by Linda McMillan
This story is about greed, a lot of Jesus’s parables are. But it is also about the unseen people in the story: Who grew the crops, who would build the barns, why does the man have no one to talk to?
One time there was a hermit named Ada. Ada wanted to move to a new cave, so she packed up her meager belongings and left her old cave to begin looking for a new one.
The first cave she looked at was too small. Even a novice would feel confined in this cave, she thought.
The second cave Ada looked at was too big. Evan, a bishop would get lost in here, she thought.
Ada imagined that the third cave would be just right. Instead. she found that it was even worse than the others. The third cave was filled with gold. Ada turned her back on the gold and ran as fast as she could away from that cave.
In the meantime, three robbers had been watching Ada from a distance. Deciding that she didn’t have anything to steel they’d left her alone, but they became curious about why she was running so fast. The three robbers intercepted her and demanded to know what she was running from.
“Out of my way,” shouted Ada. I am running away from death!
Curious, the robbers demanded that Ada show them what she was talking about. At knife-point, Ada took the robbers to the cave filled with gold. Excitedly, the robbers assured Ada that her troubles were over. “Don’t worry, Old Granny,” they said. “We will take care of all this gold for you so that you don’t have to worry. Death will not get you now.” Ada went away to continue her search for a more appropriate cave.
The three robbers began dividing their gold into three piles, one for each of them, but they soon became weary and in need of food. They decided that one of them should take a few coins, go into town, and bring back food. The youngest fellow volunteered thinking that he’d eat and drink his fill and then poison the food that he gave to the other two. He set off with gold coins in his pocket dreaming of all his new wealth.
The other two robbers were plotting too. They decided that when the younger fellow returned they’d ambush him, kill him, and take his share of the gold for themselves.
As the young fellow was returning with the food, they hid behind a rock, ambushed him, and killed him. Gleefully they took the food back to the cave where they ate it and promptly died from the poison.
If we were going to put this story on a bumper sticker it would say simply; Greed = Death.
The parable in today’s reading seems straightforward enough, doesn’t it? And it’s about time Jesus gives us something straight-forward and easy.
You can’t take it with you. There are no pockets in shrouds. However you read it, the content is the same: Worldly goods are not true wealth.
If, however, you read beyond the content for what is not in the story then some fuzzier areas begin to emerge.
In this story, a rich man is having a talk with himself. In other parables there are other people, but not in this one. Our anti-hero is alone. Yet, one wonders, who grew the grain? Who will build the new barns? Who built the old ones?
There is another old saying we can use here: No man is an island. The rich man may want to believe that he earned all his grain, that it is the fruit of his own labor, but that’s impossible. That is as crazy as a member of the Walton family, of WalMart, who benefit from the under-compensated work of others for their wealth, saying that they somehow “earned” it. We all know that they stole it off the backs of others. And I suspect that the rich man in today’s story did too. He might have wanted to believe that he was an island, an entity in himself. But, he couldn’t have had all that grain or any of his barns without the labor of others.
In a few weeks, we will read about people who found things which were lost, a coin and a lamb. Following that is another parable about a lost son who returned. In each of those parables, there was a celebration. When the coin and the lamb were found, those responsible for them called their friends together and had a party. A grain-fed calf was served at the party for the son who returned. There was celebrating… with other people.
The rich man was surely not alone. There had to be other people there. His sin was not that he was rich. That’s not a sin. Nor was his sin that he was friendless. That’s not a sin either. His sin was that he was blind. He didn’t see the other people around him: The workers, the builders, and growers, and surely there were some who would have been his friend, if only he could have seen them.
Our anti-hero was not only alone, I suspect that he was lonely too. Like the coin, the lamb, and the son in the parables that we’ll read in a few weeks, he was lost to society. Somehow he got separated from the rest of us to the point that he actually believed himself to be independent, an island, self-made.
We have talked about the rich man’s sin, but what of us? Don’t we share in the sin of blindness? It is easy to see the poor and marginalized, their number are growing every day, organized religion points them out to us. But when we reduce others to two-dimensional characters… rich man… got-it-made man… the main man… we fail to see them as whole people. Those who appear self-made and independent are our lost coins and our lost lambs. They are the sons and daughters of the human family who have wandered off to a far country in search of something they needed, but didn’t get, from us. It falls to us to light a wick and search for them, to go up into the hills until we find them, and to celebrate when they are reunited to the human family.
Let me leave you with some questions:
How can we reach out to those who seem not to need or want us?
Can you think of anyone who seems to have it made, but might need a friend?
By focusing on the poor and the marginalized — as well we should — have we become blind to the needs of the rich and isolated?
Do we let people go astray if their wealth, or education, or status is so great that it makes us uncomfortable?
As members of the so-called 99 percent, do we secretly rejoice in the downfall of any member of the 1 percent? If so, how can we cultivate our compassion so that we have barns overflowing with mercy and divine friendship for all?
Linda McMillan — a farm girl from way back — lives in Shanghai, China. She is a native Texan. She is currently traveling in Southern Myanmar.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
The opening story was originally a Sufi story but there are several versions on the internet. I’ve adapted it for our audience, just as others have, even Geoffrey Chaucer!
You can read another version of it here.
You can read John Donne’s poem, No Man Is An Island here
On September 14 we will have the parable of the lost coin and the parable of the lost sheep.
You can read more about the Walton Family wealth here,
and there is plenty more where that came from.