Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Trinity: Garage Sale! Preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 31 July 2022 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Colossians Ch 3: v 1 – 11; Luke Ch 12: v 13 – 21)

Perhaps you have come across the story about an extremely rich man who was asked what would really satisfy him. He replied: “Just a little more.”

Today’s gospel has a dispute over an inheritance over which Jesus was asked to make a judgement followed by a parable about possessions so you might think that we are simply hearing about greed and conspicuous consumption. Since we are facing the increasing cost of food, energy and travel and probably know a bit about inheritance tax, these might seem useful contemporary issues. But, of course, the words of Jesus have a much deeper meaning. The question of the family inheritance revolves around whether to keep it in the family with the elder brother having control or whether to divide it between the two of them. You will remember that the parable of the prodigal son flags up a similar situation where the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance in advance of the demise of his father so that he can make use of it and enjoy it. The older son was none too pleased when the younger one returns having squandered his share.

But Jesus declines to give a legal opinion partly because he does not have the authority to do so – even though the fact that he was asked shows the high regard in which he was held. But his prime reason is that the possession of property is irrelevant in the light of Jesus’ warnings about the end of the present world order. The significant words are that “possessions do not give life.”

Jesus follows this with the parable of the rich farmer. As you know our New Testament contains the 4 gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, various letters and the Revelation of St. John. But there were also a goodly number of other written sources which weren’t considered sufficiently authentic or mainstream when decisions were made about what to include in the New Testament and what to leave out.  We lump these together and label them the apocryphal New Testament. Most of them are clearly fictional but occasionally we seem to have a useful resource which reflects a different viewpoint or depicts material that we can find in the 4 gospels but written in a different way. One such is the Gospel according to Thomas which might have been included in the New Testament but in fact was left out.

By chance we have this alternative version of the parable of the rich farmer thanks to the Gospel of Thomas. It goes: “A rich man owned a great fortune, and determined to employ it so as to sow, reap, plant and fill his barns with fruit, that he might lack nothing. That very night he died. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” As you can see this version is much shorter than St. Luke’s version but the message is similar. Possessions are a distraction. It is no good being very rich as the world judges but poor in the sight of God. In St. Luke’s version God sends the rich farmer a message perhaps through a dream, to tell him that his imminent death will mean that all his stored goods will go to someone else. Life is a loan; God gave it and declares to the farmer that its return will be demanded that very night.

He is called a fool but that has a very particular meaning which we find revealed in Psalm 14: “The fool has said in his heart: ‘There is no God.’” He is a fool because he denies the existence of God – that is why the psalmist calls the atheist a fool. He does not take God into account and fails to see the threat of death hanging over him. But Jesus is not drawing the attention of his audience to the sudden and unexpected nature of the end of a life. All his appeals and parables of warning taken together show that Jesus is not thinking of impending danger concerning the inevitable death of us all but of the coming judgement and even the end of all things.

We might be beguiled into a more secular take on such ideas. Since the second world war we have grown up with the threat of nuclear war and the madness of mutually assured destruction. Or we might delve into the distant past and discuss the 5 major mass extinction events which have engulfed our planet millions of years ago – these occurred either because the earth got too cold or because it got too hot. Or we might take a more contemporary approach and speak of pandemics or climate change. But as always Jesus has a God centred perspective to which theologians give the name eschatology –  meaning the study of the end. For Jesus this end time would lead to the last judgement when a distinction would be made between the wise and the foolish, those faithful to God and the unfaithful, the sheep and the goats, those who merely hear the word and those who do it. The difference is being highlighted between being a child of God and being a child of destruction.

This gave the Christian Church in its early years a difficult problem. Jesus in his discussions with his disciples and preaching to the people seemed to have been speaking about the beginning of a new age – the kingdom of God and the end of the established order. One of the requests in the Lord’s prayer is “Thy kingdom come.” But it could easily be seen that the Roman rule continued as before. Injustice and violence had not ended, and evildoers continued to flourish. The poor and the meek still suffered. Added to all that was the fact that Christians suffered severe persecution for their faith.

The early Church obviously did not want to suggest that Jesus had been mistaken and so seems to have assumed that the words of Jesus had not been properly understood by his hearers and so had not been interpreted correctly. Maybe Jesus had been prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem which indeed occurred in AD 70. Or had the disciples mistaken when the last days would take place? Perhaps God in his mercy had postponed the catastrophe and had given human beings the opportunity to change their ways. In that case they concluded that Jesus had come this first time with a message for all humanity – a warning to evil doers and a promise to those who suffered. When he returns on clouds of triumph and glory, he will strike the final blow against evil.

As for us here and now we are drawn to seek what is good and right so that we do not spend our lives acquiring material possessions and so filling our barns (perhaps that should be garages) but instead use our energy and intellect to determine God’s way and learn to be faithful to him. No doubt at the appropriate time we would all like to hear the words “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”