Rich Fools and Divine Wisdom: The Lectionary for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost

Rich Fools and Divine Wisdom: The Lectionary for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost July 25, 2016
The Parable of the Rich Fool, Rembrandt, 1627. Image in the public domain, taken from Wikipedia.
The Parable of the Rich Fool, Rembrandt, 1627. Image in the public domain, taken from Wikipedia.

Hosea 11:1-11 and/or Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23

What It’s About: These are pretty distinct texts, and it would take some creativity to read them together. The Hosea text is a heart-rending passage that is told from the perspective of God as parent, and Israel as a child. Israel has been a disobedient child (in the text) though, and God is faced with the question of how to handle the nation. Real pathos pervades the passage, as the struggles of a parent are mapped onto the divine consciousness, and the behavior of a nation is cast in the mold of a child’s strayings. The Ecclesiastes, meanwhile, is a swiss-cheese text, with large chunks missing in the passage we have for the reading. Out of the 40 verses between 1:2 and 2:23, only 10 make it into the lectionary reading, meaning that 3/4 of the passage is omitted. What remains is a kind of thesis statement for the book–a cry into the void of life, underscoring the meaningless of much of human labor and the safety to be found in consulting wisdom. In both cases the reader is referred back to God (or an aspect of the divine, anyway), but otherwise these texts don’t have much in common with each other.

What It’s Really About: Both the Ecclesiastes and the Hosea texts are ultimately about seeking God as a kind of backstop of life. Ecclesiastes points the reader to wisdom, an aspect of God, while Hosea presents the divine/human relationship in more familial terms. But in both cases, we are supposed to recognize God as a resource for our troubles.

The Ecclesiastes text is part of the Wisdom tradition, of course, and as such it traffics in certain tropes. The Wisdom tradition presents its eponymous being as divine, although not quite God. Wisdom is often personified as a woman, and those who seek her can do so in everyday experiences and places. Wisdom is both hidden and out in the open–elusive but waiting at the city gate–in various wisdom texts. Later philosophical and theological speculation understood wisdom–Sophia in the Greek–as an aspect of God. As an emanation, a hypostasis, and so on, Wisdom was understood to participate in the divine but not necessarily be identical with the divine. In the Hosea text, God is a parent, but that’s understood to be a metaphor–God is God, and understanding God as a parent helps us to understand God. But here in Ecclesiastes and elsewhere in the Wisdom tradition, it’s not entirely clear whether Wisdom is a metaphor, or a distinct way of seeing and experiencing and understanding God.

What It’s Not About: The lectionary skips the book’s inaugural poem, verses 2-11, which is too bad. It’s a beautiful hymn to knowledge and wisdom, and the ultimate inefficacy of wisdom to satisfy human curiosity. This section (and the book as a whole) is presented as the work of a teacher/preacher (qoheleth in Hebrew, meaning one who leads a gathering). This Qoheleth has royal trappings (v. 12), which has strengthened the Wisdom tradition’s usual association with Solomon.  But the Wisdom tradition stretches over a broader time frame, and especially later, than Solomon’s time. Still, the conceit of the book is a powerful one that draws in the reader: the weary and wise monarch, reflecting on a lifetime of understanding.

Maybe You Should Think About: These two models of divine relationship to the world–parental concern and coy Wisdom–are but two among dozens that are outlined in the Hebrew Bible. What accounts for the proliferation of analogies and metaphors in our attempt to understand God? Is this a failure of imagination, a failure of more technical theological and philosophical language, a nod to a storytelling past, or something more? Does talking about God through metaphorical lenses accomplish something that talking about God otherwise does not?

 

Colossians 3:1-11

What It’s About: If the Hosea text above contemplates God’s judgement on human sin, then this passage from Colossians promises it. This is a very standard exhortative passage; passages like this are a large part of the reason many scholars think Paul did indeed write Colossians. This sounds very Paul-like. The author lays out the reason we ought to live holy lives, and then makes explicit what that life looks like. This is not quite a classic “vice list,” in which all the usual traits of Gentiles are enumerated, but it’s close; Paul points out all the marks of the earthly existence we ought to be laboring to “put to death.”

What It’s Really About: The great biblical scholar Krister Stendahl recommended reading Paul by seeing where he starts, seeing where he ends up, and then paying attention to how he gets there, and asking what he thinks he has said. It’s interesting to see that at the end of this movement, in verse 11, Paul (if it is indeed Paul; I’m not convinced) concludes with a recitation of a line that will be familiar to readers of Galatians. Here it reads “…there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christi is all and in all!” These words are different from the ones in Galatians 3:28, but still recognizable as the same basic structure, and many scholars think that this was a common baptismal saying or creed in Paul’s churches, and that Paul quotes it here and in Galatians because he knows his readers will know it. If it is a baptismal creed, meant to be recited upon baptism, then perhaps Paul is speaking to the question of metanoia–the repentance and turning-back that ought to accompany baptism. That would help to make sense of the list of vices to be abandoned earlier in the passage, and it would serve to remind his readers of their own baptism and the change that they ought to have made in that moment.

What It’s Not About: It’s interesting to note the relationship between belief and practice in Paul’s thought. Today we understand Christianity to be significantly about belief–being a Christian is defined by belief in particular things. But for Paul, practice–what you do–often eclipsed belief as the main marker of Christian identity. Here Paul (again, if it is Paul) encourages the reader to contemplate heavenly things, and to set aside earthly ones. But the bulk of what follows is prohibitions against certain behaviors. There are certainly places where Paul emphasizes belief, but it’s striking how often he dwells on actions as the main marker of Christian identity.

Maybe You Should Think About: Paul often rattles off “vice lists,” lists of bad behaviors that he knows gentiles and therefore gentile Christians will be susceptible to. What would a modern vice list look like? What are our particular tendencies and weaknesses?

 

Luke 12:13-21

What It’s About: This is the parable of the rich fool, in which a rich man began making plans for becoming even richer–only to have God say to him that his life would be over before he could put the plans into action. The parable was told in response to a request from someone in the crowd, who wanted Jesus to adjudicate an inheritance dispute. The “moral” of the story, found in verse 21, is that it is better to be “rich toward God” than to accumulate material wealth and possessions.

What It’s Really About: The notes in my NRSV helpfully point to Deuteronomy 21:17 as context for the inheritance dispute; it seems that the older son would inherit 2/3s of the estate. In this case, the proportion of the division doesn’t seem to be in question so much as the division itself; it seems that one brother is simply keeping it all for himself. That serves to underscore Jesus’ parable even more; Jesus is warning about the hoarding of wealth. It is not, in this parable, that accumulating wealth is itself bad. Rather, the trouble is that life is short and unpredictable, and, as they say, “you can’t take it with you.”

What It’s Not About: It’s striking how dismissive this parable is of our entire financial system. Think about how personal finance is described today: in terms of investment, savings, planning for retirement, putting money away for big expenses. This parable dismisses all of those as foolish; there is no use planning for the future, as the rich fool did, because there is no future guaranteed. This is a bleak outlook on life, and probably not an especially good bit of investment advice, but it does serve to underscore just how far our personal finance maxims, even those masquerading as “Christian,” have moved from the teachings of Jesus. Jesus would not sell many financial self-help books in 2016.

Maybe You Should Think About: How much do Jesus’ words on money have to do with the financial realities of our lives and our time? Two thousand years is a lot of time, and the world is different today than it was when Jesus was teaching this and other teachings on wealth and money. Should they apply to us? How? In what ways, and with what limitations? Did Jesus even mean to be teaching about money, or is this parable all just a red herring, that gets us to the final line, that encourages us to be “rich toward God.”

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