Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’James 4.13-15
The last two years have been, self-evidently, something of an extended illustration of these verses. Once so used to imagining ourselves as the captain of our fates, the pandemic rudely awakened us to the extent and power of what is firmly beyond our control.
For many, descending into lockdown provoked some serious questions about life, purpose, significance and satisfaction. The answers we had relied on pre-pandemic looked rather weak in the shadow of covid. Where and who do we run to in times of crisis? What can really satisfy us that isn’t vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life? How do we live a life of purpose that will have lasting significance, come what may? Having pondered such big questions, as we begin the first tentative steps into the post-pandemic normal it would be remiss of us not to take a moment to reflect on how we can, with the wisdom born of experiencing the pandemic, wisely use the opportunities being afforded to us once again.
In reflecting on this, I’ve been considering Jesus’ teaching in Luke 12, the one about the rich fool who was surprised by the inevitable.
Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”Luke 12.16-21
The rich man fails to account for the fragility of life and the unseeable future. He fails to realise that he is accountable to God for the way he uses his life and possessions. It is not only the life lived in the face of a terminal diagnosis, but all of life that is lived on borrowed time. (The Greek word for ‘demanded’ in verse 20, apaiteo, has the sense of recalling a loan). He’s left standing before barns filled with goods that, in the face of death, are suddenly, ultimately, yet unsurprisingly, useless.
As I look at my diary for the second half of 2021, the newly novel option of filling it tastes pretty sweet. Whether it’s the return to school, the first year of university (or the first normal year of university), business recoveries, workplaces reopening or the freedom to enjoy retirement, praise God that many of these opportunities to enjoy his good gifts are returning.
Yet it is all too easy, seeing the opportunities opening before us and the pandemic beginning to recede behind us, to rush back to the barns we were so busily filling before the pandemic struck. I don’t simply mean the accumulation of material belongings. I fill my barns with whatever my soul delights in: pleasure and freedom, success and achievement, status and belonging, security and family. Then I say to myself, ‘you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ The construction of these barns was halted indefinitely or brought crashing to the ground by the pandemic. Many of us were surprised to find, with the rich fool, that in the darkest moments the contents we’d been storing away were useless in the face of suffering and circumstances beyond our control.
As we begin to ‘build back better’, Jesus cautions that building back better doesn’t mean building bigger barns. It will mean living with our eyes open to the reality that our lives are given to us by God, they are vulnerable to suffering, and they will not last long. What we do with them needs to account for these facts. Perhaps the pandemic can help us see these questions not as the morbid moanings of a cosmic pessimist but as the wise musings of people who have found home in a kingdom which lasts eternally, serving the King who has conquered death.
Another wise muse often mistaken for a cosmic pessimist, after pondering the fragility of life, the inevitability of death and how to live for what lasts, concluded: ‘The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.’ (Ecclesiastes 12.13-14)
Jesus concludes: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12.32-34)
As we set our vaccinated shoulders to the proverbial plough, what we labour to build will be directed by what our heart pursues. The rich fool preaches to himself that his security and satisfaction are in the abundance of his goods. He says, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ Accordingly, he builds bigger barns. Let us be instead like the Psalmists, who preach to themselves that their security and satisfaction are in the Lord. They number their days to gain a wise heart and say, ‘Soul, return to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.’ (Psalm 90.12; 116.7) Accordingly, they used their days to seek the kingdom and worship the King.