Death and the Miser

 


Death and the Miser is a celebrated painting by the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. In the painting an old man is depicted  twice. In the foreground he stands by his treasure chest, leaning on his walking stick, gleefully adding more coins to his wealth. Demonic creatures are all around the chest and one holds up the dish to receive the coin. Beside the chest lie a helmet a sword and a lance, arms that are useless for the conflict about to begin. Behind, the man is in bed, naked, stripped of his worldly goods. Another demon profers a bag of gold which he reaches out to, but beside him stands his guardian angel who urges him to look up to the window through which comes a beam of light from a crucifix. Look to Christ and save your soul, ignore the allure of wealth, he appears to say. A decision has to be made before it is too late, because around the door enters another figure, a skeleton, wrapped in a shroud. Death enters in, with an arrow in his hand. The time of reckoning is at hand, where does the man's treasure lie? What does he love more? Christ or mammon?

Medieval people liked to remind themselves of their mortal fate in these memento mori. Being reminded of their ultimate fate would hopefully compel them to live better lives, because they would be mindful of future judgement. Times change, we don’t like to be reminded of death, and we don’t like the idea of being judged, we prefer to go merrily through life, living life as we please, answerable to no one but ourselves.

Our Bible readings today give a warning to us that we are only stewards of what we have; we possess nothing but Christ for eternity. We can take nothing with us when we go. We are stewards, and none of us know how on our term of office will be; how long we will have to enjoy these things. In the parable the man is called a fool because he believes that having hoarded away his crops he can sit back and enjoy the wealth they will bring him. He is a fool because he cannot be sure of the time left to him. He is criticized because he does not share his abundance. He has a bumper crop, but he stashes it all away to keep the price high rather than give away his surplus or sell it at a reduced price. His bounty is not shared.

The Book of Ecclesiates is one of my favorite books in the Bible.  Qoheleth, the preacher, is like a grumpy old man, a Victor Meldrew character. The book should be peppered with the phrase, I don’t believe it. He has spent his time observing life and he has come to the conclusion that all this worldly activity is vanity, it is like a puff of wind. You spend all your life working hard and then someone else inherits your wealth: I don’t believe it! Someone else inherits it and they haven’t worked for it at all: I don’t believe it. The person who gets it all may be a good for nothing waster: I don’t believe it.

Riches can be viewed in two ways in the Bible. Being prosperous can be regarded as a blessing from God, a sign of favour. Solomon asked for wisdom rather than wealth, but was blessed with them both. However the rich are often the subject of scorn, especially in the psalms, because so often they had acquired their wealth through taking advantage of the poor. They achieved their wealth through unscrupulous means.

Greed is a deadly sin, and it is greed and avarice that Jesus warns about in the parable and Bosch in his painting; when the desire to accumulate wealth is the paramount aim of life, when we want to get rich and we don’t care who we have to trample on to get there.

Being rich should bring freedom. We are rich if we have enough money to be free to choose what we do in life. The less freedom we have, the poorer we are. We are  not rich if we are avaricious, if we do not want to spend for fear of the bank balance going down. We are not rich if we do not feel free to share our good fortune with others. Being detached from wealth is a blessed liberation.

An illness or the loss of someone close may put our lives in perspective, help us see what is truly important. Yes, it is good to live well and  have nice things, but how good it is to share and help others have better lives too. How blessed are those philanthropists like Bill Gates who having done well in life, feel it is time to give something back.

What is most important to you asks Jesus.

Where is your treasure?

For where your treasure is there your heart will be also.

 

Ecclesiastes 1:2,2:21-23

Vanity of vanities, Qoheleth says. Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!

For so it is that a man who has laboured wisely, skilfully and successfully must leave what is his own to someone who has not toiled for it at all. This, too, is vanity and great injustice; for what does he gain for all the toil and strain that he has undergone under the sun? What of all his laborious days, his cares of office, his restless nights? This, too, is vanity.

 

Luke 12:13-21

A man in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Master, tell my brother to give me a share of our inheritance.’ ‘My friend,’ he replied, ‘who appointed me your judge, or the arbitrator of your claims?’ Then he said to them, ‘Watch, and be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for a man’s life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs.’

Then he told them a parable: ‘There was once a rich man who, having had a good harvest from his land, thought to himself, “What am I to do? I have not enough room to store my crops.” Then he said, “This is what I will do: I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, and store all my grain and my goods in them, and I will say to my soul: My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time.” But God said to him, “Fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?.” So it is when a man stores up treasure for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God.’