O that today you would listen to his voice! This response to our psalm is more urgent now than it has ever been. It recalls a time at Meribah when the Israelites were travelling through the desert and they doubted God speaking through the prophet Moses. How many of us listen to today’s Gospel and think that Jesus is talking about someone else? How many of us assume that it is good to make ourselves secure in this life with material possessions? Perhaps we convince ourselves that we’re saving to ensure our children have a secure life – it is surely good to save for a rainy day, is it not?
Only a fool would deny that we are gripped by economic hardship. Massive cuts in public spending are afoot; we know we are in for a rough ride; hard times are upon us. So perhaps we are saving, or at least being a little more economic. We don’t know what the future holds, so we are playing it safe. Now I don’t want to get into the politics of economic policy but we do need to refocus on our priorities. There is a lovely short story written by Leo Tolstoy called ‘How much land does a man need?’
A peasant, named Pahom, is fearful of the devil and is heard to exclaim ‘if I had enough land then I would not fear the devil’. A laudable cry! A local landowner decides to sell some land and many in the village buy a small piece each, including Pahom. He works the land and soon repays his debts but becomes very possessive and seeks to buy more land so he moves to a larger town buying more land and earning more and more money. He has become quite secure but seeks yet more security, more land.
Pahom hears of a nearby people who have plenty of land and are willing to sell so he sets off to negotiate as much land for as little money as he can get. He seeks a bargain. The Bashkirs, however, have an unusual policy of disposing of the land. They offer him as much land as he likes for only 1,000 rubles on one condition: he may steak out as much land as he likes but must return to the exact spot from where he starts within the same day. If he fails to return to the spot, then the Bashkirs will keep the money and all is lost. Pahom is excited as he is a fit man and can cover quite a distance in one day, so he goes to bed to get a good night’s rest.
That night Pahom has a terrible dream. He sees himself lying dead at the feet of the devil who is laughing! The very next morning Pahom sets off at the break of day. He covers a vast swathe of land and notices that the land is getting better and better the further he travels. Soon the sun begins to set and Pahom makes to return to the spot from where he began. It is some way and he has to move quickly to reach the point. Eventually, just as the sun sets he finally makes it and falls face down on the spot from where he started, now totally exhausted. The Bashkirs rejoice at his great triumph but are surprised when Pahom fails to respond. As they roll him over, they see he has died with exhaustion. Pahom is then buried in a grave exactly six feet long – the amount of land perhaps a man needs!
Today’s Gospel is not about need. It is about greed. The man was already rich and had no need of more. Perhaps a telling tale of our times is that we simply don’t know how rich we are. We may worry about the level of debt we now have in our country and yet we were in far harsher economic times just after the war in the 1940s. Everything, it may seem, is relative. What is never relative, however, is that we do well to listen to St Paul’s advice to the Colossians: you must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is. Now, how wealthy do we seem in these terms? Suddenly we see that all we possess is as nothing! It is but vanity of vanities, the Preacher says. Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!
O that today you would listen to his voice!