Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14; 2:18–23
I will get to the readings for this morning in a few minutes – but first I want to share a few paragraphs from an article titled Culture and Conscience: Biblical Absolutes and Cultural Variation – published in the International Journal of Frontier Missiology (31:1 Spring 2014). Anthropologist Dr. T. Wayne Dye writes the following about his experience as a Wycliffe Bible translator in Papua New Guinea (PNG on the map).
Like many American evangelicals, my wife and I do not smoke. We have taken the command in 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 to mean that we should care for our bodies [which are the “temple of the Holy Spirit”]. We know that smoking increases the risk of disease.
These days many Americans [and Canadians] agree with this, to the point they are willing to make life difficult for smokers in order to get cigarette smoke completely out of offices and public places.
The Bahinemo Christians with whom we spent many years in Papua New Guinea were eager to obey God and his commands.
We taught them to go to God’s Word rather than to us for the answers to their life questions. We would only be there a limited number of years and wanted them to depend on Jesus for help.
Much to our embarrassment …, they saw no command against smoking in the Bible and had no conviction that it was a sin. This was in a context of God clearly convicting them of other sins in their lifestyle.
Bahinemos knew that the Bible commands us to care for our bodies, but they saw no relationship between smoking and disease. The concept of a slow incremental cause and the statistical concept of risk are totally foreign to their worldview. Unless we could show them a cause and effect relationship, they were not ready to accept our idea that the strange lung diseases and coughs they had were the result of smoking.
Furthermore, locally grown tobacco provides one of their few pleasures in a world full of insects and discomfort. It is also one of the few ways they can afford to provide hospitality to visitors, a very high value. Only a few who were very ill from lung diseases quit smoking for medical reasons, despite my efforts to teach on this point.
Dr. Dye continues … During the early years of the church we could simply have told them, “You cannot smoke and be a Christian.” After all, we were their initial evangelists and the source of all they knew about these new teachings. To do so would not have tied the teaching to Scripture, however. It would have convinced them that there are some things for which you do not go to Scripture at all. The result would have been a lessened willingness to submit to God’s Word as the primary source for knowing his will. It might easily have increased their susceptibility to every self-styled “prophet” who came along.
Dr Dye proposes four principles for determining how a command applies and a three-step application process that helps one find the core meaning and how it applies in any particular situation.
- All of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, is authoritative over all people, in every age and culture.
- There is an original set of readers and hearers to which every passage was addressed.
- The core meaning, of every command of Scripture is applicable in all cultures; this is the true biblical absolute.
- The command to love others as you love yourself states the purpose of the other commandments, and thus provides a way to sort out cases of cultural and other conflicts in interpretation.
The Three-Step Application Process
Step 1. What did this say to them? (Original meaning) [This means learning HOW to understand the original meaning.]
Step 2. What does it mean? (Core meaning) [This means learning HOW to discern the core meaning.]
Step 3. What does it mean to me? (Personal meaning or [the meaning for] my friends in another culture)
I share this information about how to read the Bible because it makes sense of readings such as those which we heard today. You may have been wondering how to apply the principle that the accumulation of wealth is foolishness …
- Given that you may be at the stage of wondering, in young adulthood, how you are going to be able to carve out a living for yourself and your family;
- Given that you are dealing with unemployment or underemployment;
- Given that, in middle adulthood, you are wondering how you can ensure that you have enough to live on when you retire; or
- Given that, in retirement, you are dealing with the stress of an increased cost of living and shrinking resources to pay the bills.
1. So what is the Original Meaning of this Parable?
The parable of the Rich Fool is Jesus’ response to a man who believes that his brother is being unfair in keeping the family inheritance all to himself. In that cultural context, the family estate always belonged to the oldest male child. Jesus was saying that that practice was unfair and unjust because the older son was not taking care of the rest of his family – and also, in the long run, NOT terribly beneficial for the older son. Eventually, he will die and his wealth will no longer have any meaning for him.
2. So what is the Core Meaning of the Parable?
Understanding the core meaning of parables and biblical injunctions can be a somewhat subjective process. Here is the core meaning that I see. You may see others.
- Jesus is letting his audience know that accumulated wealth is not just for the benefit of the “legal” owner – but needs to be used wisely for the benefit of all. That is an inevitable consequence of the Law of Love – love for God, neighbour, and self.
3. And then, what is the Personal Meaning and the Meaning for the Culture in which we are embedded?
- Your personal meaning is for you to figure out.
- My personal meaning is grounded in an experience I had after my first year of university. I realized that I had spent a lot more of my savings than I intended to and needed to get my priorities sorted out. That involved creating a budget which took into account my needs and the needs of the world around me, including making a disciplined commitment to contribute to the congregation of which I was a member.
- I don’t want to idealize them – but I understand from what they have said and written, and from what journalists have written or said, that Bill and Melinda Gates have given away hundreds of millions of dollars, out of their abundant wealth, for the well-being of their brothers and sisters of the human community.
- And some people see it as their responsibility to love God, neighbour, and self by political action intended to ensure that all of God’s children are loved and cared for.
In the parable of the Rich Fool what is Jesus calling on you to do ?
I invite you to take a moment to reflect on that question.
Copyright 2019 – John C Carr, ThM, PhD