Then Jesus gave them a parable in these words, “Once upon a time a rich man’s farmland produced heavy crops. So he said to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have no room to store this harvest of mine?’ Then he said, ‘I know what I’ll do. I’ll pull down my barns and build bigger ones where I can store all my grain and my goods and I can say to my soul, Soul, you have plenty of good things stored up there for years to come. Relax! Eat, drink and have a good time!’ But God said to him, ‘You fool, this very night you will be asked for your soul! Then, who is going to possess all that you have prepared?’” Luke ch 12, vv16-20
‘You can’t take it with you’ is a commonplace reminder of an obvious and important fact albeit one that it’s all-too-easy to forget in the press and excitement of life. But it’s sometimes nothing more than an incitement to spend recklessly, whereas this parable makes a rather different point. Christian teaching naturally connects the parable with the idea of a life after death, and asks what the naked soul will have to say by way of justifying itself when it arrives in heaven with nothing to show for having lived on earth except the memory of wealth that has been left behind. That’s well and good if you believe in life after death; the danger is that it you don’t, such teaching would seem to licence exactly the kind of life that the parable warns against. If you aren’t going to have to justify yourself in a Last Judgement scene after you’re dead, why not just ‘eat, drink and be merry’ or dedicate your life to the pursuit of wealth? The answer I think lies in the words in the parable: ‘Tonight your life will be required of you’. This envisages someone who on their deathbed – and we can’t always be sure when we’re on our deathbed – who is challenged to see what their life amounts to. This is not a parable about life after death: it’s a parable about the meaning of our lives before we die.
In trying to grasp the meaning of our lives, we might usefully audit them now by asking three questions. The first is, ‘How have I contributed to the life of the world?’ But, you may ask, why contribute anything? Well, part of being human is that we can feel and respond to the awesomeness of our environment, and of our human life and society; not to respond appropriately is therefore in a sense to deny our humanity. So this is not about what we ‘should’ do, or about our ‘duties’; it is about what it is to be optimally human. Nor of course is it about making contributions that make us honoured or famous or rich, though they might; it is about making contributions that genuinely engage us in life, whether through our jobs, our voluntary work, our family life, our art or whatever. And the judgement as to whether we have been genuinely engaged in life is not one that is made outside of ourselves; it is a judgement that no-one but ourselves is qualified to make.
The second question is, ‘What quality of love have my relationships attained?’ Or: Who will miss me, and who would I miss, if death intervened between us? If the answer is ‘No-one’, not only will our deathbed be unhappy, but we’ll be living an unfulfilling life just now. But this is less about the quantity as about the quality of our human relationships; a few deep, long-lasting relationships are worth more than many more superficial ones. Being able to have such loving relationships is a key human characteristic, quite as important as speech or tool-making; despite our human ancestry, we wouldn’t be living a characteristically human life if we didn’t talk or make and use tools, and the same applies to loving relationships.
The last deathbed question is, ‘What have I learned in the course of my life?’ I don’t mean school-learning, though sometimes that may help. Nor do I necessarily mean consciously learned, though again we may sometimes find it helpful to bring to consciousness what we have learned. I mean principally, ‘To what extent have I been able to absorb the many lessons that life has offered me and allowed that to influence my life – my private and public behaviour, my talk, my views, my art?’ To put it yet another way, ‘What truths about how to live well as a human being would I want to pass on to the next generation?’ Human beings don’t live blindly, guided purely by unconscious instincts; we look beyond the here and the now to the wider world, and to the past and the future; we learn what works and what doesn’t work; we observe patterns; we may try to find better ways of doing things. We haven’t stopped having animal instincts, and we’d no longer be human if we had, but we can to some extent understand, use and even control them to serve our conscious purposes, including our desire to make a contribution to human life and to have close, loving relationships. What we learn about life thus helps to make us more vividly human.
Note that all this is about responding – to awesomeness, to love and to truth. It’s not about something that originates within ourselves. Our response is our own; the stimulus is not. Maybe this is part of what religious people mean by saying that ‘God’ is outside of us, even if they also try to remember that ‘God’ is also within us, where among other things judgement happens. This is the last judgement we all face, before a judge who knows all about what we have been and done. That is not necessarily our conscious mind. We can try to delude ourselves about the answers to these deathbed questions, and we may to some extent succeed; but whatever we might like to tell ourselves, somewhere in our hearts the truth is always known. An easy death is not just a pain-free death; it is the death of someone whose heart, and maybe also whose mind, knows there are positive answers to the deathbed questions.