I have been making preparations to retire this fall and one of the required steps was filling out a lot of paperwork regarding the pension plan that I have been a part of for over 37 years. So it was just a little ironic earlier this week when after finishing up the paperwork I took a look at the gospel – specifically Jesus’ warning to those who “store up treasures for themselves.” Gulp.
The setting of the story is a man in the crowd who asks Jesus to arbitrate a dispute he has, presumably with his older brother. Luke does not give us specifics but in general when a man died, his estate was divided among male heirs but the eldest son was given two shares. It is worth noting that in the first century, nine out of ten people had a subsistence living. Even without knowing the details, it is safe to assume that the man was complaining about not getting his fair share.
Luke also does not tell us anything about what the man’s single share of the estate is, and maybe it doesn’t matter, but the fact that there even was an estate to divide put the man ahead of most. Thus, Jesus declares, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” and then tells a story about a rich landowner.
The first and tenth commandments form a set of bookends for the other eight. “You shall have not other gods,” and, “You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Isn’t all the other stuff just a question of breaking one or the other of those two? And if you can accomplish either the first or the tenth, have you not also accomplished the other? I ask those questions in full awareness of my own inability to consistently keep either one.
When I was young, my grandparents had a small cottage across the lake from industrialist Eli Lily. He began working in his grandfather’s pharmaceutical company while still a schoolboy and eventually became one of the richest men in the world. He was also a lifelong Episcopalian, and with his father and brother created the Lily Endowment, the largest philanthropic foundation in the world. In addition to the gifts given through the endowment, after his death it was discovered that Lily had given millions of dollars anonymously.
So what about my pension? Am I storing up treasures for myself? Honestly, the answer is “yes.” But look at the full sentence: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Those three words make all the difference.
Here are the “Seven Social Sins” from a sermon by Anglican priest Frederick Lewis Donaldson at Westminster Abbey in 1925:
“Wealth without work.
Pleasure without conscience.
Knowledge without character.
Commerce without morality.
Science without humanity.
Worship without sacrifice.
Politics without principle.”