Sunday, August 4, 2013
Gospel text: Luke 12: 13-21
13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And 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.”16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then 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. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’20But 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?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Jesus never said a word about many of the things we today invoke his name to support or condemn. We preachers are sometimes on shaky ground when we extrapolate from a 1st century parable to a 21st century issue. But Jesus said a lot about money. About the rich and the poor. About greed. And money and greed translate very well in today’s context. Jesus quite specifically championed the desperately poor who were exploited for the sake of the very rich. He also warned the self-deluded rich that the treasures they’d amassed would never bring them the security they were seeking. Despite the religious motto on U.S. currency, we too, like the foolish rich man in today’s parable, often profess: “In Things We Trust.”
A reality television series called Hoarders exploits, for its entertainment value, the plight of people so attached to the things in their lives that they cannot discard sometimes even a gum wrapper. These poor souls live in filth and chaos, imprisoned by the possessions they’ve hoarded.
In contrast, the media both glorifies and normalizes middle class acquisitiveness. Entire television networks exist to convince us to buy, renovate, and decorate the perfect house, to makeover ourselves through the purchase of trendy clothes, and to achieve happiness with the latest gadgets and gizmos.
But having acquired so many things, we then need to build our equivalent of bigger barns: McMansions with bigger closets, bigger garages, and bigger rooms with names like the “bonus room” and the “great room” and the “master suite.” Over the past generation the average size of a new home has increased by 44 percent.[i] Like the rich man in today’s parable, many Americans live and die trying to build bigger barns.
But if Jesus were telling the story of the rich fool today, I don’t think his parable would feature one of those pitiful souls hoarding newspapers or cats or Disney memorabilia. My guess is that he’d cast the “fool” in his parable as a CEO who received and banked a fabulous bonus while his employees were being laid off. Or maybe, since corporations are now considered persons and since their enterprises can disregard their workers’ livelihoods and the health of other human beings and natural resources, Jesus might tell a story of corporate, rather than individual, greed.
Even you and I might find ourselves in a supporting role in the modern version of this parable. After all, average folks can indirectly feed the beast that is the avaricious corporation. Thankfully, we can also play some role in curbing its harm to the environment and the poor. I’m not, by the way, being anti-business. I’m not even being anti-big business. Nor am I trying to pit big government against big business. But we can’t talk about greed in this or any century without acknowledging its presence in both the human heart and the systems of economic power–and the way both of these incubators of greed interact in mutually reinforcing ways.
To unplug a little part of the greed machine that grinds up people and mountain tops and watersheds, we might, for example, invest for our retirement in companies that are socially responsible. We might buy products from companies with a social conscience.
At our denomination’s General Synod last month, the UCC took a historic pro-earth stand as the first major religious body to vote to divest from fossil fuel companies and urge its members to search their consciences about where they invest their own “treasure.”
“The resolution, passed July 1st, calls for enhanced shareholder engagement in fossil fuel companies, an intensive search for fossil fuel-free investment vehicles, and the identification of ‘best in class’ fossil fuel companies by General Synod 2015. By June 2018, a plan would be prepared to divest UCC funds in any fossil-fuel company, except for those identified as ‘best in class’ which the Rev. Jim Antal, the major proponent of the resolution, called an ‘oxymoron,’ noting that no such fossil fuel companies are likely to exist.”[ii]
In faith, the United Church of Christ is putting our money where our mouth is—caring less about the bottom line in order to live out our core values.
You and I can also, for instance, participate in other groups guarding our natural resources or defending laborers, and we can raise a hue and cry when we recognize exploitation of either. Were it not for groups like the local Sierra Club, our city officials would apparently not have learned of current threats to Mobile’s drinking water. We can join or create other communities of care and justice.
We realize, of course, the complexity of today’s issues. There are no simple solutions. There are plenty of bad ways to work toward a good aim. But let’s admit that one reason we sometimes fail to get involved is that we’re more dedicated to stockpiling and securing our own barns than letting in God’s light.
However, the main purpose of this parable is not to turn us into the saviors of the world but to let us be saved from priorities that will claim our spirits long before mortality claims our lives. The negative example of the man who built bigger barns can be a means of liberation for those who respond to a call to be “rich toward God.” This call is not simply about using our financial resources responsibly and sharing generously for the sake of others. This call offers life to each of us, a life that is “rich toward God.”
That oddly worded phrase is an English translation trying to be faithful to the original Greek. We might have expected the text to talk about being rich with the things of God. Instead, the parable laments that the man was not “rich towardGod”—as if a person is oriented, economically and spiritually, in a certain direction. The phrase exposes the rich fool’s spiritual disposition, not simply his economic strategy. The man was a fool because he thought his perishable crop inside the barn he built was of ultimate and lasting value. He should have been directing his hopes outside his barn, outside himself.
As we look more closely at this parable, we’ll see that being rich TOWARD God is an orientation of TRUST and OPENNESS.
Being rich toward God depends upon trust, a fundamental faith that the truly important things cannot be taken from us. The Gospel of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount states Jesus’ point more explicitly, “ “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6: 19-21).
How tragic and ironic that the rich fool, who lacks that trust, grows anxious because his crops exceed expectations. Abundance on earth becomes a problem for the rich fool. Greed “crops up” when excess leads to envy and fear. Rather than the bumper crop being a blessing for the already rich man, his good fortune sends him into overdrive to build more storage for his perishable commodity. Similarly, “successful” people today work ever harder with each attainment while the competition intensifies. Plenitude makes the rich landowner feel he has to protect his abundance. He then works harder to harvest a quantity of grain so great that his household will not be able to consume it. So he builds additional storage for grain that will eventually spoil, grain that might have been gleaned by the poor, or grain that might naturally have fallen to the earth to seed new crops. What a fool.
From beginning to end, this parable is haunted by death, introduced as it is by a man wanting Jesus to settle an inheritance dispute, meaning his father has just died. And concluding with the death of the rich but foolish man who expired before his grain did.
Just so, our spirits can die when we go well past being responsible and prudent and walk right into the grips of fear. Just so, our aims can be misdirected when bounty becomes a problem to solve.
As our congregation explores the best way to use our resources and provide future meeting space for Open Table, we realize that whatever barn we build or buy or rent is not the real blessing. The blessing is what’s inside. The blessing is there when we remember our abundance is not for us alone. May our mission never be to build bigger barns. Growing rich toward God means growing trustfully toward something beyond what we can own and claim as ours.
The spiritual paradox, of course, is not only the way in which we can turn blessings of abundance into the curse of greed and fear. It is also, thank God, the reverse: Death can open us to the blessings of new life. The rich man’s grain must die and be buried in the ground before it can bring forth new life. That is the enduring spiritual truth of the Christ we serve. There are seasons for all sorts of deaths. When we cling tightly to our pursuits, we can strangle the life out of even the worthiest of vocations and pursuits and relationships. We are fools if we do not learn the difficult spiritual art of losing things, even very dear and good things. By trustfully, yet often tearfully, letting go, we become rich and generous toward that which is ultimate. It is by knowing who we are–even without the people and objects and titles and places we claim as “ours”–that we love here and now even as we offer ourselves in lavish ways to that which has an enduring claim on us.
But being rich toward God is not only about cultivating trust. It’s also a spiritual practice of openness. I suppose you have to have trust before you can live a wide open life.
One peculiar and telling facet of this parable is the fool’s interior dialogue, a sign of his closed and isolated life. Commentators have observed the fool has limited perspective because he listens only to himself. The internal dialogue of the rich man sounds especially ridiculous when he addresses himself as “Soul.” Did you hear the humor in this part of the monologue/dialogue? “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” I wonder if Jesus used a silly voice for the rich man when he told the crowd that part of the parable. It might have been another way to underscore the rich man’s folly.
Because the rich fool listens only to himself, never consults another human being or God Almighty, he misses the gift of varied perspective. He has closed himself in that big ol’ barn with only his treasure to talk to him.
But those who are rich toward God have rich resources for spiritual discernment. Those open to the voice of God through diverse and trusted voices might hear a new perspective, might shift their attention, might even see that a problem is really a blessing, might learn from someone with a longer view.
In fact, fools, and especially rich fools, not only lack breadth of perspective but are also shortsighted. They may be ready to make a quick buck without seeing longer goals and larger needs. We need bigger perspective as we make our decisions as individuals and families and congregations and communities. The openness we have to God and one another should be wide and long.
Those who are truly rich—that is, those who are rich toward God—orient themselves toward a place of trust and a path of openness.
May we cultivate together such trust and openness that we celebrate not riches we have but the richness we are.
May we know we are rich and offer all of that richness back to God. Amen
[i] The average new home in 2010 was 44% larger than in 1973. http://info.stantonhomes.com/?Tag=average%20new%20home%20size