The Religion of Self: A Sermon for 8 Pentecost, Proper 13
To be honest, I can sympathize with the man who asks Jesus to tell his brother to divide up the family inheritance. That seems fair enough for this guy who obviously isn’t the first-born male in his family. Perhaps he had heard about some of Jesus’ teachings that were turning the ways of the world upside down…the ones about the last being first, healing on the Sabbath, and children being a model for faithfulness. Why not include family inheritances being shared equally among all children? That would certainly help in caring for the widows and orphans. At first glance, I don’t find this man’s desire and request to be too misguided or selfish.
But perhaps it was this man’s timing that was off-base. We must remember that at this point in his ministry, Jesus has “set his face towards Jerusalem.” He and his disciples were headed to the place where he would be executed for claiming to be the King of the Jews and the messiah.
With that in mind, Jesus had just finished having a very serious talk with his disciples, where he mentioned to them that if they acknowledged that they were his follower, they too would eventually be brought before the synagogues, rulers, and authorities. And while that dim reality might instill fear in them, they are not to worry. The Holy Spirit would be with them, and would give them the words to say.
So with that sort of heavy conversation as a backdrop, one might understand why this random man from the crowd’s request for a piece of his brother’s financial pie was a little off-putting to Jesus. So much of life is about context, timing, and delivery.
But this encounter does an excellent job of highlighting where Jesus’ mind was in that moment, and that ever since he “turned his face towards Jerusalem,” he has been laser focused on the mission of ushering in the kingdom of God. And as he and his disciples march towards Jerusalem, Jesus is doing his best to communicate clearly that the kingdom that he was ushering in was nothing like the kingdoms of this world. As we have seen over the past few weeks, one way that Jesus does this is through telling parables, which can be effective ways of communicating a deeper truth through the power of narrative. These parables often highlight the difference between the values and ways of the kingdom of heaven over and against the kingdoms of the world. In God’s kingdom, love, justice, mercy, and grace take precedent over anything else. The violence, greed, competitiveness, and self-centeredness that infect the hearts of the world that is East of Eden has no place in the kingdom of heaven.
In today’s parable, greed is front and center, but we also catch a subtle glimpse of the “religion of self,” which I think is at the heart of the parable. Martin Smith points out the “pseudo-spiritual dialogue that the rich man has with himself. He seems to pray as he addresses his own soul, taking inventory of his assets. He reviews the privileged lifestyle to which he entitles himself [by saying], ‘And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: Relax! Eat, drink, be merry!” And Smith goes on to call this way of thinking as the “religion of self.” And here in our context - 2,000 years later - the religion of self is alive and well. Some might be more subtle than the man in the parable – and some quite frankly are not – but perhaps the biggest stumbling block that lies between the world’s values and kingdom of heaven values is the idolatry of self.
The apostle Paul addresses this very issue, but less creatively than does Jesus. Paul wasn’t as apt to engage one’s imagination through parables…he was usually far less subtle. In the portion of his letter to the Colossians that we heard from today, Paul is also juxtaposing the kingdoms of heaven and the world when he writes, “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.” The death that Paul mentions is the death of baptism, when we are plunged into the waters of baptism, where we die to our old selves and are raised up as a new creation and a new life in Christ. Our baptismal identity grants us a new citizenship, and supersedes our citizenship in this world.
Paul loved lists, and today’s reading has two lists of vices – both of which point to the ways of the world. Perhaps the most telling vice in these lists is greed, because it is the only one that he expands upon by calling it idolatry. As a person who was so committed to the Jewish Law for most of his life, Paul wouldn’t use the word “idolatry” lightly. In the Jewish world, anyone charged with idolatry was a blasphemer against God, which was punishable by death. For Paul, greed was nothing short of blasphemy. And the only way to overcome the human proclivity to greed was to make Christ our “all in all.”
Our parable today is a warning against making our own selves – and all of our stuff – our “all in all.” The worst thing that we can do when we hear this and other parables is to focus our energy on the man’s shortcomings, and say as we do here in the South – “Bless his poor, selfish heart.” We miss the mark when we fail to put ourselves in the parable, or if we fail to read Paul’s letters as being addressed to us as well.
In about a month, we will begin our annual pledge campaign here at Christ the King. Today’s lessons – including the ones from Ecclesiastes and the Psalm – are an invitation for us to begin prayerfully discerning where our hearts are. What are our priorities? Keep in mind that Jesus doesn’t condemn the man in the parable for being successful, or for accumulating a lot of wealth. The condemnation has to do with the man’s unwillingness to share what he has accumulated, for fear that he might not have enough for the future. But the man’s greed is symptomatic of a deeper sin, which is the fact that the man it utterly self-absorbed - his priorities are out of order. I think that annual stewardship campaigns at churches are really as much about priorities than they are time, talent, and treasure. What if we called it our annual Priority Setting campaign; or our taking an annual inventory not of our stuff, but our priorities.
Jesus told stories, and Paul wrote letters that contained lists. Both were means for communicating the gospel – the Good News that God’s reign is here, and in God’s kingdom, there is simply enough for us all. There is enough mercy, grace, and stuff for everyone. And most importantly, there is enough love for everyone. How might we embrace the enough-ness of God’s kingdom, and as a faithful response to our new life in Christ through our baptisms, share what God has blessed us with for the furthering of God’s kingdom?