Death and the Rich Man,
Executed by Frans II Francken (1581 - 1642),
Oil on copper,
Executed circa 1610,
© Galerie Lowet de Wotrenge, Antwerp, Belgium
Rich in the sight of God
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.’
Reflection on the painting on copper
The painting we are looking at is tiny, it is barely 16 by 13 cm. (6 by 5 inches). It was painted circa 1610 by Frans Franken in Antwerp, using the finest and smallest of paint brushes. As a viewer, you have to move very close to the painting to have a proper look and thus join in the intimacy of this painting. If you are looking at the image on your phone, then the painting will be almost show up at its true to life dimensions.
We see a rich, successful man who (just like in today’s Gospel) gathered a lot of worldly goods. Clad in ermine fur, he is seen counting gold coins and reading documents on a velvet covered table, covered with legal documents and gold coins. However Death is close to him, leaning on a large hourglass and playing the violin… time is ticking away and the last music is being played for the man. He knows his time is running out fast and all his wealth can not avoid death. Just like in today’s Gospel, the rich man is not depicted as being wicked or evil, but as selfish, greedy, preoccupied with himself. The one guarantee we all have is that one day, we too will leave this early life and we cannot take anything with us. The Latin saying says: Mors certa, hora incerta (Death is sure, but its hour is unknown).
Those are indeed the readings for this Sunday: a warning that we should focus on what is of lasting importance, and not be distracted by the riches and earthy temptations. Jesus cautions us against any kind of greed and tells us clearly that our lives are not made secure by what we own. Eternal life cannot be measured in terms of material possessions. Eternal life is all about WHO we are, and not about WHAT we have. ‘Who we are’ we can take to the next life; the ‘what we have’ we will leave behind.
We don’t know when death will come, it can be at a young age (such as the young man in the background of the painting), or at old age. Both men are seen trying to negotiate with Death, and of course they are getting nowhere. Frustration is seen on their faces. The iconography of the paintings in the background (and they are tiny on this small painting) are of a burning city and a landscape with wanderers, referring again to the transient nature of life, and how as wanderers we are all pilgrims in this life... on our way to God.
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As St. Francis told us; you can only take to heaven what you have given.
St. Anthony was a very rich young man who walked away from wealth and power. I won’t tell you what he referred to money as!
‘There are no pockets in shrouds’ as the saying goes. Avarice is not often as obvious as this, but in my experience, behind the pleasant exterior that people display there is great interest in amassing and retaining worldly wealth. ‘Success’ in this life needs some ruthlessness.
Indeed. My mother used to say this of the wealthy, intent on amassing more ” I don’t understand it – you’ve only got one of these” pointing to her mouth.