One of the multitude said to him, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 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. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” 22 And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith! 29 And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. 30 For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well. (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Matthew 6:25-33
The following reflections are based on the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Heesnag:
Anxiety is real, rampant, and sometimes very serious. We worry about such things as the meaning of life, domestic terrorism, our jobs, our financial stability, our next meal. We even worry about worrying. News channels and websites feed off of our anxiety making a mockery and profit from it. Sometimes it might feel like we worry about life more than we enjoy it. On some level, anxiety and worry are normal human reactions. But Jesus is inaugurating something revolutionary that puts even our smallest worries into perspective. And he wants us to be a part of it.
In this Gospel reading, thousands of people gathered around Jesus to hear him speak. As he is talking to his disciples, one individual from the multitude interrupts and asks Jesus to mediate a personal situation of his: “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus keenly reads his self-interested heart and proceeds with a parable about a wealthy, greedy landowner and then follows his parable with a teaching about anxiety. Perhaps Jesus was reflecting on Psalm 38/39:4-7:
Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is!
Behold, thou hast made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in thy sight.
Surely every man stands as a mere breath! Selah
Surely man goes about as a shadow!
Surely for nought are they in turmoil;
man heaps up, and knows not who will gather!
And now, Lord, for what do I wait?
My hope is in thee.
The lesson of the parable is that life is more than accumulating material possessions. In first-century Palestine, an inheritance had both religious and economic significance. A person passing on those possessions’ stability, reputation, and legacy were at stake. By comparing this person to a rich landowner who ignored the state of his soul and only decided to build larger barns to protect his accumulated wealth, Jesus makes clear that the rich fool’s value was misplaced. The Kingdom of God requires us to be “rich toward God.”
Let’s be realistic
But we work hard and earn what we have! Is Jesus being unreasonable? Is he not sensitive to our economic situation and having a comfortable future? Jesus is not against thoughtful planning, nor is he against wealth. The question is about priority. If we prioritize something other than God, the Source of life, then of course we will be anxious because we rely on ourselves rather than the One who ultimately provides. When we are so preoccupied with getting, we miss out on experiencing what God is giving, the very Kingdom of God, the love and joy that comes when live in union with him.
For the sake of his Kingdom
Jesus is telling us to value and set our aim on him, the ultimate End, and do everything for the sake of his Kingdom. When we put earthly pursuits and needs first, they will neither last, nor will they save us in the end:
For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? (Matthew 16:26)
When we put God first, he provides in a much deeper and richer way than we can imagine. St. John Chrysostom writes,
For we were not born for this end, that we should eat and drink and be clothed, but that we might please God, and attain unto the good things to come. Therefore as things here are secondary in our labor, so also in our prayers let them be secondary.
Take a lesson from the Saints. None of the saints are venerated throughout the Church year because of their accumulation of wealth or how well they planned for their future. Rather, they are venerated for their martyrdom, teachings, for giving to the poor, feeding the hungry, and visiting the sick and imprisoned. The Saints are considered successful and blessed inasmuch as they reflect the life of Christ, and so we should also be emulating the Saints by reflecting Christ as well.
(Note: this is why the popular “Prosperity Gospel,” the teaching that material wealth, security, and physical well-being are always the will of God makes no sense and has no place in the Armenian Church.)
Again, Jesus is not attacking wealth or the accumulation of earthly goods, and neither are greed, idolatry, or anxiety sin exclusive to the wealthy. But when we rightly recognize that anything we have is ultimately a gift from God, whether it’s a little or a lot, then it becomes a matter of stewardship. The temptation is that which we store up is where we place our hope.
So what do we treasure? What do we value and desire? What masters us? If we accumulate, but don’t invest in “Kingdom life,” then we are just prolonging a life or legacy apart from God and apart from what he desires for us, for his Church.
As individuals and as a parish community, are we in any way like the man who asked, “What about my inheritance?” Are we preoccupied with the security of our possessions or leaving a legacy? How can our parish store up riches for the Kingdom? How do we mistakenly overvalue things of the world while God values our humility, dependence, trust, love, forgiveness, and unity within our community?
Building Barns for Others
Was the man in the parable of the wealthy (greedy) fool looking out for others, or was he only concerned about his own stability? There is no mention of God in his thoughtful planning, nor does he seem to sympathize with the suffering or those in need, yet he has accumulated enough material possessions that he needs larger barns. And so he proceeds to build a barn for only himself.
What, or who, do we value?
We read in the book of Genesis (41:48) about Joseph, how he accumulates an abundance of food for the benefit of the entire land. We often mistakenly overvalue things that benefit ourselves while Jesus teaches us to value love of neighbor, acts of service, charity, and almsgiving.
Jesus, knowing the heart of the person who asked about his inheritance, told the parable about the wealthy (greedy) fool who placed his priorities on self-interested pursuits and earthly pleasure. Instead of focusing solely on accumulating an inheritance, which won’t last or save us, perhaps the safer barns to build, the better investment are the stomachs of the poor and the closets of those in need. Over time, as we give to others, our heart will follow and it will become a priority. As Jesus tells us a few verses after this Gospel reading, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:34)
Referring to the wealthy fool in Jesus’ parable, St. John Chrysostom, the 4th century Church Father, by whom Armenian Christians were deeply influenced says,
For when his harvest was abundant, he said to himself, “What shall I do? I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.” There is nothing more wretched than such an attitude. In truth, he took down his barns; for safe barns are not walls, but the stomachs of the poor.
Answering the question of who is “rich toward God,” Church Father, Cyril of Alexandria, an extremely significant figure regarding Armenian teaching about Jesus Christ writes,
One who does not love wealth but rather loves virtue, and to who few things are sufficient. It is one whose hand is open to the needs of the poor, comforting the sorrows of those in poverty according to his means and the utmost of his power. He gathers in the storehouses that are above and lays up treasures in heaven.
We accumulate by giving away
Paradoxically, the way we accumulate treasures in heaven is by giving away, by emptying ourselves and becoming “poor in spirit” as Jesus teaches in the very first Beatitude (Matthew 5:3). For Christian Armenians, as well as other eastern Christian traditions, giving alms is not just a question of who does or does not have money. So giving alms is not just about donating material possessions, but about showing mercy and compassion.
In Armenian, the word we normally translate as almsgiving is voghormootyoon “nղորմութիւն,” which means mercy. Many of our closest neighbors have plenty of money, but are otherwise malnourished, emaciated, and “poor,” in need of mercy. This makes recognizing the needy and the poor (in spirit) pretty simple. It’s you. It’s me. It’s everyone around us!
Badarak and almsgiving
As a parish community, is it enough to meet every Sunday and worship God during Badarak or does Badarak compel us to go into our impoverished world and show mercy?
Because almsgiving is a true sacrifice (Psalm 50/51:17, Acts 10:4), St. John Chrysostom likens the altar of the Badarak from which we share Holy Communion, the Lord’s Body and Blood, to those in need. He says,
But you indeed honor this altar, because it receives Christ’s body; but he who is himself the body of Christ you treat with disdain, and when perishing, you neglect. You can see this altar lying around everywhere, both in the streets and in market places, and you can sacrifice upon it every hour; for on this altar, too, is sacrifice performed…When then you see a poor believer, think that you have beheld an altar.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving
Also, we read in the book of Tobit from the Old Testament an understanding of the union between prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, as well as the salvation and healing we derive from giving away:
Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold. For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fulness of life. (Tobit 12:8-9)
In Sirach 29:12 we read something similar: “Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from all affliction.” Even Jesus tells us in later in the Gospel of Luke,
But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you.
The mission of the Church
How can we rediscover the mission and work of the Armenian Church, both locally and globally, and as a result, what should be the most important qualities or priorities of our ministry and stewardship? Does God give us gifts, talents, and material resources for us to hoard, or are they given to us so we can lovingly share or even give them away?
Is our priority to be rescued from affliction, worry, and sin – that which offers itself up as something more preferable, important, valuable, and beneficial than God? Then as individuals and as a community we need to ask ourselves, for whom are we building barns?