The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

The working title for this sermon could be “The Rich Fool, Part 2,” since in Luke’s staging we’re still in the scene that starts with that guy in the crowd’s “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus responds with the parable of the rich fool, and in today’s reading lays out its alternative.

The fool had said to himself “relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Jesus has no problem with the “eat, drink, be merry” part per se. Jesus is the one of whom people say “’Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Lk. 7:34). The prophet Isaiah: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (25:6). The problem is who isn’t participating—recall Lazarus at the rich man’s gate (Lk. 16:20). And as long as too many aren’t participating, “relax” doesn’t cut it.

There’s this to be said for the rich fool’s strategy: it provides a clear framework for organizing one’s life, measuring one’s progress. But, as Jesus argues in today’s reading, it’s doubly disconnected from reality. First, God is already generously giving what we can spend so much time stressing about. Why would God be less generous to us than to the ravens or lilies? Second, the rich fool’s strategy confuses precarious and stable wealth, a rookie mistake. Notice the contrast between these two verses: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (12:21) and “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (12:33-34). Nothing wrong with seeking treasure, but be smart about it.

Be smart about it. In today’s reading that means understanding that treasure is a byproduct of God’s kingdom (“strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well”). And notice the interesting tension in the verbs Jesus uses: “strive for his kingdom… it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” It’s that tension that prompted the saying usually attributed to Augustine: “pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on you.” I like what the Jesuit writer Jim Manney does with it: 

“’pray as if everything depends on you, and work as if everything depends on God.’ This means that prayer has to be urgent: God has to do something dramatic if everything depends on me. It also puts our work in the right perspective: if it depends on God, we can let it go. We can work hard but leave the outcome up to him. If God is in charge we can tolerate mixed results and endure failure.”[1]

So relax and strive are held in a tension that would make a Zen master smile.

What does that striving look like? Before continuing with our Gospel reading, let’s notice what the other readings contribute. Isaiah: “seek justice, / rescue the oppressed, / defend the orphan, / plead for the widow.” That doesn’t exhaust “strive for his kingdom,” but it’s an important part, and, as Jesus’ sheep and goats parable in Matthew suggests, one of the unexpected ways in which we meet Jesus (“’Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food… [Matt. 25:37]). The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us of Abraham and Sarah: sometimes “striv[ing] for his kingdom” involves doing things the neighbors think really dumb, leaving the comfortable urban life in Ur for the middle of nowhere. Remarkable how often we people of faith end up using “It’s only stupid if it doesn’t work.”

But back to Jesus. Jesus’ parable gives us one picture of striving for the kingdom; let’s give it some time. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.” We stay alert, we listen for Jesus knocking, we open the door. We can hear that parable, I think, as an invitation to respond to the opportunities God sets before us.

Recall Paul’s letter to Philemon. One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had run away, but had run into Paul and become a Christian. Paul could have simply sent Onesimus back without rocking the boat. Instead, he sees and takes the opportunity to remind Philemon that he and Onesimus are now brothers in Christ, and urges Philemon to pay attention to how that unsettles the owner-slave relationship.

Slavery. For centuries it was assumed to be simply part of how things are. Then William Wilberforce—an Anglican layman whose July 30 feast we just celebrated—and his colleagues saw an opportunity and—it was a long grind—got the slave trade abolished in the British Empire in 1807 and slavery itself in the Empire in 1833—with the exception of the territories held by the East India Company.[2]

That’s a telling exception. I like capitalism: wouldn’t want to part with my Honda, iPhone, or expresso maker. But capitalism, like any strong acid, needs solid containers—like “No Slavery”—or it does frightful damage. And we’re usually short on containers. Reuters reported record oil company profits at the end of last month: “Exxon, Chevron, Shell and Total returned a total of $23 billion to shareholders in the second quarter in dividends and share repurchases.”[3] Where might there be an opportunity to strengthen the distinction between fair pricing and price gouging?

Usually the opportunities are local. Your monthly gifts of resources to local charities are an important response. Jesus’ parable encourages us to continue to keep alert for further opportunities.

I love the banquet scene tucked in today’s reading. Early on in the scene we had the rich fool’s “relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Here, in Jesus’ parable “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.” That’s the banquet I want a seat at.


[1] https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/work-as-if-everything-depends-on-god/ (accessed 8/1/2022).

[2] See, conveniently, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Wilberforce and links (accessed 8/1/2022).

[3] https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/big-oils-q2-profits-hit-record-50-bln-with-bp-yet-come-2022-07-29/ (accessed 8/1/2022).

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