At last Sunday's eucharistic Liturgy, we heard the Parable of the Rich Landowner; or, a bit more provocatively, the Parable of the Rich Fool, from the Gospel According to St. Luke. (LK. 12:16-21) This parable is relatively succinct, so perhaps it will help to have it before us once again:
And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' And he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.
Right before delivering the parable, Jesus says something that very clearly points toward the meaning and purpose of this particular parable:
Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (LK. 12:15)
Not a bad summation - timeless in its application - of how we should approach our own abundant possessions! The parable, then, is meant to drive this point home even further and more convincingly through the telling of a "realistic" story. The landowner, secure in his wealth and social status, as revealed in his ambitious long-term planning, is transformed, "in the twinkling of an eye" - or at least "overnight" - into a "fool." His foolishness is based upon the fact that in the process of laying up treasure for himself, he was not rich toward God. He seems to have forgotten God in the busy process of becoming wealthy and self-assured. In addition, Christ seems to be implying that to forget the ever-present reality/possibility of death is also a sure sign of foolishness. The most obvious (and most unpleasant?) truths are the ones somehow most readily forgotten. In relation to the landowner, I cannot resist the temptation to a bit of moralizing and wondering aloud: just who wept over him the next morning?
In the Psalms we hear the following: "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'." (PS. 14:1; repeated at 53:1) I would suggest that this assessemt refers to a form of "practical atheism," and not to the thorough-going "theoretical atheism" of today's world. In other words, I believe that we can speak of atheism on at least the two levels: the theoretical and the practical. Theoretical atheism refers to the intellectual conviction , arrived at by various routes, that God does not exist. God does not and cannot exist the theoretical atheist will assert. The reasons behind this position can range from the cosmological to the existential. This particular "belief" is embraced by many today. I would argue that it would be anachronistic to apply this form of theoretical atheism to the foolish man chided by the psalmist.
Practical atheism refers to the condition of claiming to believe that God exists, but living as if He did not. In other words, one may theoretically believe/claim that God exists, for reasons ranging from the cosmological to the existential, but on the practical level of "everyday life" lead a life in which God is marginalized; paid lip-service to through formal means of worship (including "religious affiliation"); or called upon in times of desperation. A person is then acting as if God did not exist, in that God would have no impact on a life so lived. The "fool" of the psalms and of Christ's parable strikes me as being this type of an "atheist." At least the parable gives no indication - as does nothing else in the Gospels - that Christ was referring to a theoretical atheist. Christ was describing in vivid terms the consequences of living a life as if God did not exist. Such a person is self-centered and not God-centered. The self replaces God as the center of both existence and attention, or as the "apple of the eye." Perhaps the landowner was reduced to such a condition because he was more and more distracted by the accumulation of his wealth, thus creating a false sense of security within his mind and heart.
Perhaps we can describe this wayward relationship with God by using another expression: forgetfulness of God. Absorbed in the cares of life - including our inclination toward a life of ease in which we eat, drink and make merry - we can somehow "forget" about God as He slowly recedes from our everyday consciousness. As Christians we may continue to observe all of the proper forms, including regular church attendance, but on the deeper level where it really "counts" our energy is directed to our own equivalent of the foolish landowner's "barns." As we are building our own personal barns, we can be forgetting about God - and even about our own mortality. Since the death rate continues to remain steady at one hundred per cent, that does seems to be more than a little bit foolish! Forgetting about God has further consequences for us: forgetting to pray, give alms and fast; read the Scriptures; adhere to the moral/ethical demands of the Gospel - from honesty to loving the enemy; see our neighbor; and so on. It is precisely the remembrance of God that our entire spiritual tradition teaches us, including the (healthy!) remembrance of death.
How absolutely enticing it is to "build up new barns" for the future so as to hold our accumulated wealth, and then plan for a time of ease for the soul, in which the delights of eating, drinking and making merry occupy our energy and attention! How uttery normal and natural! I am certainly not trying to "soften" the impact of this rather stark parable, but I am also not certain that Christ is speaking against any or all of such earthly joys. To envision or plan a life one day free of hard work in which we can spend more time with our children and grandchildren - or other leisure activities - is not somehow "unchristian" or foreign to the Gospel! But in the Parable of the Rich Fool Christ revealed the tragic consequences of what that may "cost" us on the deeper level of our relationship with God, based on as essential remembrance of God. "Take heed and beware of all covetousness" taught Christ. It is the sure path to practical atheism, the forgetfulness of God and even idolatry. Such is the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. In the end that could be the difference between serenely saying to God: "Lord, not lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace;" rather than hearing from God: "Fool! This night your soul is required of you."
We commonly think of "getting rich" in terms of the "abundance of possessions." Yet, in the parable, Christ spoke clearly of being "rich toward God." In so doing, He clearly places God over the possessions. That is a choice that confronts us daily.
Fr. Steven C. Kostoff serves Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church. Reprinted with permission of the author.