Sermon on Luke 12:13-21 for Pentecost +11 C, August 4, 2013
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a
judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘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.’ 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?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”
I received a catalogue advertising books this week. The titles include:
What on Earth Am I Here For? – a repackaged cover of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, and Who Do You Think You Are? Others titles, written for the people in this, the richest nation on earth include: You’ll Get Through This, and Soul Detox. Two more, directed at women: Overextended: and loving most of it, and Desperate: hope for the mom who needs to breathe.
A newcomer to our culture, reading these titles, would think we were all near psychic despair, unable to answer the most basic questions about the meaning and purpose of our lives, barely making it through the day, and in need of survival advice. Perhaps they would be correct.
Are We Happy Yet?
We may be the richest nation: are we happy? Here is a question I ran across this past week: would you rather win the lottery or become a paraplegic? Sounds like a dumb question, until you learn that actual research on people’s states of happiness reveal that about a year after winning the lottery, the winners report about the same levels of happiness as a sampling of paraplegics. (see the TED video by Dan Gilbert).
I must make a confession: even after hearing all about the research, even though I can believe that the results are scientifically true, I still don’t really believe I’d be as happy as a paraplegic as I would if I won the lottery. I have this fantasy that it wouldn’t happen to me, that I would be wise with a sudden windfall, not foolish as so many of the lottery winners seem to be. I would invest it (after I fixed my roof). I would put it away for the future. (Yes, I’m that ridiculous to think I’m a special case).
But isn’t this exactly what the rich fool in Jesus’ parable did? Put the surplus in the barn?
Trouble with this Text
Yes. This text is hard to hear. Hard for me, hard for you, and hard for all kinds of reasons. First, it seems like the kind of pious nonsense that dreamy-eyed mystics talk about that normal, practical people know is unworkable. Mystics may not care about money, but the rest of us have bills to pay.
But second, even if we could lay aside the exaggerated aspects of the parable, that is, even if we were not thinking of a filthy-rich person being totally self-absorbed, nevertheless, we all think that his strategy, in general, was actually wise, not foolish.
And the bible does seem to back us up on this. Didn’t God give Joseph the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream which enabled him to save the country of Egypt from starvation by saving up grain in the lean years? Was that being a “rich fool”? In any case, you don’t need a bible verse to tell you what everyone knows: you better save for a rainy day or else you will be caught short-handed. “Into every life a little rain must fall,” as the song says.
But the deepest reason this text is hard for me is that money really does solve a lot of problems. There have been plenty of times in my life when I have not had enough. The first debt I took on was for college tuition. The second was for emergency car repairs. Life is expensive. The fear of not having enough is very real, and it activates very deep and primal parts of our brains.
Psychologists tell us we all have “loss aversion.” Losing, which we all have done, affects us deeply. Actually it takes more than double the amount of gain to compensate our brains for the pain we feel of losing money. If you lose $5 you will not feel OK until you gain an additional $10. This is not a happy picture. We are hard-wired to worry about money.
So then, is this teaching of Jesus just pious nonsense? Or is there something here we need to listen to? I believe this is powerful, and needed perhaps now more than ever.
A Second Look
First, this is not about saving for a rainy day. The rich man in the story was already rich, which means he had already made adequate provision for all of his rainy days even before the recent bumper crop was harvested. He has plenty. He does not even have the capacity to absorb all of his new surplus. He has to build bigger barns if he is going to keep it.
How do we relate to this scenario? Some of us will never have much more than we need to get to the end of the month, and very little stored up for our post-working years. It’s hard to relate to this rich fool. We may even feel panic when the subject of money for the future comes up.
But there are others of us who have a lot of resources stored up. How much is ever enough? Why is it that the wealthiest in our country give so little of their incomes to benevolences? Anxiety about money seems to be a characteristic of shared by both rich and poor.
This is why we all need to hear this teaching. It cuts to the heart of the issue. Here is how it starts: People are around Jesus, some recognize his spiritual wisdom and expertise in Torah, the law of Moses, so they approach him as they would a Rabbi with a question. On the surface, it’s about dividing up an inheritance:
“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
What did Jesus do and what didn’t Jesus do in reply? Although the law of Moses has things to say about inheritance procedures, Jesus did not just pull out a verse. Rather, as he often did, he cut through the surface layer and went right to the heart of the matter. To Jesus, the question is not fundamentally about inheritance. It is about what you think the essence of life is. Jesus answers:
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
What is he saying to the man? He is saying, in effect, “Your anxiety about inheritance money reveals a deeper issue: you believe that your life and well-being consists in achieving economic security.”
So then, Jesus tells a parable full of exaggeration on all points, to make his point. An extremely rich man has a bumper crop harvest which gives him what everyone is looking for: sufficient economic resources in order to feel secure. But listen carefully to the way this rich fool describes his present condition:
‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘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 (or my self), ‘Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’
A life lived in the quest for security based on economics is a self-absorbed life. How many times did he say “I” and “my”? He couldn’t even manage to say “…and my family.” Of course this is also exaggeration, but it is making Jesus’ point. Seeking ultimate security in economics is soul-poison.
If he thinks this is the way to find a happy, contented life, he has spent his life on a fools errand. It will not happen. There no happiness there. That is not what life is about; solitary self-absorption. Whether this kind of life comes to an end early, as for the rich fool or late, the end is a tragedy. A wasted life. No one to love, no one to receive love from. “What good are the coins on a dead man’s eyes?” another song asks. No good, and to no one.
What constitutes a good life?
What does life consist in? This is exactly the question Jesus is focused on. From the titles of all those books in the catalogue I just received, you would think that we Americans don’t know!
This is about the oddest situation you could imagine. The truth is that we all do already know what life consists of. It is a truth that has been proclaimed universally over thousands of years: we are here to love and to be loved, accepting the unchangeable givens of our condition, day by day, moment by moment.
Ask anyone who knows they are dying what is important. None of them will mention money, possessions, vacations, entertainments or toys, and certainly not ambitions. They talk about family. They talk about whom they love the people who love them. They will have come to terms with their mortality, and put themselves in God’s hands, thankful for each day and each breath as it comes.
What is the secret to happiness? It is in loving people and knowing that we are loved, in the context of accepting the realities of our finite mortal lives, in real time. Why does the light of this great truth seem to be such a faint candle in front of the beacon of bank statements and bills? This is the human condition: that we tend to crave what kills us, and despise as negligible what we most need. This is the tragedy Jesus came to save us from.
The alternative to this loveless self-absorbed individualism is, as Jesus says, to be “rich towards God”. The whole Law of Moses could be summed up in what we call “the Jesus Creed”: “love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” From start to finish, it’s about love.
Does this influence how we feel about money? Yes! Every penny. All of it is gift. All the resources we control are given to us as blessings of a generous God who has entrusted us to be faithful stewards.
Being “rich toward God” means valuing as precious what God values as precious. What he has made is precious to him: people and planet; each other and the world we share.
We live our lives understanding that we are indeed loved: loved by a heavenly Father who cares about us more than we care about ourselves. And we live knowing that God has given us each other, to love and to be loved by. God has made us for family, for community, for social cooperation and for bonded commitments.
We never stop with “I” and “my”. We say “we” and “our” giving love and receiving love, as those who know what the secret to happiness is.