The old man and the cats…

Epicurus on the Hudson: A Sermon on Luke 12: 13-21

Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC,

July 31, 2022

New York City is not an ascetic place.  You don’t find a lot of fasting, wearing drab clothes, or people living well below their means as an act of committing to modesty, sobriety, or simplicity.  Sometimes the Amish visit the City to sell their wares at a farmer’s market, but that’s about as simple as we New Yorker’s get.  

No, New York City is a five-boro marketplace of epicurean delights, each new taste and sensation offered to delight the palate and the heart.  It’s a place where self-assertion can run amok, as witness a certain former president.  No, our City takes its motto from our Poet Laureate, Damon Runyon, who once said that “He that tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted.” 

So there.

Not unlike many New Yorkers, the rich man makes plans.  He decides to pull down his extant barns and build larger ones, where he will store all his grain and his goods.  And then comes the strange sentence “And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

If this sounds like the philosophy of the Epicurean, well—it is.  “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” has been attributed to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived from roughly 341 to 270 BC, and has also been used in Antiquity and modernity as a denigration of his philosophy.  So, a surface reading of this Gospel passage could lead us to view it as a rebuke of the Epicurean philosophy.  Of course, one problem with that reading is that variants of the rich man’s advice to himself—or to his soul—to “eat, drink, and be merry,” are not just can be found in the Hebrew scriptures, in Isaiah 22:33 or in Ecclesiastes 2:24.  But the closest variant is in Ecclesiastes 8:15,  “there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.’”

Now we could draw the conclusion that Jesus is dismissing all of these passages from the Hebrew Bible, it seems a little unlikely.  No, it seems clear that something else is what is beneath Jesus’s condemnation of the rich man as a “fool.”  He is sunny-minded, optimistic, and complacent.

In today’s excerpt from Ecclesiastes, though we are given a glimpse at a very different mindset; as the Teacher, the former King in Israel tells us, “So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”

Complacency, and despair.  Blind, feckless self-assurance and turning away from the joys of life because one day we will each of us be gone, and all our efforts will benefit someone else.

Two roads to Perdition, if you will.  How have they both gone so wrong?  

In John Galsworthy’s series of novels about the Forsyte family we meet a commercially minded group of wealthy English middle class strivers, most of whom are governed by their instinct to possess—houses, land, respectability—even the people they believe they love.  Soames Forsyte, a lawyer like myself, is enchanted by a poor young beauty named Irene Heron, and chases her until she submits to marriage with him.  She tries to feel for him, but his greed for her repulses her, and the failure over the years of their marriage of his best efforts to win her turn him sour.

When Irene falls in love with another man, Soames has a moment of understanding, a brief moment in which he contemplates setting her free—but his possessive instinct will not let him.  She leaves him, and ultimately gets married again, to Soames’s cousin Jolyon.  Soames marries a sensible French woman named Annette, who gives him a daughter, Fleur.  When Irene’s son by her second marriage, young Jon falls in love with Fleur, Soames finds himself siding with the young lovers.  He tries to help them, to reconcile Irene to their getting married.  This proud, worldly man allows himself to beg for his daughter’s happiness, and will simply do anything to save her.  

Later, when a rejected Fleur passively stands in the path of falling debris, her father throws her out of the way, and is fatally injured in saving her life.

The Man of Property, as Soames has been called within his family, through his possessiveness and greed, dies for love.  He is willing to give his life for Fleur’s, because, in this one area of his life, he has learned how to love unselfishly.  He cares more about Fleur than he does for himself.  

The rich man in the parable doesn’t love anything or anybody.  He isn’t evil, he’s just so suffocated in his own complacency over his bountiful harvest that he takes it for granted that it’s all for him.  He comes up with prudent, selfish little plans to enjoy the harvest’s  fruit as fully as possible, and assures himself that it is time to “eat, drink, and be merry.”  Why not? He hit the motherlode!

Unlike Soames Forsyte, though, he’s not a real Epicurean.  It’s true that Epicurus taught that enjoyment of pleasure and avoidance of pain were the key goals of life—just as did Koheoleth, the Teacher—but Epicurus taught that we need something more: Life with a blessing.  And that life with a blessing can only be lived by a life graced with love, and not just sexual love.  Epicurus taught that the good life required kindness, friendship, and, love, but also the willingness to risk or even to lose all the pleasures we pursue, when  in the name of love, such risk or loss is the only way to act lovingly.  Epicurus, like the early Christians, welcomed to his school all who wished to study, men, women, free and slaves.  He believed in kindness, in friendship, in love.

Soames Forsyte, that narrow-shouldered, dry lawyer is a better Epicurean than his cousin George, who gorges, drinks, laughs—but never loves.  He merely sits at his club’s window, eats and drinks of the best, but looks out upon the world with irony and jokes.  Epicurus would shake his head in sorrow at his failure to seize the greater joys of life; there’s far more to it than eat, drink, and be merry.

But Soames’s capacity to love, his ability to sacrifice lovingly might shock Epicurus, but he would recognize in Soames a true follower of his philosophy.  Soames loves not just his daughter, but also beauty and art, and, when confronted with the great choice, is willing to sacrifice for them all.  It’s worth his life—he dies for love.

Koheoleth the Teacher, like the rich man, flunks the test. If he cannot enjoy all the fruits of his toil, then none of that toil was worth it.  The fact that his labor supported him, fed him, nourished him—not good enough.  Someone else will have the benefit, and that just sticks in his craw.  He hates that the benefit of his work will flow to somebody else, hates that they will enjoy what he has created.  The Teacher is radically selfish, even more so than the rich man, who at least doesn’t seem to be obsessed with what will happen to his wealth when he dies.  

[I extemporized a little here, contrasting Richard Hooker, the 17th Century Divine and author of “The Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity,” of which I recently purchased the 1666 edition, the first complete edition. (Mine is well preserved and well bound) with the Teacher. I noted that Hooker wanted his book to be read by others, to profit them, not financially, but in enriching their spiritual lives. I contrasted the selfishness of Koheoleth with the unselfishness of Hooker.]

We  Epicurians on the Hudson are called to kindness, to love, to be willing to share with others, and not just scream “Mine!” like small children in need of a nap. Where the rich man was indifferent, and Koheoleth blazed with rage and hate, we need to see their failures in loving as an object lesson for us.  We must remember, as Steven Moffat wrote, “That hate is always foolish. . . but love is always wise.”  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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