When the poet W B Yeats died in France in 1939, he was buried, as he requested, in a temporary grave before being repatriated to Ireland. The outbreak of the Second World War meant that repatriation was delayed until 1948. His remains now lie in the cemetery of the Protestant Church in Drumcliffe, County Sligo against the striking backdrop of the Ben Bulben mountains.
(Incidentally, ‘the purple headed mountain’ referred to in the final hymn today (All Things Bright and Beautiful) is Ben Bulben which at this time of year is covered in purple heather.)
Yeats’ grave is marked with a simple headstone with his self-penned epitaph, “cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman, pass by.”
This epitaph comes to mind as the author of our First Reading (Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2.21-23) does exactly what Yeats counselled. The Preacher (Qoheleth) casts a cold if not chilling eye on human life and does not flinch from what he sees there. He observes that when we have all we want we still are not content. He admits that the things which are supposed to satisfy us do not bring lasting satisfaction. Son in the face of impending death, he says that ‘all is vanity’ – everything we strive for is, ultimately, in vain, empty or valueless because we will die.
One example of this vanity, he claims, is to be found in matters of inheritance. For all the toil and affliction which we can put into acquiring wealth for the benefit of an heir, whether this heir will turn out to be a wise person or a fool, we cannot really know. How true …
This reading is chosen to accompany the Gospel (Luke 12:13-21) which opens with Jesus being invited to be a mediator in a dispute about inheritance. Being a mediator was a highly respected role in his culture. Conflicts over inheritance could easily escalate into serious family divisions and the role of the mediator was to head off litigation or, worse still, a feud that could lead to bloodshed. Jesus valued this role of mediator when he declared in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:9): “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.”
However, Jesus turns down the request to mediate. First, he responds to the invitation by saying he has not been formally appointed with the agreement of all parties to mediate in this dispute: “My friend, who appointed me your judge or the arbitrator of your claims?” Second, Jesus gives the real reason for his refusal: he suspects he is being drawn into a conflict driven by greed. And this leads him to tell a story known as the Parable of the Rich Fool.
It’s about a landowner, one of a tiny minority of people in Jesus’ world. At the prospect of a bumper harvest, this man wisely plans to knock down his inadequate storage barns in order to build bigger ones for the bumper crop of expected grain. Jesus finds no fault with such planning but it’s the man’s motive that’s condemned. He is planning for his own selfish ends: he’ll now be able to “take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time.” He has no thought for others. He has no thought for his community. He thinks only of himself. So he is guilty of sheer, naked greed.
What should he have done? In St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus continually warns against the dangers of wealth. In this instance, the landowner should distribute the surplus grain to others, especially the peasant farmers in his community who will run out of grain and, more than likely, pay an exorbitant price to him for it.
This greedy man is a ‘fool’, Jesus says. Nowhere else in the Gospels does Jesus call someone a fool. This ‘fool’ has failed to recognise that life is not made secure by what we own. True, lasting security, Jesus teaches, is to be found only in a right relationship with God which is then expressed in generosity to others.
We may not consider ourselves wealthy – although others might think otherwise. But greed, of course, is not limited to wealth. It can take many forms. For example, greed for power is almost as common nowadays as greed for wealth. And people can be greedy in their relationships. Greed is the opposite of the selfless love to which Jesus calls us.
The following questions come to mind if we are to apply Our Lord’s teaching:
- How do you go about making yourself ‘rich in the sight of God’, as the landowner failed to do?
- What have you found by experience to be more important in life than your possessions? What brought this home to you?
- Perhaps you have seen how greed can lead to trouble in public life, in family life and in the personal life of individuals? What has helped you to guard against greed? What benefits have you experienced when you were less greedy?
- Is there a situation where you could be a mediator, bringing people together to resolve their dispute?
- Have you made a Will? If you died today, would you leave an inheritance mess behind you?
Holy Name, Jesmond
4 August 2019