When people appeal to the Supreme Court they file a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari. The term means ‘to be informed of’ or’ to be made certain in regard to’ something. The Supreme Court receives thousands of such petitions and routinely denies them, which means that the lower court decision stands. Such a step is often referred to as “Cert. Denied.” I inflict this bit of legalese upon you because the Gospel lesson for this morning is a case of Cert. Denied. A man gives Jesus what amounts to a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari regarding his father’s estate. “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus denies the petition. That is pretty straight forward and simple, but come a little closer and look at the implication of the denial of such a petition. Cert. Denied does not mean that the Supreme Court agrees with the decision of the lower court. It simply means that the lower court is responsible in this matter. If we can step away from court analogies and look right at the Gospel, Jesus is saying that the issue at hand is not God’s responsibility but belongs to human beings. It does not say that God thinks we are doing a swell job of it, just that dealing with it is our responsibility. Jesus is saying, “This is your job, not mine.” The implications of that Cert. Denied by Jesus are significant. I would like to talk with you about them this morning.
Look at the Gospel story. The petitioner is only identified as ‘someone in the crowd.’ He is given no name, no identity. He could be anyone, by which the Gospel writers usually mean he represents everyone, and preachers usually mean he is you and I. Luke does not give him a name so I am going to: Adam. In case you are missing the symbolism that I am dropping in front of you like an anvil, Adam literally means ‘humanity,’ which includes you and me.
Adam has a problem. His father has died and according to the law of that time everything went to the first born male. Our Adam is obviously not the eldest. He feels that he is being cheated by his big brother, so he asks Jesus to make that brother be more fair in handling the estate. In modern terms Adam has a problem with an imbalance of power in the distribution of wealth. His brother has the most power and he is using it to hog the wealth. Jesus replies by asking, “Who set me to be judge over you?” To be perfectly honest that is a rhetorical response. If it were taken literally the answer would be “the same One who set you to separate the sheep and the goats, the good from the bad. The One who made you the chief judge on Judgment Day.” Adam is wise not to make any such smart remarks at this moment because Jesus’ point is that Adam is responsible for handling the situation. And since Jesus remains the ultimate judge, Adam will be accountable for how he handles it. By denying Adam’s petition Jesus makes it clear that the use of power in the distribution of wealth is up to you and me.
There is something we need to remember in order to understand what Jesus means. The moral universe, the realm with which the Bible, religion, and Jesus are concerned, runs on hybrid energy, a combination of divine and human efforts. The natural world that science is concerned with runs on God’s energy alone. Planets, seasons, birth, death, the laws of nature, the Nationals being in last place are all determined by God in ways we can explore through science but they are God’s province; we do not determine them. The moral universe of decision, forgiveness, compassion, hatred, fear, and love are all determined by the strength and guidance God gives us and the manner in which we use that strength and guidance. That is hybrid energy: the human and the divine combine to make ethics, morality, faithfulness, righteousness. In today’s Gospel Jesus is saying that issues of wealth and power are to be handled by us, using God’s strength and guidance.
The reason for this designation is that the manner in which we handle wealth and power are among the ways we define ourselves as moral creatures. Wealth and power by themselves are morally neutral. Money is as willing to buy cocaine as chemotherapy. Power is equally capable of destruction or construction. By themselves they mean nothing in the moral universe. But what we do with them or what we do to get them is what makes us moral or immoral. Defining ourselves as moral creatures is probably the most important task we have as human beings. It is what Jesus will be looking at when sheep and goat, good and evil are finally separated. So Jesus cannot do it for us, we have to do it for ourselves. Cert. Denied. Adam has to work out issues of power and money in his family, his community, his church, his nation, and his world because that is what makes him a moral human being.
Notice that Jesus did not just slam the door on Adam. Jesus cares about him, calls him friend, and gives him some of God’s guidance. He tells a parable about a fellow who had lots of stuff, so much stuff he had to build bigger closets, diversify his portfolio, open an off shore account, and find ways to write off most of what he did for fun. Then God, who calls him not friend but fool, shows him that life is not about stuff after all. It is about who we are as a moral faithful human beings, what Jesus called being rich toward God.
So what Adam has so far is this: Jesus will not intervene in issues of wealth and power because that is Adam’s job, perhaps his most important job. But Jesus does tell him to remember that the real issue is not about who has what stuff. So what is Adam supposed to do?
Let me stop here for just a minute and share something with you that is not what we have been thinking about but might shed some light on the question Adam has to address. I was a parish priest for many years and in that capacity I took part in many funerals. Almost all of them involved two important but distinct things: obituaries and eulogies. Obituaries are usually about stuff—things people have done. They tell about degrees, honors, jobs, key roles, and successes. Eulogies, on the other hand, tend to be about relationships, what people have meant to others. They are about love, generosity, care, goodness, and fun. Obituaries are the world’s score card. Eulogies are God’s score card. Most of us have a tendency to spend more time and energy building obituaries than eulogies, but in the end it is the eulogies that have the most meaning.
Back to Adam’s quandary. What Adam is supposed to do about issues of wealth and power is in the stuff of eulogies not obituaries. Obituaries are soon forgotten. Eulogies last forever. It is as Jesus said in the parable: life is not about wealth or power themselves but about being rich toward God. This Gospel’s Adam needs to go home and say, “Brother, we need to work on our eulogies together, we need to act in this matter in the way we want to be remembered forever. And if we cannot do that together, I will work on mine alone.”
That is what Adam—humanity, you and I—need to do: work on our eulogies.