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Possessed by a Thing

Lectionary Reflections for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (C)

By Michael Battle

 

Readings for Pentecost 9, Proper 13, Year C, August 1, 2004

Hosea 11:1-11 or Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 107:1-9, 43 or Psalm 49:1-11
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

 

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “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?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:13-21, NRSV)

 

What do we do about the enigma of Jesus' stories? For example, in a subsequent chapter in Luke beyond today's gospel, Jesus apparently praises a loan shark (Luke 16:8-9):

“And the master applauded the dishonest steward for acting so astutely.   For in dealing with their own kind, the children of this world are more astute than the children of light. So I say to you, use your worldly wealth to win friends for yourselves, so that when money is a thing of the past you may be received into an eternal home.”

 

Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of the New Testament ( The Message , Navpress) helps me with today's gospel of the “Rich Fool”:

Now here's a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way – but for what is right – using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you'll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.

What sticks out in this paraphrase for me is the sentence, “I want you to be smart in the same way – but for what is right – using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival . . .”

There is another well-told story that helps us think about the “Rich Fool” compared to the unjust steward:

Two men, both seriously ill, occupied the same hospital room. One man was allowed to sit up in his bed for an hour each afternoon to help drain the fluid from his lungs. His bed was next to the room's only window.

The other man had to spend all his time flat on his back. The men talked for hours on end. They spoke of their wives and families, their homes, their jobs, their involvement in the military service, where they had been on vacation. And every afternoon when the man in the bed by the window could sit up, he would pass the time by describing to his roommate all the things he could see outside the window.

The man in the other bed began to live for those one-hour periods where his world would be broadened and enlivened by all the activity and color of the world outside. The window overlooked a park with a lovely lake. Ducks and swans played on the water while children sailed their model boats. Young lovers walked arm in arm amidst flowers of every color of the rainbow. Grand old trees graced the landscape, and a fine view of the city skyline could be seen in the distance.

As the man by the window described all this in exquisite detail, the man on the other side of the room would close his eyes and imagine the picturesque scene. One warm afternoon the man by the window described a parade passing by. Although the other man couldn't hear the band, he could see it in his mind's eye as the gentleman by the window portrayed it with descriptive words.

Then unexpectedly, a sinister thought entered his mind. Why should the other man alone experience all the pleasures of seeing everything while he himself never got to see anything? It didn't seem fair.

At first thought the man felt ashamed. But as the days passed and he missed seeing more sights, his envy eroded into resentment and soon turned him sour. He began to brood and he found himself unable to sleep. He should be by that window – that thought, and only that thought now controlled his life. Late one night as he lay staring at the ceiling, the man by the window began to cough. He was choking on the fluid in his lungs. The other man watched in the dimly lit room as the struggling man by the window groped for the button to call for help. Listening from across the room he never moved, never pushed his own button which would have brought the nurse running in. In less than five minutes the coughing and choking stopped, along with that the sound of breathing. Now there was only silence-deathly silence.

The following morning the day nurse arrived to bring water for their baths. When she found the lifeless body of the man by the window, she was saddened and called the hospital attendants to take it away. As soon as it seemed appropriate, the other man asked if he could be moved next to the window. The nurse was happy to make the switch, and after making sure he was comfortable, she left him alone. Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one elbow to take his first look at the world outside. Finally, he would have the joy of seeing it all himself. He strained to slowly turn to look out the window beside the bed. It faced a blank wall.

The man asked the nurse what could have compelled his deceased roommate who had described such wonderful things outside this window. The nurse responded that the man was blind and could not even see the wall. She said, “Perhaps he just wanted to encourage you.”

[O]ne lesson stands out: There is tremendous happiness in making others happy, despite our own situations . Even through the intentional delusions of a blind man, one can experience God's happiness, which is worth more than all the world's wealth. Shared grief is half the sorrow, but happiness when shared, is doubled.

Like Jesus' parables, you can interpret the story in many ways. But one lesson stands out: There is tremendous happiness in making others happy, despite our own situations . Even through the intentional delusions of a blind man, one can experience God's happiness, which is worth more than all the world's wealth. Shared grief is half the sorrow, but happiness when shared, is doubled. The dishonesty of the blind man who pretended to see a world outside a window was the attempt to feel rich in a different way.   The blind man was saying: Just count all of the things you have instead of dwelling on what you don't have.

When I heard this story of the blind man against the wall, it made me think of Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of Jesus, “I want you to be smart in the same way – but for what is right – using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival . . .” The sin of the “Rich Fool” was in his lack of imagination (his lack of vision) to see past his wall. All of meaning was limited; so, life meant that he had to hoard resources. But Jesus teaches us to look beyond what we see . . . to imagine better realities, and to implement them here to create better futures.

E. Stanley Jones, missionary and writer in India, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times and awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize in 1961, wrote, “When I go to India, I have to apologize for many things: for Western civilization, for it is only partly Christianized; for the Christian Church, often it too is only partly Christianized; for myself, for I am only a Christian-in-the making.   But when it comes to Jesus, there are no apologies on my lips, for there are none in my heart. He is our one perfect possession” (p.52).

In today's gospel, Jesus shows us that we have heavenly worth or we have limited worth. If we choose the former, i.e., heavenly worth, we develop a human character that is incapable of seeing human nature as more than some make it out to be (evil and limited). Jesus helps us see that we are really of infinite worth. If we only choose the latter, limited worth, we develop a human character that is incapable of seeing human nature as other than it really is. Jesus teaches us that if we live in heavenly value then we live in the reality that no earthly object can satisfy us; therefore, no human being should exist as an object but as a subject.

For you see, any creature or thing set up as our final end, inevitably blocks our vision of the true God. And since an idol is not God, no matter how sincerely it is treated as God, it is bound to fail. Even good motives for idolatry cannot remove the objective fact that the idol is an unreality. As Augustine thought, “Food in dreams is exactly like real food, yet what we eat in our dreams does not nourish: for we are dreaming” (from Confessions ).

Pain (like that of a blind man, or a frantic loan shark, or “Rich Fool” or disciple who has lost a pearl) . . . pain wakes us up to this reality that this world needs to be possessed by God. St. Paul alerts us to this fact that here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling.   By putting it on, we may not be found naked.   For a little while we are still in this existence, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life (2 Corinthians 5:2-4).

We learn the essential lesson: do not attempt to possess things, for things cannot really be possessed. Only make sure you are not possessed by them, lest your god change.

So, what do we do about the enigma of Jesus apparently praising a loan shark and condemning the “rich fool”? I think we do this: we learn. We learn from Jesus' method of teaching through parables. We learn laterally. We learn the essential lesson: do not attempt to possess things, for things cannot really be possessed. Only make sure you are not possessed by them, lest your god change. And from this lesson, two resulting truths emerge from our peripheral vision. First: Our loyalties indicate where we are searching. And second: Our loyalties indicate what kind of life possesses us.

This parable by Anthony de Mello ( The Heart of the Enlightened , p.29) helps me explain:

The master sat in meditation on the riverbank when a disciple bent down to place two enormous pearls at his feet, a token of reverence and devotion. The master opened his eyes, lifted up one of the pearls, and held it so carelessly that it slipped out of his hand and rolled down the bank into the river. The horrified disciple plunged headfirst in after it . . . he dived in again and again till late evening, he had no luck. Finally, all wet and exhausted, he roused the master from his meditation [and the disciple said]: “You saw where it fell.   Show me the spot so I can get it back for you.” The master lifted the other pearl, threw it into the river, and said, “Right there!”

 

The Rev. Michael Battle, Ph.D. is assistant professor of spirituality and black church studies at Duke University Divinity School, and rector of St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in Raleigh, N.C. He is author of Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu (Pilgrim Press) and The Wisdom of Desmond Tutu (Westminster-JohnKnox). Michael is a Witness contributing editor, and may be reached by email at mbattle@div.duke.edu .