Hosea 11:1-11 – Assyria will rule over Israel because they refuse to repent.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 – Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
Psalm 107:1-9, 43 – Consider the Lord’s loyal love. He delivers.
Psalm 49:1-12 – Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases. For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them. Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.
Colossians 3:1-11 – Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Luke 12:13-21 – The Parable of the Rich Fool. ‘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 toward God.”
Building Barns: The Rich Fool
Let me start with a reminder that we are in the “travel narrative” section of Luke (roughly chapters 10-19). We are in between his earlier ministry in Galilee to the north and moving toward the events that will take place in the region of Judea and the city of Jerusalem to the south. Jesus has been rejected by a Samaritan village (Luke 9), and he has sent the 70 out (Luke 10). He has been questioned on how to inherit eternal life and drawn out the answer: Love God and neighbor. He has answered the question of “Who is my neighbor?” by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. Then Jesus encountered Mary and Martha, which focused on loving the Lord. The Good Samaritan focused on loving neighbor. Last week we had the teaching on prayer and the story of the Friend at Midnight. Mikeal Parsons suggested that these were Jesus’ teachings on three classical virtues: philanthropy (Good Samaritan), hospitality (Mary and Martha), and friendship (Friend at Midnight).
This week and the next, we have teachings on stewardship, or use of wealth. I would suggest that we use these Sundays to talk about how we use our God-given resources for God’s purposes in the world. We need to have the courage to talk about one of the taboos in our society: money. If the only time we talk about money is when it’s time for the budget, people might think that’s all we care about. They might miss the reason Jesus talks so much about use of wealth: spiritual care.
Here’s the story from Luke 12:13-21:
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 toward God.”
Our story begins with a classic triangle. We discussed triangles a couple of weeks ago (July 17, 2016 is Pentecost 9C) in the Mary and Martha story. Martha told Jesus to tell her sister Mary to come and help her. Jesus didn’t take the bait then, and he doesn’t now. He was gentle with Martha. Not so much in this story of two other siblings.
“Tell my brother to split my inheritance with me.” He has a case; his brother should share the inheritance, but Jesus will not intervene. Jesus’ response is to paraphrase, “Who made me the boss of you?” Well, he is a rabbi, a teacher, they are probably thinking. He’s too smart to get sucked into the family squabble. Too many families squabble about inheritances. It can destroy relationships. Parsons (Luke: Paieia series) says that in the Greco-Roman agrarian society, wealth was more likely to be inherited than earned. The death of a relative may be your only shot. Jesus chooses not to arbitrate a domestic dispute. He recognizes it for what it is: greed. Instead of taking sides, he does what any good rabbi would do. He tells a story.
A man has a bumper crop. He tears down his old barns and builds bigger ones, so that he can store the (perishable) crops. Then he sits back and tells his soul, “Soul, you’re set for life. Eat, drink, and be merry.” He had no idea how right he was. He had more than set for his short life, which would end that very day.
We never know when our lives will end. A friend received news last summer that he had cancer. His funeral was in April. Others will die instantly and not know what hit them. What if today was your last day? How would that affect the way you allocate your resources? Do you have a plan for how your assets will be allocated when you die? Do you have a will? If you want a say, you need a will, otherwise the state will decide for you.
The story is about greed. We know this because Jesus said so: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Be. On. Your. Guard.
Augustine translates it, “Be on your guard against all covetousness.”
Jesus has already warned us, earlier in Luke’s gospel, with the woes. Unlike Matthew, Luke’s Beatitudes are followed by woes (Luke 6):
‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Nothing sucks the life out of our spiritual lives like greed. As Jesus will say later in Luke 12, a text that we will read next week: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If you are going to love the Lord with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, your money will follow. Actually Jesus says it the other way. “Follow the money.” Wherever your money goes, that’s probably where your heart is. That’s probably your god. Our spending choices reveal our priorities; more about that next week.
Life does not consist of your belongings. Life is more than stuff. You are more than your stuff. Stuff is not bad, but if it becomes the center of our lives, God is dethroned.
Jesus has just taught his disciples to pray for their daily bread: food, clothing, and all we need from day to day. He now warns them that life is more than food and clothing. Consider the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest, and yet God cares for them. Matthew uses the more general “birds of the air.” Luke chooses the raven, an unclean animal (Lev. 11:15). Coveting and greed will kill you in the end. In the next verses, which we will read next week, Jesus will offer an antidote to our ever-so-natural tendency toward greed.
Patristic commentary on this text supports this interpretation. Those who spoke the language in which the New Testament was written and lived in cultures similar to those of the authors, hear in this text a critique of greed. Our Catholic colleagues tend to reference Patristics more often than we do. Luther was immersed in them. Check out this commentary on the four gospels, if you would like to find the thoughts of Augustine, Ambrose, Cyril, Bede, and others on Luke quickly. This commentary by Thomas Aquinas takes several verses at a time, and then offers commentary by various ancient writers.
“’What shall I do?’ asks the farmer.” Gregory offers, “O adversity, thou child of plenty.” It does strike me how much anxiety we have in our culture. For a society that has so much, we seem to be in chronic distress.
Gregory also adds, “For if every one receiving what is sufficient for his own necessity would leave what remains to the needy, there would be no rich or poor.”
Basil: “Art not thou then a robber, for counting as thine own what thou hast received to distribute?”
Basil: “It is the bread of the famished that thou receivest, the garment of the naked which thou hoardest in thy chest, the shoe of the barefooted which rots in thy possession, the money of the penniless which thou hast buried in the earth?”
Chrysostom: “Now it behooves us not to indulge in delights which fattening the body make lean the soul…”
Let us not over-spiritualize this parable. The earliest commentators on the Bible did not.
The rich farmer wants to store perishable crops, but it is he himself who is perishing. He would have done better to share his bread with the hungry. God calls him a fool.
So what are you doing with your wealth? How are you giving to the needy, whom Jesus constantly brings up in the gospels? What do you do when you have a “bumper crop”? That is, what do you do when you get a bonus, a raise, or a significant job opportunity that pays more than your current job?
It stands, of course, that the preacher must lead by example. Our preaching about generosity, sharing, simplicity, and attending to those in need will sound hollow if our lives preach a different message.
One last thought.
Does Jesus discourage saving? It may seem like it at first brush. The Scriptures as a whole, however, encourage it. Joseph is commended, in the Genesis story, for interpreting the dream with the seven fat cows and seven lean cows. He is praised for saving during the time of plenty, so that the people have food during the ensuing seven years of famine. If we are called to care for the poor, we need to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Jesus does not say anything bad about saving. He does, however, have a running critique of materialism. Save, but then use your resources to bless the poor. In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus does not criticize the rich man for having wealth. He criticizes him for not using his wealth to bless those who suffering, right in front of his nose. Jesus is not addressing saving for a rainy day, in my view. More likely, Jesus is critiquing hoarding and materialism. So don’t ditch your 401k just yet. If you’re following Christ, make sure you are serving those in need.