Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost & King and Martyr Edmund

Luke 12:16-21 (§66)

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear father, brothers and sisters: Happy Feast!

In today’s Sunday Gospel reading we hear of another parable, perhaps not as famous and well known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan that we heard last week, but just as striking and pointed. Today we also celebrate the forefeast of the Entry of our Lady the Theotokos into the Temple the feast which we will celebrate tomorrow as well as the commemoration of one of our greatest Anglo-Saxon saints, St Edmund the Martyr and King of East Anglia. In today’s sermon let us meditate on this parable with the help of St Theophylact, the 11th C Archbishop of Ochrid, whose commentaries were drawn in particular from the writings of St John Chrysostom and seek to connect the teaching of the parable to the two important feasts we celebrate today.

Before we start to interpret the parable, it is again important that we are aware of the wider context of the reading within St Luke’s Gospel. Following the Parable of the Good Samaritan, our Lord continued teaching and preaching, and was particularly railing against and warning the people against the hypocritical conduct of the Scribes and Pharisees, and to develop a simple trust in God and His Providence. Immediately before our Lord delivered the parable we hear that one of the crowd sought to use Jesus’s evident authority to intervene in a dispute about his inheritance.

Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me.

After emphasizing the importance of trusting in God’s providence and of our infinite value before our Heavenly Father, our Saviour refused to become involved in this matter. Instead, our Lord answered the man –

Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.

This saying acts as something of a title and an epigraph for today’s Gospel reading. Our God and Saviour’s Word here completely shatters all of the assumptions of the loud and glittering world which surrounds us. At this time of year, especially, as we enter into the cold month of December, almost wherever we go we are confronted with signs and advertisements telling us incessantly that the meaning of our lives is to be found in consumption, in gathering more and more things. It is only in having the latest this or the newest version of that, that we will find the happiness and fulfillment which each one of us so desperately seeks. Yet, despite their draw and allurement, however, today’s Gospel reading, as it so often does, smashes through the so-called wisdom and values of this world and helps us to see again with fresh eyes.   

And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?

As St Theophylact says, through the parable we are given a window into the soul of this rich man,

See how He describes, St Theophylact says, the insatiable thoughts of the foolish rich man.

Indeed, we can see that the rich man had been richly blessed by the Lord through the fecundity of his fields which, as it says, had ‘brought forth plentifully’. Yet, what is interesting and even surprising to secular consumerists is the fact that despite this super-abundance of goods and things which you would expect would make him at least joyful and happy, we see instead that he is eaten up with anxiety – What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?. St Theophylact draws attention to just how excruciating this question of the rich man is, particularly in light of the cries of the poor who justly exclaim in their poverty and hungry, ‘what shall I do, as I have nothing to eat’. We might think at this very moment, of the poor starving souls in the Gaza strip who amidst the bombs are also desperately seeking for food and water. Instead, the rich man in his plenty and complacency dares to complain about how he is to cope with such plentifulness. This is, very much, what we would call today a sickeningly “first world problem”. So, what does the rich man do?

And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.

The rich man’s solution to his problem highlights just how disordered, how dysfunctional his relationship with his bounty had become. Rather than seeing his excess and super-abundance as something which he could distribute to the poor and the hungry, he instead, “solves” the problem by seeking to build a bigger barn. As I mentioned, St Theophylact in his commentary drew especially on St John Chrysostom whose memory we celebrated last week. St John was a fearless champion of Almsgiving, setting an example first and foremost through his own life and household. And in St Theophylact’s commentary I can hear clearly the words of the Golden-mouthed –

But what need is there to pull down and build? You have available to you as storehouses the stomachs of the poor which can hold much, and are indestructible and imperishable. They are in fact heavenly and divine storehouses, for he who feeds the pauper, feeds God.

And therein lies the tragedy, the man was in fact surrounded by these beautiful storehouses which he could use for free, without having to spend any extra money or go to any extra effort. St Theophylact, also draws attention to the fallacy of the rich man’s sense of possession through his repeated reference to ‘my fruits and my goods’.

The rich man did not consider that he had received these things from God. If he had, he would have treated these things as would a steward of God.

In other words, he would have perceived, that this excess was given to him, as a steward, precisely in order to give them to those who need it, those to whom this excess really belong – the poor, the hungry and those in need. But in his madness and greed our rich man sits contemplating his own cleverness.

And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.

Again there is something quite disturbed about the rich man’s pattern of thought as he assumes this oddly elevated way of addressing himself. Despite referring to himself as an immortal soul, his interest hitherto has only been with his flesh. We can also see within the mind of this deluded rich man, a complacent attitude towards his life itself which he views as something which is entirely within the sphere of his control and determination. As St Theophylact sagely says, ‘long life is not a crop you can grow, and it is not another of your belongings’. Then we come to that trite phrase, “eat, drink and be merry” which could accurately be described as the mantra of this world which again we hear so much at this time of year. Yet, it should also remind us of St Paul’s pointed use of this phrase in the first Epistle to the Corinthians chapter 15 – ‘if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die’. As St Paul indicates, to live according to the matra “eat, drink and be merry” is to reject the belief in the resurrection and vice versa. It represents the sum and essence of a secular and godless life where there is no god but the belly, no religion but eating and drinking and in place of piety – vacuous and meaningless merriment without fulfilment.

But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?

Despite all the false assurance and complacency, despite the self-made plans and schemes – all have come to nothing. The life which he saw as his own and of a length and measure he could control, have ended all of a sudden. And all of those goods and possessions which he was determined to place into bigger and bigger barns and all now of no use to his immortal soul whatsoever.

He calls him a fool because everything he wanted was foolish … how can he not be called a fool who does not know that the length of a man’s life rests with God alone and that no man can set the limits of his own life.

Then our Saviour delivers the bombshell –

So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.

Remembering our Lord’s words – ‘where your treasure is, there your heart is also’ we are told to redirect ourselves away from our passions, our greed and our selfishness, and instead to turn towards our heart’s true treasure – our Merciful God. We can just imagine how these words must have struck the brother, desperate to eek out his inheritance.

Today we also celebrate the Forefeast of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple and prepare to celebrate this beautiful feast where our Lady as a tiny child of just three years of age walks up the steps of the Temple herself into the open arms of the High Priest Zacharias. For to receive and accept God, the Creator of the whole universe, to become Incarnate and united with her flesh and grow inside her womb, was not a task which just any woman could accept as some simple form of surrogacy. To cope with the shere awesomeness of this mind-blowing Mystery, the Mother of God had to be prepared and it was her entry into the Temple which marked the start of this work of preparation. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Zacharias led her straight into the Holy of Holies and there she was attended by angels and grew in the knowledge and love of God so that she herself might become a Temple. How different the Mother of God is from this sad and spiritually impoverished rich man of the parable. While he builds bigger and bigger barns for himself, she enters the Temple and herself becomes a Temple, not to satisfy herself and her own needs, like the rich man, but rather, for the salvation of all mankind: you and me. Think also of her dear and godly parents, Sts Joachim and Anna who we commemorate at the end of each Divine Liturgy, this pious couple had yearned for a child for so many years and yet they did not regard her child as a possession as something which was theirs, for them and them alone to serve them, care for them and cook for them in their old age. No. They were truly rich towards God and showed themselves to be most wise and worthy stewards of the most precious thing they had, their daughter, which they give back to God when they discerned that he asked this of them.

Finally, today we also celebrate another who was rich towards God throughout his life and met his martyric end just a 20 minute drive from here – the holy Martyr Edmund, King of East Anglia who is one of the greatest of our Anglo Saxon saints. There are many beautiful long-held Suffolk traditions that link St Edmund to the full length and breadth of East Anglia: that upon the death of his father, he landed at what is now called St Edmund’s head at Hunstanton; that he was pronounced King at Attleborough where he learnt the Psalter by heart and also regularly visited Bishop Humbert of Elmham, whose cathedra was just a few miles from here at South Elmham. On Christmas Day he was crowned at Bures church, right in the very south of the county, King of East Anglia. During his reign there was peace and justice across the kingdom. However, unhappily, all of this would shortly come to an end as Edmund’s kingdom would soon fall prey to the Great Heathen Army. In the laconic and terrible words of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle for 869AD we read that the Viking ‘host went across Mercia into East Anglia and took winter quarters at Thetford; and the same winter St Edmund the King fought against them, and the Danes won the victory and they slew the King and overran the entire Kingdom and destroyed all the monasteries and churches to which they came’. Again, according to consistent and local tradition the exact place where St Edmund was martyred was the small, sleepy, picture-postcard village of Hoxne. After the battle at Thetford, St Edmund rode south to seek counsel from Bishop Humbert at South Elmham who advised him to flee. St Edmund though, unlike the rich man of our parable, did not see his life as something which was his own, to preserve and to keep for his own gratification and enjoyment. No, he saw his life was given to him by God and as it records him saying in the later life, ‘I follow Christ, Who set us this example. And I will gladly be killed … if God so ordains it’. Again, according to Tradition, when the vicious Vikings finally found King Edmund at Hoxne they mocked and taunted him and mercilessly flogged him whilst he ceaselessly called out to Christ. This enraged them so much that they then shot him through with arrows at a site in Hoxne which today is marked by a cross. Seeing that the saint would not renounce Christ, they then finally beheaded him.

The other thing that Hoxne is perhaps better known for is the Hoxne hoard, a remarkable collection of Roman coins and silver buried by some Roman nobleman perhaps when the Anglo-Saxon mercenaries in the 5th and 6th centuries were busy taking over Romano-British homesteads around Suffolk. Yet, in the wake of the Viking hoard, St Edmund did not think of his riches, like that anonymous man of Hoxne, the many beautiful and intricate Anglo-Saxon garnet rings, broaches and glittering helmets and weaponry. Instead, he could only think of his greatest treasure and that was Christ. By his life and his death St Edmund showed where his heart lay, and so, may he now show us, the Orthodox heirs of his kingdom, how we might be as rich as him towards Christ our God, to whom be the glory now and ever.