8 th Sunday after Trinity year C– Money and happiness
Has anyone here today ever met a film star? What would it be like to meet someone famous – like Eddie Murphy; Robert de Niro, Edward Fox, Gwyneth Paltrow? I was listening to a radio programme the other day in which someone was talking about meeting the actor Jack Nicholson for the first time. (One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Reds, Anger Management, About Schmidt). He said that he was awestruck by Nicholson – he had never before been in the presence of man who had so much money that he could have anything he wanted.
The man who was being interviewed was an art dealer. Meeting Nicholson gave him a vision – a vision of a way of life in which anything was made possible by if you had infinite riches. And so the task, for this man, became to accumulate enormous wealth. He soon found that this was quite easy. The way to do it was to buy and sell pictures painted by famous artists. It proved relatively simple to buy a picture quite cheaply, get it endorsed by some ‘expert’, and create a value for it which was really quite arbitrary. Investors accepted this because they believed that the value would go up; and because they knew that what mattered most was not the intrinsic value of the painting but what other investors thought it was worth. And so by buying paintings by people like Picasso, Van Gogh, and Monet and selling them at a much higher price, this art dealer – like others in that field – made vast sums of money, even though many of the investors never actually saw the paintings they had bought.
Of course it didn’t last. Prices started to go down; paintings which the dealer had bought on the strength of borrowed money couldn’t be sold for the price at which he needed to sell them, and the whole edifice collapsed. The interviewer and the dealer reflected on the sobering fact that he had made his money by means of a system which was based on an illusion. The monetary ‘values’ of the works of art were completely artificial, created by him and people like him. Another result of all this was that art had become no more than a means of making money, a sad prostitution of the passion and struggle which has generated much of the world’s great art.
The dealer was not especially remorseful. He had taken risks – for much of the time he had won, but in the end he lost. He was reluctant to be drawn into describing what he had done as unethical. But what had become clear was that all his money had not brought the happiness he had expected. The costs of the money-making system he had developed for himself proved in the end to be too great, when he lost everything. He had thought that possessing large amounts of money would enable him to have anything he wanted – but it all went wrong.
The belief that having great riches permits you to have anything you want is an ancient one. But history is full of warnings about the consequences of getting one’s attitude towards wealth and riches out of balance. Today’s gospel reading (Luke 12. 31-21) about the rich man who planned to build more barns to store all his crops is one such warning. God calls him a fool, saying “this night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself? This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God”.
There are three lessons to be learned from this reading:
(i) The first is that we need to give thanks to God for the things we own. The man who built more barns shows no indication of having acknowledged God as the ultimate source of his riches, let alone thanking him for them, or giving any part of them to the Temple treasury. Many people today who have much money have worked hard to earn it. But having the opportunity to make money depends also on where one happens to have been born, and one’s good fortune in having adequate health and education. There are many parts of the world where there is no other alternative but to struggle to survive, and to try to avoid succumbing to the effects of tropical diseases. Alternatively, one’s source of livelihood may be destroyed by one of the various wars which continue to ravage so many countries. So God should always be thanked for whatever wealth and income we have, however modest these may be.
(ii) The second lesson which the man in Jesus’ story hadn’t learned was how foolish it is to put all one’s faith in one’s possessions. Of course we need to be responsible financially, and to make sure that we make good use of what God has given us. But the danger comes when wealth and possessions usurp the place of God in our lives. This can happen even on a very basic level – highlighted for me recently by the tempting notice in Derby saying that the Eagle Centre aimed to ‘Make Sunday Shopping Special’ (a jibe, it would seem, at the churches’ campaign to ‘Keep Sunday Special’).
(iii) The third point about Jesus’ parable relates to the dangers of hoarding rather than sharing. It is quite possible that the man who planned to build bigger barns would have profited from the fact that other people would have had to come to him for food. If you stockpile something, you may be contributing to shortages elsewhere (depending of course on the overall state of the market). Jesus spoke on various occasions about the perils of holding onto more than you really need. By contrast, he extols the virtues of generosity, commending the widow who gave all she had to God and contrasting her with the rich man who was relatively sparing in his giving.
Wealth is not bad in itself: St. Paul did not say that money is the root of all evil, but that the love of money is the root of all evil. But it can tempt us to forget God, who is the ultimate source of all we possess; it can lead us to put too much faith in its power to bring happiness; and it can make us less rather than more generous, if we try to hold onto our wealth at all costs.
I’m going to end with a story about a man who was very careful to hold on to his money, and not to waste it on things that didn’t really matter, in particular on people. The story is told by a passenger on a shuttle bus operated by a garage, which took its customers to their destinations after they had left their cars to be repaired. The driver explained that his entire life consisted of making and saving money, and most importantly avoiding traps of spending. (The traps he talked about were not the “impulsive shopping” kind, the traps he talked about were normal, day-to-day living for ordinary people.) He was an old man with all his front teeth rotten from lack of care (or from avoiding paying for dental care).
On the inside of the sun shade of his bus was a photo of a blond middle-aged woman. The bus driver said that she was his girlfriend. He said that she always wanted to go out and spend money. But he was no fool. He wasn’t going to let a woman spend his money in restaurants and going to films. No - she had to learn to pass her time with entertainments that didn’t require any spending. He said that she always talked about getting married. Did she take him for an idiot? Get married and have to share your money? In fact the man owned six antique cars. He wasn’t short of money. In the end, of course, the girlfriend left him to spend his money on his antique cars.
I wonder if the man who became an art dealer would have done so if he’d met that bus driver rather than Jack Nicholson.