Saturday, August 06, 2022

Memento Mori

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'memento mori'. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity.

Memento Mori

Reading: Luke 12:13-21

In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus is described as having an uneasy relationship with the Pharisees and, in our reading, it is not a relationship that is about to get any easier. In chapter 11, we read of how Jesus has been invited to dinner at a Pharisee’s home (Luke 11:37). The Pharisee is amazed when Jesus doesn’t follow the normal religious protocols for washing before dinner. Jesus then criticizes the Pharisees in very definite terms for worrying about things being ‘clean’ on the outside while being themselves ‘full of greed and wickedness’ on the inside (Luke 11:39). When the lawyers present protest that Jesus in saying this is by implication criticizing them as well, Jesus, in no uncertain terms, makes clear that that is exactly what he is doing and explicitly condemns the lawyers too!

It has not been a very successful dinner party and the outcome bodes ill for future relations between Jesus and the Pharisees and their allies. St Luke writes:

‘When he [Jesus] went outside, the scribes and the Pharisees became hostile to him and began to interrogate him about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.’ (Luke 11:53-54)

Jesus may be falling out with the Pharisees, his popularity with the crowds, however, is only growing. In chapter 12, St Luke describes how the crowd has gathered by the ‘thousands’ (Luke 12:1). Jesus speaks first to his disciples, warning them of the ‘yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy’. Jesus is referring to how the Pharisees by their religious practices act as if they are very holy people, while in reality their outward religious show only hides what they are really like. This leads to Jesus warning his disciples, in more general terms, that there is nothing hidden that will not be exposed. The Pharisees may be able to hide their greed and wickedness by their external religious rituals, but one day the inner secrets of everyone will be revealed (Luke 12:2-3).

No wonder, then, that Jesus continues by warning the disciples not to fear those who can only hurt them physically, but to fear the One who after killing them can also throw them into hell (Luke 12:5). This is genuinely scary stuff, but Jesus seeks to reassure his disciples by telling them not to be afraid, even the hairs of their head are counted (Luke 12:7). They are of great value in God’s sight.

What matters most, therefore, is people’s attitude to Jesus. Those who acknowledge Jesus before others, the ‘Son of Man’ will also acknowledge; equally, those who deny Jesus will be denied. The disciples, Jesus tells them, will be brought before the authorities because of their faith in him. They are not to worry about what words to use to acknowledge Jesus when that happens; the Holy Spirit will teach them what to say.

All this speaks of God’s judgement, and it may be this that prompts a man in the crowd to say to Jesus:

‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ (Luke 12:13)

The man obviously thinks Jesus would be a good person to act as a judge in settling a family dispute between him and his brother. The man has failed completely to understand Jesus’ message.

Jesus has just criticized the Pharisees for greed, and Jesus now also warns the crowd against it. The man in the crowd wants what he believes rightfully belongs to him; what he thinks should be his own. Jesus tells them that the meaning of life does not lie in how much we own. This is a very challenging statement and one which would have huge implications for all of us if we took it seriously, which, of course, we don’t. To make his message clear, Jesus, as he often does, then tells a story.

The story Jesus tells is about a rich man whose land has ‘produced abundantly’, so abundantly, in fact, that the man’s storage facilities are not adequate to store all he has. Jesus describes the conversation the man has with himself. He decides to pull down his existing store houses and build bigger ones to store his grain and all his goods. When he has done this, he says, he will say to himself that he now has enough to live on comfortably for many years; he can ‘relax, eat, drink, and be merry’. Jesus now describes an unusual twist in the story. Jesus’ stories are often about God but God himself does not appear in them. Here God actually speaks. This is of the utmost significance. God says to the rich man, ‘You fool!’ That very night, God tells the rich man, he will die. God asks him who his goods will belong to then? Jesus concludes with the message of the parable:

‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.’ (Luke 12:21)

The Psalmist writes:

‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”’ (Psalm 14:1; 53:1)

Today, we understand this to mean a denial of God’s existence, and it can certainly be applied to those who claim to be atheists, but it also refers to those who live as if there is no God. The rich man in the story would have believed there was a God. In all probability, he would have attended synagogue on the sabbath, but his belief in the existence of God didn’t change how he thought of his life and how he approached the future. There may as well be no God for all he cared. There will, however, Jesus teaches, come a day when everyone will have to care. By which time, of course, for many it will be too late.

Jesus will go on to draw out the practical implications of this for his disciples and for how they should live their lives in the present. Life, Jesus will tell them, is more than food and the body more than clothing (Luke 12:23). Rather than storing up riches on earth, as the rich man in the story did, they should instead seek to make sure they have riches in heaven. Jesus says:

‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (Luke 12:34)

Jesus is telling his disciples that their heart will be with what they value. Jesus then goes on to warn his disciples to be ready, not as we might expect from the story for their death, but for the coming of the Son of Man. The Son of Man, Jesus says, will come at an hour they do not expect (Luke 12:40).

Jesus is urging his disciples to live their lives in the context of two realities. The first is the reality of death. We see this in the story of the rich man. The rich man had forgotten a fundamental fact of human life. Without exception, we will all die, and none of us know when the moment of our death will be. The second is what scholars refer to as the eschatological. In Christian theology, this is when Jesus will return, what is often described as the ‘second coming’. In the Gospels, Jesus often refers to this moment, as he does in chapter 12 of St Luke’s Gospel, as the coming of the Son of Man. In Jesus’ teaching, the coming of the Son of Man is related to the coming of the Kingdom of God. We saw in the sermon last week, for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, how in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray for God’s Kingdom to come (Luke 11:2).

Jesus teaches his disciples that as they don’t know when the coming of the Son of Man will be, they are to live their lives as if it could happen at any time. They are to resist the temptation to think that because it doesn’t seem as if it will happen soon, they can do whatever they like without having to worry about the consequences. They must always be ready for the coming of the Son of Man.

Being ready

There are two tendencies in the Church when it comes to this teaching about the coming of the Son of Man and of God’s Kingdom. Firstly, to do the precise opposite of what Jesus commands and ignore it, and secondly, to obsess over the details and to miss the whole point of it.

In the mainline churches, Jesus’ return and what it will mean is largely ignored. I doubt, for example, that at the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops, which is taking place in England at the moment, you will hear much about the return of Jesus. Most churchgoers don’t give it much thought either. They simply don’t think that Jesus is going to return any time soon, if, that is, they think he will return at all. On the other hand, there are some who are obsessively interested in Jesus’ return and speculate on both when it will happen and the precise details of it.

In the New Testament, the return of Jesus is taken as a given, and the assumption is that it could occur at any time. There is also, however, a recognition that it may not occur immediately. The attitude of the New Testament writers is that we should live in obedience to Jesus’ teaching as though he could return at any time while at the same time waiting patiently for his return. The important thing is for us to be living in such a way that we are ready for Jesus whenever he does come.

In addition to this eschatological perspective in which we are to live our lives in the light and expectation of Jesus’ return, there is what can be called the mortal perspective. This emerges from the first reality in which we live. Not only as humans will we all die, we are also to live our lives in the expectation of our death. St Paul, for example, often reflects this perspective in his own life.

These two perspectives are not the same, but they do belong together, as they are in this chapter of St Luke’s Gospel, and both are important. While we may feel we can put off considering Jesus’ return in the belief that it will not happen in our lifetime, we don’t have that luxury when it comes to our death, that is something that will definitely happen in our lifetime! Nevertheless, despite the absolute certainty that we will die, our death is not something that many of us want to think about. We prefer to put it out of our mind and to get on with our lives. God, however, calls us back to reality with the words, ‘You fool!’

Rather than ignoring the fact that we will die and refusing to face up to the reality of our mortality, an ancient medieval practice is that of ‘memento mori’, Latin for ‘remember your death’ or ‘remember that you will die’. This practice encourages us to live our lives in the light of our death. St Benedict told his monks to keep death daily before their eyes (Rule of St Benedict, 4:47).

Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, a nun of the Daughters of St Paul, has done much to revive the ancient practice, although perhaps not everyone would want to keep, as she does, a skull or similar artefact on their desk to remind themselves that one day they will die! The idea is that, by reflecting on our death, we get life into perspective and see what is important and what not.

Reflecting on our death brings two themes in Jesus’ teaching into sharp focus.

Life is not about what we own

Firstly, life is not about how much we have and what we own. The rich fool in Jesus’ story thought that because he was well off materially, he had nothing to worry about; he could stop work and enjoy himself. He may have realized that one day he would die, but that wasn’t going to stop him enjoying himself in the meantime. Nowadays, we would say that the fact that one day we are going to die is an added reason for getting on with enjoying our life now. Hence the idea of the ‘bucket-list’: things a person wants to do in their lifetime before they die.

What the rich man did not realize in his self-satisfied materialism was that the rich man wasn’t going to die sometime in the future; he was going to die that night. Not only was all that he possessed going to be of no use to him, he was going to have to face the God whose existence he had ignored.

We are all aware that one die we will die. We also know that it is foolish to act as if we are going to live forever in this world. We even know how precarious life is, and yet we still prefer to chance it now, in the hope we will have the time and opportunity not only to acquire stuff but to enjoy it as well.

Nowadays, we do not store things up ‘where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal’ so much (Matthew 6:19; Luke 12:33)’. Nevertheless, while we may not live in an agricultural society, which keeps its goods in barns, we do make investments that market forces and inflation can devalue overnight. Jesus is not suggesting that we should not be prudent or that we shouldn’t make financial plans for the future. He is, however, warning forcefully against greed and against making such financial provision the basis for our hope and security in life.

As a priest, I am used to taking funerals for people. It is not uncommon to hear the bereaved say things like, ‘I would give everything to have her/him back with me.’ It often takes the death of someone we love to make us question our priorities in life. Sadly, even after losing someone close to us, it is not long before we are back to putting material wealth and possessions at the centre of our life. Jesus’ warning against greed and materialism is one we need both to hear and to act on.

But Jesus’ words have a wider application. We not only value material wealth and possessions as individuals, we live in a materialist society, which depends on us doing just that. Consumption, constantly acquiring stuff, is intrinsic to the society we live in. If we don’t buy stuff – stuff we don’t need or want – the economy collapses. Only this week past, I got a text notifying me that my next ‘consumption voucher’ will soon be available. Apparently, the only way out of the pandemic economically is for us to do the very thing that Jesus warns us against. If we don’t allow our lives to be about the abundance of our possessions, then businesses go broke, people are made unemployed, and the economy collapses.

Economic growth, that is, producing an ever-increasing amount of what we don’t need for people who don’t need it is what a market economy is all about. As believers, we cannot hope to change this, but we do need to change our own personal attitude to wealth, consumption, and possessions. We also need to challenge the mentality that thinks that the acquisition of things is what life is all about and what defines whether we are living a successful and fulfilled existence.

One day we will find out just how successful we really have been in life when we stand before the judgement seat of Christ, the Son of Man. Memento mori: remember your death and change your life now, while there is still time to do so.

Rich toward God

Secondly, Jesus says that what he has described in the story of the rich fool is how it is with those who store up possessions for themselves and who are not rich toward God.

I don’t know if your bank does the same, but my bank keeps sending me promotional material telling me how easy they are making it for me to check my bank balance and the value of any investments I may have. They want to encourage me to check my financial health and see how much I am worth financially (or not, as the case may be!). Jesus uses this idea of our financial worth to challenge us to consider our spiritual worth. How much have we got invested in the bank of heaven?

Now the Church is, in many ways, its own worst enemy when it comes to encouraging people to check their spiritual account. We quite rightly want to assure people of God’s love for them. We want to tell them of God’s grace and forgiveness, which is given freely and which cannot be earned. All of which is true. But what we also communicate is that it doesn’t matter what we do, what our values and attitudes are, or how we live our lives, which emphatically is not true. All of this does matter. In our second reading from Colossians, St Paul writes that the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient (Colossians 3:6). As we saw in the sermon for the Second Sunday after Trinity, St Paul having described the works of the flesh, says to the believers in Galatia:

‘I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.’ (Galatians 5:21)

Jesus tells his disciples to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33; Luke 12:31). He tells the Devil that man shall not live by bread alone (Luke 4:4). He tells the crowd in the synagogue in Capernaum that unless we eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, we have no life in us (John 6:53). In other words, that we need to depend on him utterly if we are to live. He tells a lawyer that the two greatest commandments that we must keep if we are to have eternal life are to love God completely and our neighbour as ourself (Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:27-28). He tells his disciples that anyone who wants to be his follower must deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow him (Luke 9:23).

We hear all these words and many more like them often enough, but they wash over us. They don’t resonate with us. Instead, we listen to the message that we hear everywhere that tells us that we ourselves are what matters: our desires, our hopes, and our dreams. Even the government, for example, is now using this language to talk about its policies towards young people. It does so because it knows instinctively that this is the language that people understand and respond to.

Let me tell you now as bluntly as I can that it is the language of hell. Jesus saw it as coming from Satan himself when St Peter used it (Mark 8:33). It is the language of the rich man in Jesus’ story. In the story in our English translation, the rich man speaks three sentences to himself. He uses the word ‘my’ five times and ‘I’ six times. This is someone completely self-centred who is very pleased with himself. He has achieved his dreams.

The irony is, of course, that it wasn’t even him who achieved them. How does Jesus begin the story? Jesus begins, ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly.’ The man got lucky with his land. But instead of using what he had been given, he sought to save it all for himself. He was rich in himself, but poor in God.

Jesus’ message to us who are so used to checking our bank balance is to check our spiritual balance. What’s our spiritual statement? How much have we got invested in God? Anyone investing for a purpose such as for their child’s education or for their own retirement won’t leave it until the very last moment to check how much they have got. ‘Memento mori’, remember your death. Don’t leave it until your death to discover how much you have got invested with God.

So, check your spiritual balance today and start investing with God while there is still time because there really will come a day when it will be too late.

Memento mori: remember your death and find life in God.


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