What does life consist of? That is the question that sits at the center of our story from Luke’s Gospel today. The man in our story is sure that he knows — and he is not getting what he wants. So he seeks out a judge, an arbiter to decide in his favor.
It was customary in Jesus’ time for rabbis to give a legal ruling in disputes. It sounds like a straightforward request to settle an inheritance; to get the older brother to fulfill his duty to share the correct share of the family money with his younger brother. But Jesus senses something else going on in this young man’s mind and heart other than the settling of the books, and distributing one’s fair share of the inheritance.
Jesus does not satisfy the man’s request because he knows that the man isn’t simply seeking fairness — he is seeking his own material gain. This man’s motivation is not justice, but greed.
Greed is a common experience for all of us. That’s what one of the main levers that advertisers use — they know we want nicer things and more things — and so they dangle all sorts of luxuries before us with great promises that a new car or a new house or a new pair of tennis shoes or a new set of clothes will make us happier and more content. Now, on the one hand there is nothing wrong in having possessions — a car, a house, clothing, and so on. Our problem as humans is the easy tendency to put our possessions above people, to place money over relationships, to value cash before community, and worst of all, to love goods more than God.
Greed — that is wanting more and believing that life consists of getting more, always trips us up doesn’t it? Whether it’s inheritance, marital disputes, divorce, child support, or resolving family conflicts, it often comes down to the money–who’s got it, who’s spending it, how much is enough, and what about me? Like the man in our story, we all have an underlying fear that we are not going to get our fair share. Greed can spur disputes about money or inheritance can cause irreparable family rifts–I know of a number of families where the adult children do not speak to one another after the parents died and the children could not settle the estate. It is so easy for money to be more important than relationships.
We also cling to our possessions in hopes that they will help secure our future. This haunts us like a nightmare repeating itself unbidden in the dark of night. Will I have enough? What if I run out of resources? What if a disaster strikes? Again, the wise person does try to plan for the future. God wants us to participate in our own well-being. That’s why we buy insurance, that’s why we save for retirement, that’s why over the last four years we have started an Endowment and a Capital Campaign, why we steward the building–faithfulness includes planning future missions. Yes, God protects us against evil that can destroy the soul. but God also gave us brains to figure out ways to protect our lives — things like vaccines and healthy living patterns, and wise financial management, and on-going mission beyond our lifetimes. But how quickly this planning for the future can drive us into a fearful greediness that puts possessions, money, and stuff over people, relationships, and God.
Knowing this, not just about the brother in front of him, but all of us, Jesus does not settle between the man and his brother. Rather, by telling the parable of the Rich Fool, Jesus invites the man and us into an alternate way of seeing what life consists of as we live in a world in which everything is a gift from God.
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.’
Wouldn’t it be nice if the story ended there? I wish this were a story about the wisdom of building bigger barns so you don’t have to worry about anything. But, as is so often the case with Jesus, there is always more to the story.
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.”
The tragedy of the story is the man thought that he was the captain of his destiny. He put all of his energy into securing a future that, in the end, he did not control. You notice the pronouns in the story were “I” and “my” and “self.” There are no relationships, no mention of family or God or community. He is curved in on himself so much so, that he cannot see anyone but himself.
But Jesus’ parable forces us to ask other questions, How much is enough? How much do you need? What does life consist of? And when death calls — and at some point, death will always call — it does not matter how wise an investor we have been with our earthly resources. They will no longer be ours and then our eternal wealth will begin to matter: “what investments have we made in our relationship with God?”
I want to share with you a painting that illustrates the way that this parable invites us to reconsider our relationship with our possessions. It is by Texas artist Jim Janknegt (look at the picture posted with this sermon).
Here is the painting. There are two houses, one large and one small. Which house would you rather live in? If you are like me, you would like the biggest house. There is more space. It is more comfortable. You can store more possessions.
And that's exactly what the rich man prefers. His large buildings allow him , eat, drink space for nice furniture, art, and possessions. He has a nice bedroom upstairs where he can dream of his worry-free life. This is a house in which he can eat, drink, and be merry. But there are other symbols - cactus in the yard, it's very stark, shadows over the house, the owner is alone and his back to the neighbors house.
There are possessions one buys around outside - jewelry, electronics, house for sale, bull-dozing a house to build a bigger one, newscaster with a skull–horrors of the day.
There are sales pitches in the words behind the items:
- “But one Get One Free”
“Essentials for the Home”
“50% Off Sale”
But there is a problem with this man and his large house. While it gives you the security and comfort we all want, it prevents you from having relationships. It puts possessions above people and cash before community. This is symbolized by a piece of art inside his home–it’s a sculpture in his living room. It looks like a child with the center hollowed out or the heart cut out – a symbol of the kind of life and soul one has who only has relationships with possessions, and not with people. This is also a symbol of what happens to the larger community by his hoarding of grain. By not putting his extra grain into the market, he drives up the price of grain for the poor. His selfish practice gives him economic power and status in the village as others become more dependent on him. The rich fool wants to control the market at the expense of his neighbors. Those who control market forces for unreasonable profits, leave the stomachs of the poor empty.
And do you remember what happens in the parable when the rich man gets everything he wants? When he gets his security and your happiness? God comes and tells him, “Fool, tonight you lose your soul. And what you have provided, whose will it be?” This question underscores that the only relationship this man has is with his stuff, possessions and money.
But there is another house in the painting... a house that none of us would prefer. But look inside this house. Here is a whole group together–perhaps a family or a family with friends or relatives over. People of different ages. And they are sitting together at a table, sharing a meal and having fellowship. Fellowship is a word that comes from two other words: “with” and “bread:” fellowship. Our companions are the people with whom we eat bread. Their house is small, there is not much, but they have everything they need. They have everything we need:
- Toys in the grass
Tree of life above the home
Flowers on the stoop
Their house is full of life and love and light.
Think of the most profound times of your life — the ones that brought you the most joy, the most peace, the most purpose. Were they joyful, and peaceful, and purposeful because of your possessions, or because of the relationships you were enjoying– with your parents, or your siblings, or your spouse, or your children, or your grandchildren, your close friends or neighbors. Were they transformative because you were gathering things unto yourself, or sharing your time and your abundance and your love with others? Were they meaningful because you were thinking about yourself, or because you were grateful to God that your life was blessed and good?
There is nothing wrong with having what we need. There is nothing wrong with having a comfortable life, planning for the future, or securing our retirement. But when those things define who we are and begin to take larger importance in our life than our relationship with God and with others, then Jesus wants to pull us back into deeper relationship and alignment with this parable into what life really consists of–relationship with God and with each other.
Security, happiness and joy come, not from what we have, but from God who gives us everything we need to have joy, and peace, purpose, and love. Wealth does not come from packing our possessions into bigger storage units, but from sharing what we have with others.
This becomes easier when we remember that all our possessions belong to God. We are not actually the owners of our stuff, we are administrators and stewards of the things God has given us, and given us the ability and opportunity to work for. And when we shift to this perspective, our actions change too. We no longer build bigger houses or storage lockers to protect our belongings, we build bigger tables to share the blessings of God, and that’s what it means to be rich toward God. That’s what life consists of in the kingdom of God.
And that’s a great mission image for lives and for St. Luke’s today–building a bigger table where more people, more diverse neighbors, more of all kinds of people can build life-giving relationships with the God who provides us with everything we need–along with a community with which to grow and deepen our relationship with God. In this community we are reminded that the essential for every life is faith and the most valuable possessions are free–the gift of grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ, along with hope, and love which we share together.
In Jesus Christ, we have a God who walks by our side, who fills us with strength and peace, and who accompanies us in every breath. He comes to us at this table with life abundant and bread to share, asking us to hold fast to the relationship that lives beyond this life into eternity, and then calls us to extend the table, so all might know his never-failing love and power.
So come to this table–where we can eat, drink and be merry, for Christ is our bread, and we are God’s people together, sharing what life really consists of—the goodness of God in Jesus Christ. We can go from here using our blessings to build a bigger table, so all might eat, so all might hear, so all might be loved, so all might experience that the best and most secure gifts of life are absolutely free and abundantly given.
Art by James B. Janknegt https://www.bcartfarm.com/wfs15.html.