SCRIPTURE – Luke 12:13-21
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ‘ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”
My Three Favorite People
Aug. 1, 2010
One of the things I really admire about Jesus is that he rarely avoided the tough questions. He constantly had these cunning religious leaders trying to trap him with their conniving questions, and he always found a way to outsmart them. No matter how duplicitous their scheme, Jesus answered in a way that trumped their trickery.
Pastors, on the other hand, aren’t quite as willing as Jesus to face the tough questions. When talking to someone about our church, I’m always afraid that they’re going to ask something that really puts me on the spot. “Pastor, does your church believe that I could be reincarnated as a Twinkie?” “Uh…You know, Colette studied that very subject on her sabbatical. Go ask her.”
Jesus had an answer for everything. Should we pay taxes to Caesar? Jesus had an answer. What is the greatest commandment? Jesus had an answer. Yet in our passage today, when this man lobs Jesus a softball question and asks him to help divide up the inheritance, Jesus says, “Who made me judge over you?”
On the surface, it’s not an unusual request. In the ancient world there weren’t judges and courtrooms, so often people would bring their disputes to rabbis, who were considered the wisest folks in society. The rabbi would arbitrate these disputes and decide one way or another. But in this instance, Jesus doesn’t take the case. Maybe he knew the motives here.
Jesus sees this question not as an honest searching for a fair resolution, but as a request motivated by greed in a nasty turf squabble between two brothers. There are some parents whose legacy to their children is good character, strong values, and a love of the Lord. This parent only left his children a big pile of stuff and a legal case. And Jesus wanted no part of it.
Instead, he tells this interesting parable about a farmer who had an unexpected bumper crop. His silos and barns were already full, so he had to decide what to do with all this extra food. After a conversation with himself, he decides to build even bigger barns to hold his harvest, so he can sit back and enjoy the good life while he lives off the earnings of this windfall.
But wouldn’t you know it? As soon as the man says he’s going to take it easy, as a wise person once said, God throws a monkey into the wrench. While admiring his silos overflowing with corn and wheat and black-eyed peas, the rope on this man’s hammock snapped, he tumbled down his manicured lawn, fell off his brick patio, landed in his in-ground pool and drowned. And Jesus drives home the point with a “boom boom pow” by saying, “This is what happens when we put our security in our crops rather than in God.”
Wow, this farmer must really be a scoundrel. I mean, he must have really screwed up to get this treatment. What does the story say he do wrong to deserve such a fate? He doesn’t steal, he doesn’t kill anyone, he doesn’t cheat to get ahead. He earns his crop through hard work and sweaty labor. No workers are mistreated; the man is actually very careful and conservative. Jesus doesn’t say the man did anything wrong; he simply calls him a fool.
It’s also interesting to note that Jesus also doesn’t scold this man for having an abundance. He doesn’t chastise him for being successful. I believe Jesus would support this man’s desire to eat, drink and be merry. After all, Jesus didn’t take a vow of poverty; he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, which means he had his share of food and drink. How can we ever become responsible stewards if we never have anything for which to be responsible? We don’t say to a child, “Learn to read and then I’ll give you a book” or “Learn to swim and then I’ll put you in the water.” We learn to be stewards by how we handle the stuff we have. We are blessed by God, and one of those blessings is our resources, like this man’s crops.
So if this man doesn’t do anything wrong to get his wealth, and it wasn’t wrong for him to have it, what’s the problem here? I believe his greatest error is in how he viewed what he had. Listen again as this man has a conversation with is three favorite people: “’This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “Self, you have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ‘
His three favorite people: me, myself and I. My barns, my grain, my goods, my things. And yet what does Jesus say at the beginning of the parable? “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.” The rich man didn’t have anything to do with it. He was given a gift by God: fertile soil, a favorable growing season, and a bumper harvest. Nothing we earn comes to us by our own efforts. The gifts and talents we use to bring in a salary that allows us to buy things are from God. Everything we have originates from God.
We forget that, and that’s why this story is in the Bible. Jesus speaks a lot in the gospel of Luke about wealth because it is one of the prime candidates for idolatry. Being blessed with material and financial resources produces in us a healthy tension between taking care of our own needs and being attentive to the needs of others. That tension forces us to always be mindful of the fact that what we have isn’t ours.
That tension is what the farmer loses. Instead of seeing his abundance as God’s to share, he sees it as his to keep. What do we do when we run out of room? We add on more room! George Carlin says a house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. And when we run out of room in our house, we rent storage units for the rest of our stuff. Those storage units are the modern day equivalent of building bigger barns. It would be ludicrous to say, “Wait a minute, I don’t need all this. This is way too much.” For the farmer, that abundant crop represented his future, his opportunity to have plenty of good things laid up for many years, so that he could take life easy, eat, drink and be merry. When you have more than you have room for, you simply have to make more room. This wasn’t a frivolous decision on his part; this was an investment in his future. You have to be secure for the future.
The farmer’s error is in thinking his security came from his crops, or his possessions, or his investments. Those things might provide the illusion of security and make us think we are protected from the capriciousness of life, but what he found out was that, ultimately, none of us are secure. A drunk driver, an aggressive tumor, a shift in the economy and we find out the security we thought was built on a solid rock is actually built on shifting sands.
Being surprised by our lack of security in this world is a consequence of living only for our three favorite people. If we don’t look beyond ourselves, it’s easy to miss the joys, sorrows and needs in the world around us. And we have to work hard to move beyond ourselves, because I believe even the most altruistic, generous person is selfish by nature. That’s in our DNA. It’s the fight-or-flight principle. When it comes right down to it, we choose self-preservation. And in most cases, that’s a very good thing. We take care of ourselves to make sure we have what we need. But where this becomes trouble is when we live selfishly even when we have more than we need.
I’m willing to bet that this farmer was not from Kentucky. First of all, the Bible doesn’t tell us he liked sweet tea, which is a sure giveaway. But here’s another reason. Kentucky is one of four states in our country that was originally known as a commonwealth. Now think about that phrase for a second – the commonwealth. The idea that whatever I have belongs to everyone else as well, that whatever wealth I have is shared with those around me.
The farmer didn’t want to live that way. He equates abundant life with abundant things. He was living out what I call practical atheism. He believed in God when it worked in his favor, and didn’t pay attention to God when it kept him from enjoying the good life, when faith just got in the way of his plans. And he clearly had plans for his future – a life of leisure, recreation, freedom from the demands of work. That actually doesn’t sound too bad, does it? It kinda sounds like the retirement I’m hoping for. But it’s a mistake to believe that there’s any security in what we’ve accumulated here on earth. There was a popular bumper sticker a few years ago that said, “He who dies with the most toys wins!” to which Jesus would say, “He who dies with the most toys still dies!” Our security is not found in what we have, but in who we are and in whom we put our faith. Yes, we need to plan for tomorrow, but we also need to have faith in God’s goodness and promise of eternal life, regardless of what we have or don’t have.
In the prudence of planning for tomorrow, Jesus warns us against sacrificing the joy of today. The life we have been given as a gift is for living now, not for storing away until we retire or when the kids move out. We save and store up and hope that we’ll finally come to a point in our lives when we’ll find true meaning, beyond the responsibilities of a job and mortgage and raising kids. But our lives have meaning now, and that meaning comes from how we share the gifts we have been given. In the end, God will not ask how big our barns were, but how we used the gifts were given to serve others.
That is what it means to be “rich toward God,” to earn all we can and save all we can for the express purpose of giving all we can. Jesus doesn’t encourage us to avoid a life of success, but to choose a life of significance, a life which is balanced and meaningful, a life where the dominant pronouns are “we” and “our,” not “me” and “mine.” Our lives are not made worthwhile by what we get. It’s true that having more than enough money can reduce a lot of dissatisfying aspects of our lives, but it doesn’t make life more satisfying. Our lives are made meaningful by what we have been given, and by what we give. We have been blessed with abundance and, in truth, our lives are demanded of us every day. What are we building? Bigger barns? Is that really all there is to this life?