of God—freely on offer to all of us simply because we matter to God—will. This is the great truth of Christianity. It is why we gather weekly in places like this to give thanks. Seen from God’s perspective and in that light, it is a very good thing that we now come together at God’s table to eat, drink, and be merry.
So: relax. “One’s life does not consist in the abundance [or lack] of possessions.” “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Amen.