Who would like the secret of being rich? How many of us have received a letter or an email from a wealthy resident of an African country who has money in a sealed account that they want to get out of the country? If you give them your bank details they promise to send you a large amount of money, some of which you can keep? Years ago there was a spate of round robin letters; send the letter to ten friends, £10 to the name at the top of a long list and in a month or so thousands of pounds will be sent to you.
When a voice in the crowd calls out to Jesus to help him in a family dispute about an inheritance, we are treading on familiar ground. The closest of families can be divided by fallings out over money. The reality is probably that there was distrust there before, and our attitudes are revealed – brought to the surface – by how we respond to material things.
So Jesus tells a story. The rich man obviously feels he is giving himself good advice. He seems to have large estates and he is maximising his potential for earnings, savings and growth. He is future proofing himself. Or so he thinks. He makes no reference to God or the needs of others; it is all about him. He thinks that life – true life – consists of an abundance of possessions, and he is wrong. He thinks that he is rich, but he turns out to be poor.
Jesus is not against eating, drinking and being merry; in fact he is frequently criticised for enjoying food drink and company. He is concerned that we encounter God and grow in him.
Paul takes up this theme in his letter to the Christians living in Colossae. Where is Jesus? He is seated at the right hand of God (3:1). He is also in us, the settled promise of glory to come (1:27). Paul follows on from Jesus’ story about a man who set his heart only on earthly things with the advice that we set our hearts on “things above”.
What does this mean?
I do not think it means that we should be “so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good”. “Above” does not mean vertically higher. The same word is used by Jesus when he says that we should be “born from above”; it is a struggle to translate and is often rendered as “born again”. I suspect that the meaning is something like be “born from the other”. And here in Colossians Paul is telling us to live our lives with reference to “the other”.
The other? We live in two overlapping worlds. How can we explain this? On 1 September 2006 I set off on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostellar. But the truth is that the pilgrimage really started the year before, when the decision was made to go. For months I carried on everyday life, but part of me was researching, planning, preparing. I was rubbing cream on my feet, buying maps, calculating distances. I was thinking and praying like a pilgrim.
I suspect something similar happens when a wedding is announced. The bride seems to enter a dual universe where life continues as normal, but at the same time every decision is made with reference to the approaching nuptials.
Much more significantly, when we were baptised, each of us entered into a new world where Christ reigns supreme but where we also live amongst those who do not acknowledge this. There is a temptation to go with the rich farmer and live only on an earthly plane, laughing off any concept of the spiritual having any effect on the way that we live or make decisions.
There is an equal temptation to retreat into a spurious spirituality, a parallel world that has no contact with or relevance to “real life”. Put bluntly, our worshipping life here can be separated from what we do at home, at school or at work.
However, we are servants of Jesus. “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (1:16) God “has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death”. (1:22) We are to celebrate “the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (1:27) Again and again we see this apparent paradox of Jesus bridging any gap between heaven and earth; simultaneously he is Lord of all.
If Jesus unites heaven and earth, then so do his followers. We are called to walk with him and in him, open for all that he has for us. We are learning fresh ways to think and plan and evaluate. Suppose you are given a luxury world cruise to look forward to. But you have already made a reservation at digs somewhere cheap. Is it not time to cancel that reservation?
There are those who contend that we are merely highly evolved animals. If that were true, then our chief preoccupations would properly be procreation and nutrition. In fact we are more caught up in the corruption of the world as we carry our interest in money, sex and power to ever greater heights, or depths. Our task is to live in this creation, revelling in it and enjoying it as a gift from our Father God, giving him thanks and praising him for it. This is to honour the first commandment, to have no other Gods before him.
Our temptation is to find ourselves taking some aspect of the creation and placing it at the centre of our thoughts and desires, so that our whole being revolves around it. This is to break the second commandment and to become idolaters.
How can we become rich towards God? Open your eyes to all that he has given you. Receive gladly forgiveness, a home in glory, and the freedom to choose now the life of the kingdom. Paul says that he continually asks “God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God” (1:9,10). That is something that God does in us and for us.
Later he says “ Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (3:15,16) That is something we can do, choosing to school ourselves to follow him in a daily, hourly pattern of praise and thanksgiving and openness to his word.