Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Parable of the Rich Fool

Shaun Attwood moved to America in 1991, initially visiting family just after finishing a business degree at Liverpool University. He came from small town Cheshire, and everything felt so big in comparison: the houses with swimming pools, the roads, the cars. He started working long hours as a commission-only stockbroker, earning nothing for the first few months. Over five years, his gross commission rose to more than $500,000 a year. He was the top broker in the office and had his own staff. Then he retired to trade his own capital online and earned even more. He moved to a million-dollar mountainside home complete with swimming pool and whirlpool bath. But he wanted more.

When he moved Shaun also took his love of the rave scene and drugs with him. His goal was to make enough money to bring Manchester's rave culture to Arizona. He threw raves across the desert region. He invested in club drugs. He went from being a normal lad from a working-class Cheshire town to living a Pulp Fiction lifestyle. The police knew about him and started a wire tap and eventually arrested him five months later. He was sentenced to nine and a half years in jail, of which He served almost six. In the 26 months while He was waiting to be sentenced, He went to the notoriously tough Maricopa County jail in Arizona. The gangs there had more control than the guards, and inmates were murdered. He says that this sequence of events over almost six years changed him as a person. He tells his story in schools and prison. He says of himself, as a stockbroker who threw raves and invested in club drugs, he landed himself in jail and deserved punishment. As horrendous as it was, I'm glad I went through the experience. Even though I'll always regret the effect it had on my family, how my world came crashing down, I don't resent what happened to me – if anything, I'm grateful for the new direction it has given me.

The teaching of Jesus in this morning’s Gospel doesn’t in some senses get more contemporary does it? For it is Shaun Attwood’s story, Nick Leeson’s story, but in many ways it is also my story as I long for a new Amazon Kindle e-reader or iPad or car or house or whatever it is.

This morning’s Gospel sits in a section where Jesus is journeying to Jerusalem and has been teaching about what it means to be a disciple. Jesus has just given us teaching about being faithful to God even in the face of persecution and then from the crowd is called out this facile question centred not on faith, but a family inheritance dispute.

Seeing the deeper issue (and Luke’s Jesus constantly warns against having too much and also God favouring the poor), Jesus warns then against all kinds of greed, and I start to feel uncomfortable. My problem is money. It's not that I don't have enough. It's just that I often think, and believe, and act like I don't have enough – enough money, enough time, enough stuff. More than that, I live in a culture that regularly tells me that I don't have enough. Television advertising and the internet all not only tell me that I'm insufficient, incomplete, and not quite right on my own, but they also promise me that if I only buy the product they're pushing – be it a tube of toothpaste, new laptop, or better car – then I'll be complete. Our culture unequivocally equates consumption with satisfaction, possessions with happiness, and material wealth with the good life.

And here's my problem: all too often I believe it. Don't get me wrong, I know it's not true. More than that, I know it's a downright lie. And I take as evidence not only the multiple biblical prescriptions warning about greed, but also all the studies that measure national happiness where the UK, one of the wealthiest countires in the world, ranks towards the bottom ten percent with regard to reported happiness. Further, in my own life I know that I have a lot more money and stuff now than I did ten years ago and yet in some ways I am no more happy than I was then. So I know that as a rule happiness doesn't make a person happy, and yet deep down I still secretly believe that I'll be the exception to that rule.

And then Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool and I feel scared. I identify with the rich guy. After all, he's not a cheat, or a thief, or even particularly greedy. He's just worked hard and made a lot of money, like most of us dream about. His mistake, in the end, doesn't have to do with the wealth; rather, he goes astray by believing that his wealth can secure his future, can make him independent – from others, from need, from God. And I catch myself dreaming that, too: "If I just had a little more in the bank, or if the this were paid off, or if the cash for the kids' university education was already saved,...everything would be okay." The allure of money is that it creates the illusion of independence. It promises us that we can transcend the everyday vulnerabilities and needs that remind us that we're mortal, created beings ultimately and always dependent on others and, most especially, on God.

The lip-smacking self-preoccupation of the rich man is what Jesus is ultimately warning against. He refers to himself eight times in two verses! 'What am I to do? I have not enough room to store my crops.' Then he said, 'This is what I will do: I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, and store all my grain and my goods in them, and I will say to my soul: "My soul, you...".' God has provided him with land that produces so much, and yet God is not forgotten, he doesn’t even feature on this guys horizon.

Friends this is not, as Luke’s Jesus would like it to be, a ‘give all of your money and possessions away and especially to the church, and then you will find God’ sort of sermon but it’s not. Having possessions is fine says Jesus as long as they don’t get in the way of discovering true riches in God.

We have pretty much bought into the cultural assumption that equates money with personal worth and yet Jesus says our to riches should be found in God. Instead of filling our lives with stuff that has no intrinsic value other than the value that we give it, God challenges us to fill our lives with things that have eternal value. It’s not the wealth that Jesus has a problem with, it’s the fact that accumulating it outwardly reduces inwardly the God shaped space within us and if that space is filled already - when we need to show or receive love, when we long for a sense of inner peace - it passes us by and does not even feature on our landscapes. How do we earn the richness of God? You can’t. We cannot earn his favour or presence or love. Thank God we can’t because he longs to give it free of charge to us. The richness he longs for us to have costs us nothing but cost Him everything. To receive those riches, to know that we are loved eternally, to know that we can be forgiven for the car crash that we so often make of our inner as well as outer lives - we just need to sincerely ask Him to give it to us. This isn’t God and possessions fighting it out in capitalist democracy because God might be out of a job, no, it’s the story of a God waits and who will gladly put us together again when the beautiful palace we make our lives to be all too often comes crashing down. Friends we need to be people who are rich in God. So don’t buy an iPad, buy some I-God time - in prayer and in hearing of his love in the stories in the scriptures and rediscovering His eternal love for each of us.


Jon said...

I had to learn that wealth is inside of us. It's love, family, friendships...

Shaun Attwood

Fr. Simon Cutmore said...

Thanks Jon for your comment. Slightly freaked out that someone who's story I told this morning is commenting on my blog this afternoon!!!

You are so right, it is the inner landscape of our lives that shape our outer world, and ultimately it is love expressed in relationship which is the one thing that really matters above all else.

Hope you didn't mind me telling a version of your story which I read in the Guardian months ago...