Someone in the crowd said to Jesus,
"Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."
I suspect most if not all of us have experience – be it directly or indirectly – with the devolution of property after a death. Issues regarding inheritance are so common, and the dynamics often so fraught, that even Jesus in the Gospels is asked to weigh in about an inheritance:
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
After (wisely) refusing to be drawn into the family’s dispute (“Friend, who made me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”) Jesus creates a teachable moment not only about inheritance but about possessions in general:
"Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."
And – to make sure we get the point – Jesus tells a parable.
There was a rich man who had an abundance of crops and who said to himself, “You have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry.” But God said to him, “’You fool. This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
In today’s Gospel lesson I hear three invitations:
1) The first is make out a will. If you don’t already have a will, I urge you to go and write one. Being clear about what happens to our property after our death is a loving thing to do. Families are complicated enough without our being unclear about what happens to our property after we die. Lest you think I’m overstepping or meddling, consider these words from The Book of Common Prayer, page 445:
The Minister of the Congregation is directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of the temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.
2) The second invitation I hear is to let go of things we no longer use. If your home is like mine, there are plenty of things I no longer use:
• Shoes I don’t wear anymore
• Unused suitcases
• The model railroad that no longer works
• Books that I’m probably not going to read again
Things like these not only clutter my house, but they clutter up my life. Because it is often the case with our possessions that, rather than us owning them, our possessions come to own us. And the road to freedom is not to “build larger barns, and there to store all [our]… goods,” but to let go of our goods. Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing consultant, writes that
As you reduce your belongings… you… suddenly come to a point… [where you realize] “This is all I need to be happy. I don’t need anything more….” [and] You’ll see what your true values are, what is really important to you in your life.
Kondo’s advice echoes that of Jeremiah Burroughs, an 18th century Baptist preacher, who wrote (in a wonderful book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment):
A Christian comes to contentment not so much by way of addition, as by way of subtraction… not by adding more to his condition, but rather by subtracting from his desires, so as to make… desires and… circumstance even and equal.
Letting go of things we no longer use leads to contentment and helps to “see what our true values are, what is really important… in our lives,”
3) Which brings us to the third invitation; Jesus invites us to be “rich toward God.” (“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”)
To understand what it means to be “rich toward God,” consider St. Ignatius of Loyola (whose feast day was just this past week). In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius suggests an exercise in which he asks us to imagine that we are on our deathbed looking back at our life: How do we wish we had lived our lives? Is there something we wished we had done differently? Did we do those things that truly satisfied and brought joy and that made us more aware of God and that helped us feel more alive? As we imagine ourselves on our deathbed looking back on our life, and as we consider how we wished we had lived our life, Ignatius suggests, Why not do now, while we are yet in this life, those things we wished we had done then (while imagining)?
I remember, in what turned out to be some of her last words just before her death, my mom asked my dad: “David, why did we spend so much time fighting?” My dad said: “I don’t know. I wish we hadn’t.” Their brief exchange – during their last minutes together after 50 years of marriage – reminds me how short life is and begs the question of what it is I want to do with the time remaining to me: “Wouldn’t I rather do those things that bring satisfaction and joy, that help me be more aware of God, and to feel more alive, and that use my gifts in God’s service?” This is what it means to be “rich toward God:” to be aware of the fragility of life, and to live (as best we can) moment by moment aware of God and choosing moment by moment those things that draw us closer to God.
So, I hear three invitations in today’s gospel lesson:
• Make a will.
• Get rid of stuff we don’t need.
• Maybe do that exercise of St. Ignatius – imagine ourselves on our deathbed looking back at our life. How is it that we wished we had lived our life?
And then, while we are yet in this life, while there is yet time, go and live that life.