Luke | All the loneliness money can buy

Wealth buys us distance from other people: but it comes at a cost. (Listen.)

What can money buy? There are the obvious things, of course. The big house, the nice car, the Rolex. The overseas holiday. The designer dog. But what money really buys these days is distance from other people: large swathes of uninterrupted life. Large house blocks, where you cannot hear or see the neighbours. Private cars, for quiet, independent transport. Restaurants with plenty of space between the tables. Gated apartment buildings, entry by swipe key only. Noise-cancelling headphones, for when you can’t avoid the masses. A device per person, so every member of a household can stare into their own screen, alone.

This distance from other people extends into our financial lives. The more we earn, the less we talk about it. Households, even individuals within households, have private bank accounts; and everything around us tells us that investing well, pouring money into super, and paying up on our insurance will ensure a secure independent future, free from poverty, debt and entanglement with anyone else.

I was thinking about this the other night as I rewatched In the Heights. This movie offers a glimpse of a different way as characters across the generations do life together. They work together at the bodega or hair salon, hang out together at the pool, let themselves into each other’s apartments, provide security for one friend’s rental application and money for another’s immigration appeal, cook with their neighbours in tiny galley kitchens, eat together in small crowded dining rooms, mourn together when sadness strikes, and study in order to raise up the whole community.

Watching these intertwined lives reminded me of the dynamics I see in emergency relief and the informal economy among many residents of our local campgrounds. A kilo of rice is split up and passed around; an extra bar of soap is given away: and everyone seems to knows everybody else’s business.

And I was thinking about our largely middle-class congregation living on quarter-acre blocks or even acreages, as we do, with our houses discreetly tucked away from neighbours whose predicaments we hear about on Facebook, if at all.

In tonight’s story, a story, I suggest, directed precisely to people like us, we meet two rich men. The first comes to Jesus and asks him to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him; the second is in the story Jesus offers in response. To the brother whose family is wealthy enough to provide an inheritance, Jesus gives short shrift. He says, ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for life isn’t about how much you own.’ Then he tells a story of land which produces abundantly, and a rich man who wonders what to do with the bumper crop.

This rich landowner doesn’t talk with the workers, who presumably planted and harvested the grain. He doesn’t talk with his brother or wife or sons, but you can bet there’s a brother and a wife and sons. He doesn’t speak with the poor man lying at the gate: and there is always a poor man lying at the gate. He doesn’t even consult the judges and town elders, who make decisions about family disputes, inheritances, and harvests for the benefit of the community.

Instead, the rich man talks only to himself. And in his self-made wisdom, he decides to tear down his already overflowing barns and to build bigger ones to store the harvest and his many goods. And then he says to himself, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry!’

Two things about this strike me.

First, how lonely he is! For the rich man plans to use his wealth to secure his own future: but it has left him all alone. He’s portrayed as a self-made man, oblivious to the land which has produced this abundance; oblivious to the poor with whom he might share the harvest; silent as to workers or family or friendship; and ignorant of the power of human connection to transform even ordinary meals into feasts.

And so I doubt that he really can ‘eat, drink, be merry!’ Rather, I suspect something more along the lines of desperate solitary binging as he tries to fill the emptiness inside him and drive away the gnawing question of what the hell life’s all about. A few years ago, Rebecca Solnit wrote a profile of Donald Trump in which she portrayed him as the loneliest man in America; and that about sums it up.

The second thing that strikes me is that if the rich man had listened to anyone else, they might have critiqued his bible. For he quotes Isaiah but, like so many rich men, he quotes scripture partially, and out of context. Where God calls for weeping and mourning, Isaiah tells us, the people feast; and while 22:13 indeed says, ‘Let us eat and drink,’ it finishes with the stark words: ‘for tomorrow we die’ … and then, by implication, we’ll be back to sons arguing over an inheritance, and the beginning of tonight’s story.

Friends, most of us have houses, land, sheds, superannuation, and intensely private lives; we know the distance created by middle class wealth. So where does this story leave us?

Well, I don’t think it’s saying that we should all get rid of all our houses and possessions: although there might be an invitation for some of us. In Acts, Luke describes faithful households who live in their own homes: and they’re not being criticised. Indeed, most early churches met in private homes, just as we here at Sanctuary meet in a private home. Homes can be an important resource in incarnating God’s culture.

But I do think the story is an invitation to be alert to the ways greed can hollow us out. It’s a cautionary tale describing how wealth can separate us from siblings, from neighbours, from the poor, and from each other: and it’s a spur to take corrective action, whatever that needs to be. And it’s an encouragement to notice the drive to earn just that little bit more, to own just that one more thing, to shore up just that one extra security: and to seek instead only the security of God’s kingdom-culture.

Because Jesus says, ‘Life isn’t about how much you own …’, and God calls the acquisitive man a nincompoop. So what, then, does life really consist of? What does it mean to be ‘rich towards God’ (12:21)? And how does our wealth get in the way? Ω

A reflection by Alison Sampson on Luke 12:13-21 (Year C Proper 13) given to Sanctuary on 31 July 2022 © Sanctuary 2022. Photo by Nik Shuliahin 💛💙 on Unsplash. Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here.

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