Two Biblical views of morality


Scripture: Genesis 19 and Luke 12: 13-21 

Today’s readings offer very different Biblical views of morality.  In Genesis Chapter 19, the behaviour of Lot and his daughters is the opposite of “traditional family values”.  Conversely, in Luke Chapter 12, Jesus tells us that wealth isn’t everything, and offers us a parable against greed and selfishness.

The morality of Genesis 19, or lack of it

I want to begin with Genesis Chapter 19.  It gives the lie to the idea that everything in the Bible is a guide to moral living. It’s not part of the lectionary, but it follows directly from the last two weeks’ readings. Two angels visited Lot, who was Abraham’s nephew, in the city of Sodom. Lot showed the strangers hospitality, but a crowd demanded that Lot should give his visitors to them so that they could “know” them. Lot refused. Instead, he offered to let the crowd have his two virgin daughters.

Lot’s daughters seduce their father

Later, God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, but Lot and his family escaped. However, Lot’s wife disobeyed God. She looked back at the wreckage, so God turned her into a pillar of salt.

Later still, Lot’s daughters realized that they had no kinsmen to take as husbands. They each got Lot drunk and had sex with him in order to get pregnant. It’s as lurid as any soap opera.

Life is about more than worldly wealth

The context of today’s Gospel reading is a dispute about a family inheritance. We don’t know the details. Perhaps one brother was keeping all of an inheritance. It seems like a typical family quarrel. People often asked rabbis to settle this kind of dispute. Jesus was quite abrupt with the man. He refused to judge the case, and warned the brothers about being greedy. “There’s more to life than lots of possessions.”

When Jesus said, “Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” I think that he meant that life is more than merely existing. It is more than simply not being dead. Elsewhere in the Gospels he said, “I came that you should have life, and have life abundantly.” To Jesus, abundant life is quite separate from abundant possessions.

Another Biblical view of morality: the rich fool

Soul, you have ample goods. eat, drink, and be merry.

Then Jesus told the parable of a farmer whose land had produced so abundantly that he couldn’t store all his crops. So he decided to build larger barns and then retire. “I’ll relax; eat drink, and be merry.” He thought he was in control. But God said that he would die that very night. What would all his possessions matter then? It reminds me of the people who have so much “stuff” in their houses that they have to rent a self-storage locker to keep what won’t fit in the house!

Jesus did not call the farmer a sinner. He called him a fool. I don’t think he was particularly greedy. He was just lucky, in that his land yielded well. I think that Jesus reminds us that wealth comes from God’s bounty and good luck, not just by our own hard work. The farmer thought that the only purpose of wealth was his own enjoyment of it.

I was employed at the University of Guelph long enough to qualify for a pension. What does this passage say to me? I certainly have enough for my own needs right now. Am I like the rich farmer, thinking that I can take life easy because my “pension barn” is full, that I can eat, drink, and be merry? Michelle and I have often discussed this matter – our concern is what if we live to be 95 years old and need to go into care? Will we need the money in our “pension barn” to support ourselves later in life? How much should we set aside for an old age that might never come, and how much should we use to do something useful in the here and now?

Rich in wealth but poor towards God

Our Gospel story reveals Jesus’ attitude towards money and possessions. He criticized people who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God. Jesus didn’t criticize the farmer for being rich, but for being selfish. This is similar to the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man lived in a castle. Lazarus sat at his gate, hoping to receive a few crumbs from the rich man’s table. Again, the issue wasn’t that the rich man was rich. It was that he was selfish and didn’t care about Lazarus.  Selfishness comes too easily to us in the modern era, when we place such a high priority on individual rights at the expense of communal responsibility.  Is it my will or thy will?

There’s a verse in the hymn All things bright and beautiful that we no longer sing. “The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/And gave them their estate.” The writer was arrogant. She obviously did not “get” the message of the parable about the rich man and Lazarus.

No matter where our wealth came from, it was at least in part through good fortune. The farmer’s land produced abundantly. He had good soil; there was rain – not too much and not too little. His neighbour, perhaps, had poor rocky soil, and his crops were meagre. The people a few miles away missed all the rain showers, and their crops failed. I qualified for a pension. It was good fortune. I had a steady job and good health, so that I could work all my career. Some people at the University got down-sized; others had to quit their jobs early because of ill health. Their “pension barns” are either empty or only partly full. 

Biblical misquotations

The old saying “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” seems to quote from today’s Gospel. But it turns Jesus’ parable upside down. It glorifies the farmer’s attitude. Enjoy a life of indulgence today, because life doesn’t last for ever. The parable says the opposite – that there is more to life than mere enjoyment for its own sake.

In the same way, another old saying, “Money is the root of all evil” is a misquotation from the First Letter to Timothy. It actually says, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. In their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith.” 

Churches and wealth

Several years ago, I read an essay by Brian Stoffregen on this text. He wrote, “Usually, if churches are talking about money, it’s because they don’t have enough of it. Often when people talk about money, it’s because they would like to have more of it. That’s the opposite of why the Bible usually talks about money. When the Bible talks about money, it’s usually because somebody has or wants too much of it. That’s the case in our Gospel lesson.”

Stoffregen ended his essay by quoting a story by Florence Ferrier. A social worker visited a very poor family in Appalachia. The father had shot a bear that strayed into their yard. The family scrounged every possible canning jar to preserve the meat for the winter. As the social worker left, the wife pressed a jar of bear meat on him. He was reluctant to accept it, but the husband said, “Now you just have to take this. We want you to have it. We don’t have much, that’s a fact; but we ain’t poor!”

The social worker asked him what he meant – what was the difference between not having much, and not being poor? This was the reply. “When you can give something away, even when you don’t have much, then you ain’t poor. When you don’t feel easy giving something away even if you got more than you need, then you’re poor, whether you know it or not.”

Today’s two readings offer two different Biblical views of morality

The homophobic Lot could not countenance giving up his male guests to the citizens of Sodom, but he was prepared to sacrifice his daughters. Likewise, those early authors did not condemn Lot’s daughters for having sex with their drunken father in order to continue their lineage. It certainly isn’t the “traditional family values” that many Christians claim the Bible to be!

By contrast, in the parable of the rich fool, Jesus reminds us that worldly matters should not be our only focus. Worldly wealth is neither good nor bad, of itself. What matters is how we use good fortune. Unlike the Appalachian farmer, the farmer in today’s parable was poor, despite his wealth.