This morning, Luke sets up a familiar scenario for us that we see play out time and again. A person or persons who are having a difference of opinion approach Jesus, though in this case that difference of opinion can probably be more accurately labeled as a “squabble.” Jesus listens to the argument, sighs, then offers up a parable as a way of teaching and important lesson about our relationships with one another, and with God.
Just last week we encountered Jesus being pulled into another family dispute when Martha was chastising Mary for not helping around the house; this week it is two brothers quibbling over how to divide a family inheritance. Actually, if we want to be accurate, it is one person speaking from the crowd, asking Jesus to “tell [his] brother to divide the family inheritance with [him].”
Not all of us have been involved with the dividing up of an inheritance after someone dies, and for the most part, when we have, the deceased’s will and estate planning provides for as few disputes as possible. At the same time, I am sure we have all had feelings of being shortchanged, getting the short end of the stick, or just plain being left out of something.
As many of you know, I have a younger brother who is two years younger than me, and a sister who is five years younger. When my brother and I were eight and ten, my grandparents took us on an amazing trip to Disney World. We had an amazing few days exploring Disney and Epcot, as well as getting to see our hero, Indiana Jones, in person! The trip also included a conference my grandfather was attending for his job at Prudential, so we got to stay for a couple of nights at the fanciest hotel in Orlando, with the biggest, seemingly unending pool that we swam in for hours at a time. It was the trip of a lifetime!
My sister still complains that the trip she got taken on was a short weekend out to Hershey Park. Now this is not to say that Hershey is not a great place to visit! But when she compares it to Disney World… well… I guess I can see her dissatisfaction…
Jesus takes this opportunity to teach about greed and to call out our preoccupation and desire for material possessions. If we read through this parable too quickly, we can mistakenly read it as a rebuke against wealth, saving, and prosperity.
In our American cultural context, we “could easily argue that the man is a wise and responsible person. He has a thriving farming business. His land has produced so abundantly that he does not have enough storage space in his barns. So he plans to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to store all his grain and goods. Then he will have ample savings set aside for the future and will be all set to enjoy his golden years. Isn’t this what we are encouraged to strive for? Isn’t it wise and responsible to save for the future? The rich farmer would probably be a good financial advisor. He seems to have things figured out. He has worked hard and saved wisely. Now he can sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of his labor, right?” (Johnson). Well… not really.
For all his saving and planning, there is one thing he has not counted on: “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’”
One important thing to note here: God is not condemning this man, nor is he a fool “because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future” (Johnson). Thinking about our future needs and security, being able to provide for our families and ourselves, are all incredibly important things. To not save for the future is reckless and irresponsible.
Instead, he is a fool because of his egoism and vanity. “When the rich man talks in this parable, he talks only to himself, and the only person he refers to is himself: ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry”’” (Johnson). Not once does he attribute his success outside of himself. No credit goes to his servants and slaves who undoubtedly worked the land; no credit goes to God for blessing him with an abundant crop.
In fact, if we read carefully, Jesus’ wording in telling the parable makes it clear that this man really deserves none of the credit. In verse 16, Jesus begins the parable by saying, “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” The land is what produced the abundance, not the man.
Furthermore, he shows no intention of sharing his abundance with neighbors or the poor. “He has more grain and goods in storage than he could ever hope to use, yet seems to have no thought of sharing it with others, and no thought of what God might require of him. He is blind to the fact that his life is not his own to secure, that his life belongs to God and that God can demand it back at any time” (Johnson).
What this farmer “has fallen prey to [is] the notion that life, and particularly the good life, consists of possessions, precisely the thing Jesus warns against” (Lose). So what are the things that make for a good life?
David Lose points out that when we “read the rest of what Jesus says across the gospels… it becomes pretty clear: relationships- relationships with each other and with God.” This is not to say that that money, saving for retirement, or even spending money on ourselves is inherently wrong or bad. “Money can do lots of wonderful things- it can provide for you and your family, it can be given to others in need, it can be used to create jobs and promote the general welfare, and it can make possible a more comfortable life” (Lose).
It’s not that God does not want us to “eat, drink, and be merry.” On the contrary, God desires for us to be happy, to live lives filled with joy and celebration! Look through the gospel story alone, and we read of many times when Jesus was eating, drinking, and celebrating with his disciples and followers. Our Christian life is not meant to be lived in drudgery. “So it’s not about the money, it’s about our attitude towards the money and those around us” (Lose).
Of course, all of us I would suspect, understand and believe what Jesus is saying here. “We know that money can’t buy happiness. The thing is, even though we know this, most of us struggle to live this way. That is, most of us are seduced by the same message that captures the soul of the farmer in Jesus’ parable.
“Which isn’t really all that surprising… watch TV or browse the Internet for any significant amount of time, and you’ll be not just exposed but actually inundated with the message the farmer has bought into. The majority of advertisements on all forms of media are designed to exploit our inborn sense of insecurity. This kind of inadequacy marketing engages in a deadly two-step waltz. First, it identifies and exaggerates something we are insecure about- our breath, our body, our status, etc.- then it offers us something to buy- mouthwash, a weight- loss program, a bigger car, etc.- that will remedy our concern and make us acceptable again” (Lose).
When we think about our materialism and ceaseless consumption, it is not too difficult to understand why it often wins out over the words of Jesus: it is immediately gratifying, “it is immediately tangible” (Lose).
“Relationships, community, purpose- the kinds of things that Jesus invites us to embrace and strive for- are much harder to lay our hands on. We know what a good relationship feels like, but it’s hard to point to or produce on a moment’s notice. And we know that wonderful feeling of being accepted into a community, but it’s not like you can run out to Wal-Mart and buy it. And so we substitute material goods for immaterial ones because, well, they’re right there in front of us and we’ve got a whole culture telling us that this is the best there is” (Lose).
So where do we go from here? What do we do?
Money is something we are often discouraged from discussing in polite company. In church, we mostly stick to talking about money in vague terms of tithing and giving when we pass the offering plate, and occasionally how we need more money on a Stewardship Sunday.
But “money is too important to ignore and if we remain silent then the cultural voices about money are the only ones [we] will hear” (Lose). It is not money that is the problem, but our understanding of it.
One of the beautiful things this church has done is to commit to continuing to give to missions, even if the money coming in weekly in the offering is not supporting it. We have not found ourselves to be struggling financially as a church, but as our numbers struggle, so does our bank account. At the same time, our consistory committed back in January to tithe ten percent of our annual budget to missions, regardless of how much money we received. This is something I am immensely proud of. We know how important it is to give of ourselves, and more importantly, we live it.
While “the elements of abundant life that Jesus describes throughout the gospels- things like relationships, community, love, purpose- may be less tangible… they are also more powerful than material goods. And each of us experiences them every day. The joy of a good conversation, the sense of purpose that comes from helping another, the warmth of a loving relationship, the feeling of community from gathering with friends or family, the awareness of how many ways we are blessed each and every day- these things are palpably and powerfully available to us, but an entire media universe pushes us to tune into what is negative or missing rather than what is positive and right in front of us.” This morning, I want to “invite [you] to begin a daily practice of noticing, naming, and giving thanks for those blessings in our lives. That might take the shape of a daily moment of silent prayer or gratitude, or in writing a brief email or note to give thanks for something or someone, or keeping a log of blessing, or whatever. But start. Our practices shape our beliefs and attitudes, and this kind of practice will have almost immediate positive outcomes” (Lose).
We must resist the pitfall the farmer fell into, of thinking himself the creator of his success, as well as failing to attribute our blessings to God, from whom all blessings do indeed flow. Let us lift our hearts in joy for what we have, that we might share with others out of our abundance. Amen.
Johnson, Elisabeth. “Commentary on Luke 12:13-21.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 4 Aug. 2013. Web. 29 July 2016.
Lose, David. “What Money Can and Can’t Do.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 29 July 2013. Web. 29 July 2016.