It’s holiday season and many people are making for the coast. One of my favourite places since childhood is Whitby and I know I’m not alone in loving the place. It has been in the news recently for a different reason - the number of second homes in the town. The sad thing for many ordinary residents in places where people buy extra houses is that it makes life more expensive for the less well off. Some local people are beginning to find themselves excluded.
Jesus uses a parable in the gospel today, telling of a man who stockpiled more crops than he needed and who built bigger barns to store the goods. The setting might be less familiar to us than a northern English seaside town, but it would have been very topical for people in Galilee at that time. Rich absentee landlords lived in great comfort in Herod’s new cities on the rents and quotas levied on the ordinary workers on their estates. They helped themselves to the best of the crops, whilst the ordinary workers had to subsist on a much poorer diet. Those who did all the work could find themselves excluded from the benefit of this, whilst the wealthy built bigger barns to house all the excess. It was far more than they could use for themselves. No doubt those who heard the parable would have known exactly what Jesus was talking about.
It seems unlikely that Jesus was telling this parable in an angry way or trying to incite the people he was speaking to. People were used to the wealthy having more than enough. They were also used to their own lives being a struggle to get by. Jesus seems to be indifferent to the authorities. Instead of anger in his parable, there was probably a note of wry humour. The man was preparing to enjoy his vast riches and to find his security in new and bigger barns, but then off he pops. His barns and crops are of no use to him anymore. As in the words of the psalm:
“You sweep men away like a dream
Like grass that springs up in the morning.”
Even stories and humour can be dangerous and can provoke a strong reaction from the authorities. The emperor doesn’t like to be reminded that his new clothes are a bit on the skimpy side.
So Jesus is not trying to start a revolution. The parable is not really aimed at the wealthy man at all. In fact, the man appears in the end as a tragic figure and we are invited to feel sorry for him despite his greed. Jesus is really pointing to the futility of putting all of our work into building up treasure on earth. There are things we need to live a good life, but there comes a point where stockpiling can be of no real use to us. Psychologists tell us that hoarding things can sometimes be a denial of our mortality – a way of fooling ourselves that we can find the security we long for in having all these things. The parable reminds us that this kind of security is an illusion. So too is the striving to find happiness in building up more and more possessions.
In our anxiety about what we have and what we want, we can forget where our real treasure lies. St Paul shows us that it is better to aim for higher things – for the things that last for eternity. He tells us:
“Since you have been brought back to true life with Christ, you must look for the things that are in heaven.”
This is not about pie in the sky, but a recognition that when we love God and when we grow in faith, in generosity, in compassion, we discover true riches. The desire for more and more can make us meaner and more fearful. Ecclesiastes has some words to say about this: “Vanity of vanities.” We cannot take any of these things with us in the end, but lives that are rich in love for God and for other people are lives that store up treasure in heaven.
Jesus gives us the bread of eternal life. We receive in the Eucharist this food for our journey. What we receive from God in faith will never leave us hungry or thirsty. So let us pray that God may help us to let go of all that enslaves us here on earth. May we discover the true value of our lives and know where our real treasure is kept.