Scripture: Luke 12:13-21
Clyde was due to inherit a furniture factory when his sick widower father died. He decided he needed a significant other to enjoy it with; he went to a café one day for an afternoon latte and met a beautiful woman who took his breath away. He introduced himself saying, “I’m an ordinary man, but in just a week or two, my father will die and I’ll inherit a 20 million dollar business.” The woman decided she would go home with Clyde immediately, and the next day she became his stepmother. We all have a family inheritance story to tell – some are more complicated than others. Arguments and divisions over the family inheritance have been happening since the beginning of time. Some of the most interesting biblical stories are about arguments over inheritance. When my parents divorced, the most heated discussions occurred around the division of possessions. It was if all their unresolved tensions were living on through the furniture. They had two sets of chairs – one in the living room and one in the sun room – and they could not decide who was getting which set, until one day they decided that they would rather have a chair from each set than come to an agreement! This reminds me that I need to make sure they’ve each left me the right chair in their wills so I can have a matching set!
The man in the crowd who comes to Jesus in our text for today has a family inheritance question. It was not uncommon for people to bring questions like these to a rabbi to settle. The man says he has been wronged by his brother. Since he’s the one asking for arbitration, he is the one who has the least amount of power, so we can presume he is the younger brother. In Jesus’ time family inheritance laws were pretty clear. Older brothers were to receive two-thirds of their family’s estate, while younger brothers were to receive one-third of it. We aren’t told the details of his complaint, but through Jesus’ detailed response, we learn that the true motivation of the younger brother is greed. Jesus refuses to claim the role of judge or arbitrator, and then warns against all kinds of greed, saying, “For one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” One’s life cannot be defined by things, not even things that are as packed with meaning and emotion and significance as the family inheritance.
Jesus follows his sharp warning with a stinging parable. A rich man’s land produces an abundance of crops. Notice the subject of this sentence. It is the land, created by God, that creates this surplus. The rich farmer didn’t earn it or work hard for it; he got lucky because he was the owner of something God created that produced a bumper crop. The abundance causes great distress for the rich farmer; he believes he is in a difficult position. He has lost his perspective; all he can see are the things that are in abundance. He is at a loss because he does not know how he will logistically store all of his things. This abundance creates frenzy. This abundance creates preoccupation with I, me, and my. The rich farmer feels as if there is only one solution to his so-called problem, and that is to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. This dream of bigger barns to store the abundance leads to great excitement for the future. Having big barns with overflowing crops means security. It means continued wealth, for if famine comes, he will be able to sell those crops for whatever he wants. You can hear the arrogance in the words directed toward no one other than himself: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” He recalls the passage from Isaiah, but, ironically, he forgets the last clause. Isaiah 22:13 says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” That clause is conveniently left off all the cocktail napkins the saying is printed on as well. Neither cocktail party guests nor rich farmers want to talk about finiteness. God says to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus then says, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.” In all of his pondering, it never occurs to the rich farmer to share his abundance with others.
Not all kinds of abundance are good. We, like the rich farmer, know what it’s like for our possessions to become burdensome. Last year journalist Joshua Becker wrote a blog post entitled, “21 Surprising Statistics that Reveal How much Stuff We Actually Own.” Here are a few of the statistics he mentions: There are 300,000 items in the average American home. In the last fifty years, the average size of the home has tripled, and yet one out of ten Americans also rent an offsite storage unit. The average ten year-old owns 238 toys, but plays with only 12 toys daily. 3.1% of the world’s children live in America, but they own 40% of the world’s toys. The average American woman owns 30 outfits – one for every day of the month; in 1930, that figure was nine. The average American throws away 65 pounds of clothing per year. We misplace nine items every day, and over the course of our lives, we spend a total of 3,680 hours or 153 days searching for lost items.[i]
Our lives are indeed filled to the brim with things. We are so stuffed that managing our possessions is a real burden that consumes much of our time. We are so overwhelmed by it that it’s often the excuse we give for not being able to spend time with our families or friends or even not being able to go to church. We sometimes focus more on manicuring our lawns or next week’s meal prep or cleaning out our garage than tending our souls. We allow our souls to get eaten up and consumed by things that bring us and ours pleasure and security. Like the rich farmer, we have tunnel vision; we can only see “I, me, and my.” We get so overwhelmed by the abundance of possessions that we forget about the kind of lives that Jesus has called us to lead.
An abundance of possessions does not equal abundant life. We know this on some level. We’ve seen people who have it all fail at relationships. We’ve seen people who are really successful crash and burn. We’ve seen people surrounded by the nicest of things kill themselves with addiction. But while we know that an abundance of possessions does not equal abundant life, we still cannot escape the subliminal messages of our culture to want more and bigger and better things. We’ve bought the lie that if we can control the things around us, we can control our lives. Ultimately, we’d like to control the one thing we can’t control – our death. As Steve Jobs said in his 2005 Commencement Speech at Stanford, “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.”[ii] It’s astonishing, isn’t it? The way we diligently save and meticulously plan so that one day we can live the good life, so that one day we can be happy, so that one day we can sit back and relax and enjoy our things.
We’ve seen this lie exposed. Too often that “one day” never comes. We know the woman who lost her sense of identity when she retired and spends most of her days struggling with clinical depression. We know the man who worked his whole life and on the first day of his retirement got a diagnosis of terminal cancer. We know the people whose lives got turned upside down way before retirement – the young father who died of rare brain cancer, the young mother who died of a heart condition, the parents who lost their children in a car accident. These people know well what the rich farmer didn’t: You can’t take it with you. Life is not about things. But the rich farmer wants more. His greed is insatiable. The abundance of possessions allows him to live under the delusion that he can control his future.
When people make savvy decisions that lead to their ability to be stable in retirement, we call them wise. We hold them up as good, moral, smart, and upstanding people. When people do not plan well for retirement and end up in a financial bind at the end of their lives, we look down upon them. We call them fools. Yet, here Jesus turns the tables on us and says that the savvy, rich farmer is the fool. Does Jesus mean that we are not to save at all, that we are to handle our finances recklessly? We all remember the story from Genesis where Joseph, after interpreting Pharaoh’s dream to mean that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, recommended that the king store up excess in the years of plenty so that when the years of famine came, there would be enough for everyone. That’s the key right there though – so that there will be enough for everyone, not just enough for I, me, and my. Jesus is not saying we should handle our resources recklessly or that we should never save, but Jesus is cautioning us against greed, against hoarding our possessions, against selfishly holding on to our abundance while others don’t have what they need. Insatiable greediness has communal implications. As Jesus’ disciples, we are held accountable to how we manage an abundance of possessions. As Jesus’ disciples, we are cannot store up treasures for ourselves, while denying others resources. As Jesus’ disciples, we must be to be rich toward God by being generous to others.
Saint Augustine’s words about this passage demonstrate how the rich farmer’s desire to store up treasures for himself on earth destroyed his soul. Augustine said, “Obviously he was not redeeming his soul by giving relief to the poor. He was hoarding perishable crops. I repeat, he was hoarding perishable crops, while he was himself on the point of perishing because he was handing out nothing to the Lord before whom he was now to appear. How will he know where to look, when at that trial he starts hearing the words, ‘I was hungry and you do not give me to eat’? He did not realize that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns.”[iii] If the greatest good we can imagine is a life of maximizing our own pleasure, then we are not being faithful disciples. If we are consumed and distracted by hoarding perishable goods, we look like we are full but we are really empty. If we care more about our barns than the bellies of the poor, we have failed to be rich toward God, and we have mistaken abundant possessions for abundant life. We sang the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” together earlier in the service, but unfortunately we didn’t sing one of Fosdick’s most powerful verses because the editors of Celebrating Grace decided not to include it. I find it hard not to read into the decision to cut this verse; it seems to highlight our discomfort as Christians with the tension between our cultural values and the values of the gospel. You may remember the original third verse, which says: “Cure Thy children’s warring madness, Bend our pride to Thy control. Shame our wanton selfish gladness, Rich in things and poor in soul. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal, Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.” If we don’t allow the Spirit to reshape our desires, to bend our pride, to shame our selfishness, we will keep storing up treasures for ourselves and miss the richness of God’s kingdom.
We’ve learned over the past few weeks that abundant life has nothing to do with having an abundance of possessions. Having abundant life means going and being a neighbor like the Good Samaritan, using one’s resources to provide for those in need. Having abundant life means sitting with Mary at Jesus’ feet long enough to know what he’s calling us to do, long enough to center ourselves on God and our neighbor and not get caught up in our own anxieties. Having abundant life means persisting in prayer, saying the words that Jesus taught us, so that we can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit who will reshape our hearts to love what God loves and to live out the ethics of the kingdom instead of store up treasures for ourselves here on earth. The warning that comes with the story of the disgruntled younger brother and the parable of the rich fool give us another opportunity for faithfulness, another opportunity to receive the abundant life that Jesus is offering us.
We have to answer the question that Jesus asked his followers back in Luke 9: What will it profit us if we gain the whole world but lose our souls? Will we let our abundant possessions sit and rot in storage or will we be rich toward God? Will we keep stuffing our barns to ease our fears and anxieties or will we be rich toward God? Will we selfishly hang on to our inheritances or will we be rich toward God? Will we remain stuck in the quandary of what to do with our things or will we be rich toward God? Will we build bigger barns so we can indulge ourselves with all of life’s good pleasures or will we be rich toward God? Will we keep mistaking our possessions for treasures or will we be rich toward God? Will we be like the rich fool and pretend that our lives have no end or will we be rich toward God? As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to be rich toward God so we can put flesh on the vision of the kingdom of God. We are called to be rich toward God so that all of God’s children can live and live abundantly. Basil, one of our church fathers, knew that our souls were at stake; he said these stinging words: “It is the bread of the famished which thou receives, the garment of the naked which thou hoardest in thy chest, the shoes of the barefooted which rot in thy possession, the money of the penniless which thou has buried in the earth.”[iv] May we not be rich in things and poor in soul. May we instead empty our barns, and be rich towards God.