The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14C)
11 August 2019
Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right, that we, who cannot exist without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Hebrews 11:1-3 (4-7) 8-16
On the journey to Jerusalem, Jesus has attracted a lot of attention from the people whom he has encountered. They have responded to him in a variety of ways. Some have challenged him, some have sought advice, some, many in fact, just seem drawn to him, “so many thousands,” in fact, “that they trod upon one another.” Jesus has taken the opportunity of these meetings to teach the crowd and his followers about the Kingdom of God, which is opening up around them.
Today’s Gospel consists of some further instructions and advice for the disciples, his “little flock,” in the wake of these other teachings about neighbour Love, the way they are to pray, how they are to understand their labour and their possessions, for it is God’s “good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Jesus here focusses on two points: he wants to talk further about our relationship to possessions and how we value them, and he wants to make sure that the disciples stay alert, keep on their path, remain prepared, “for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
In a way this last point was one of the main lessons of the story Jesus told about the man who put up those barns to enable him to have enough money put away to make merry. Yes, Jesus himself came in an unexpected moment, in an unexpected place, and called to him unexpected people. This remains true for us today as much as for that rich man. We never know when we shall be called to the service of the Kingdom of God, and we never know how long we have to engage in this work.
The story of the rich man, however, also speaks profoundly to Jesus’ other message from today about possessions: “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” I talked last week about our tortured relationship with stuff and reminded us that stuff isn’t bad, that we aren’t dualists, and that we don’t reject material possessions. From the Christian perspective, the material world is not either an illusion or a distraction from that which truly matters. It is, in fact, where the work of the kingdom happens. It is here and it is now. Furthermore, we are a sacramental people who find meaning in the world around us, especially in the things we value. The stuff of life, when properly understood, can point us to something larger, can show us what is truly meaningful.
Luke’s Gospel in particular helps us understand this essential aspect of the Christian life because it is written for people like us: people who live in the world, who travel, who read, who work, who have stuff, Luke’s examples, the characters who inhabit his narratives and parables, are merchants, land owners, leaders. He is showing us how we fit into the kingdom of God that Jesus is ushering in. He is especially showing us how our labour and our possessions fit into this story. He knows how meaningful they are to us. Indeed this is why he is talking about them in relation to our heart and our soul.1 He wants us to ask, “what do we do with them?” Yes. What do we do with them? Not how do we give them up. The material world, including our bodies, are to be put to the service of the kingdom of God. “Where your treasure is, there will you heart be also” is guidance for us to help examine our lives, our priorities.
The rich man who put up those barns, where was his treasure? It was literally in those barns, and that, my friends, is where his heart was. He shut his money up, kept it for himself, to be used for his own pleasure and not to be shared. Where we invest, how we use our stuff, shows what we believe and what we value.
In the seventh and final volume of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the protagonist comes upon the gravestone of his mentor’s mother and sister and finds inscribed upon it these familiar lines from the Gospel: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”2 In the moment, Harry is confused, “he read the words again .... He did not understand what the words meant. Surely Dumbledore had chosen them,” he thought.3 Then and there he was overwhelmed by feelings of alienation from his hero and could not understand the inscription. Later in the story, however, Harry is given the chance to learn more about Dumbledore’s hierarchy of values, is given the chance to see exactly what was meant by this citation from scripture and its relationship to the monumental struggle between the forces of Love and those of nihilism and indifference, what place it might have in his and our lives.
When Harry meets Dumbledore in a heavenly version of King’s Cross Station, Dumbledore tells him,
That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocense, Voldemort knows and understands nothing, Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.4
Voldemort valued only one thing: immortality of the body; and he achieved this at the cost of his soul. His treasure was in objects that served only to keep his broken soul tethered to mortal life. In a way, this is what the rich man of Luke’s parables did. He consulted his Soul about what was important and made the tragic choice to put value in possessions stored away to ensure his own comfort and pleasure. We know what these men value by where they have chosen to invest. They chose life without meaning, which, as we know, is vanity.
For Dumbledore, the treasure is found in the voice and witness of marginalised peoples. It is found in the narratives that help us understand who we are and make meaning of our existence. It is in loving our neighbour, in being loyal and faithful. When we have put our treasure in these places, it is manifest for all to see where our heart truly lies: with the work of the Kingdom of God, for which we have prayed and which Jesus has announced has been given to us.
Jesus tells his disciples: “Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” This is advice for how to live in the world now, in these days, the days of the Kingdom, and make the most of our lives while we are here.
In the news this past week we have heard a great deal about how the way in which we use our treasure speaks to what is in our heart and to the reality that it is something of which people take notice. What people do with their treasure, to whom they give it, what political and social causes they support, show the world what we value. When it is apparent for the world to see, there are consequences to our actions. People may think differently about us, may choose whether they want to do business with us or not, because our associations and choices in turn show what we value. Now I am not telling you whether you should or should not work out at Equinox or Soul Cycle. What I am saying is that where we give our money, what we do with our labour matters, that it has consequences, and reveals something fundamental about out heart and our soul.
In these days of the unfolding kingdom, we are called to use our possessions, give alms, as Jesus puts it, not in a token fashion, but in a way that really makes a difference, a way that truly matters. Our choices, our alms, our labour, become vehicles for the spread of the Kingdom. That’s what this whole business of “purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail” is about. When we invest in those things that Voldemort and others closer to home whom we see and read about every day do not understand, in supporting those on the margins and without voice, supporting others who are working for the causes of justice, peace, reconciliation, then we are investing in treasure that endures. Perhaps our heart lies in education, eliminating poverty or hunger, preserving the environment for future generations, or even in our faith communities in which we come together to make meaning of our lives and which are the places from which our kingdom-oriented almsgiving begins. Wherever our hearts lie, let the world see it in our deeds.
When we do this we will not only be aligning ourselves with God’s purpose, but also serving as examples, beacons to others that this God-oriented, Kingdom-oriented life is possible, achievable, and meaningful. When we show the world where we have placed our treasure, then the world will know that our hearts lie with Our Lord in the service of the Kingdom of God, which has been given to us, and which is near, and which brings Love and reconciliation into the world.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
Barnstable Village, Mass.
Dominic, Priest and Friar, 8 August 2019
2J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), 266.
3Rowling 2007, 267.
4Rowling 2007, 568.
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume