(preached at St. John’s UMC on 8/4/2013)
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 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.
It was late. I had been working for Duke University Hospital for some time and I was used to getting the random alerts on my pager. They always seemed to come in waves, or at moments when you were busy with something else. It had been a trying shift already, quite a few deaths, arguments in the lobby, too many prayers to count before surgeries… I remember looking at my watch after receiving the page, reluctantly putting on my white lab coat, and heading to the room number.
You never know what to expect on the other side of a patient’s door. Sometimes it was a family celebrating good news, or a patient wanting to complain about the hospital food, or sometimes death was waiting on the other side. On that particular night I entered the room and saw two brothers on opposite sides, ignoring one another, with their no longer living mother under blankets on the hospital bed. She had died from complications following surgery, and like any death at the hospital; I was called to offer my services to the family.
I introduced myself, and expressed my condolences to both men, but they refused to stand together or even acknowledge one another’s presence. So I stood there just inside the doorway, moving my body to the left and to the right attempting to convey my deepest sympathies for their recent loss, and give them the space to experience what had occurred. After prolonged periods of awkward silence I invited the men to join me in an adjacent room so that we could meet with Decedent Care in order to fill out the necessary paperwork regarding their mother’s body.
They filled out the appropriate forms, revealed which funeral home would be receiving the body, and I got my things together to leave when the real discussion started. “Where have you been?” one said to the other, “I’ve been with mom for months, watching her die, taking care of her… if you think I’m going to let you have any of the inheritance you are sorely mistaken.” “Don’t you dare speak to me that way!” he replied, “I was her son too, I deserve my share. I know she never loved me like she loved you, but you better believe I’m going to do whatever it takes to get my money.” And he stormed out of the room. Seconds passed before the remaining brother sighed, collected his paperwork, walked our of the room and left the hospital. So there I sat, all alone, after having witnessed two brothers fight about assumed inheritance while their mother lay dead in the next room.
The ugly fight and dispute in that hospital room is all too familiar: Arguing about inheritance. We see this kind of thing on TV, read about it in books, or have experienced it in our own lives: haggling over the furniture, dishes, paintings, property, and savings accounts. Most of the time this is done without a thought or consideration about the life that was lost, and the depth of one’s selfishness and greed shines frighteningly brighter than ever before.
In Luke 12 a crowd gathered by the thousands was pushing in to hear anything they could from Jesus. Jesus triumphantly exhorts the people to confess fearlessly before God because the Holy Spirit will teach them what to say. While standing before the throngs of people Jesus is interrupted by a man and asked to judge an inheritance dispute. “Teacher,” the man says, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus knows that he is not such a judge and he does not want to be. According to the words and actions of Jesus, these kind of specific ethical questions that judges deal with are not the ultimately important ones. When brought this vexing situation Jesus refuses to be a referee between the brothers; after all, who can judge whose greed is right?
Instead of addressing the particularities of the interrupting man, Jesus turns to the crowd: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Jesus then does what he does best, he tells a story…
There once was a rich man whose property produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What am I to do with all these extra crops?” So he devised a solution, “I will destroy my barns and build larger ones to hold all of my excess!” Then he said to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, 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 and saved, whose will they be?” And Jesus ties it all together, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Upon first inspection, it seems as if the farmer has done nothing wrong. This is not some easily identifiable caricature of human desire but a truism that we can all identify with. For all intents and purposes he is careful and conservative. He is not unjust in the way that a typical parable would make him out to be. He has done what any rational and forward thinking person would do. He invests. He takes his extra surplus and puts it away so that he might reap from it for years and years.
So, if he is not unjust, then what is he? Jesus tells us very directly: He is a fool! This farmer lives completely for himself, he plans for himself, he congratulates himself, and he even speaks to himself. He is a fool because his perspective can only go as far as himself. He is a fool because he is defined by nothing short of greed. He is a fool because God is nowhere in his story. The craving desire to hoard his possessions demonstrates how the farmer foolishly believes that he can do all things without God, that he will be fine without God. The farmer’s selfishness indicates the way is life is oriented: completely and totally inward.
Jesus uses this short parable to challenge an accepted set of values: he is denying that it is possible to have security by amassing wealth and property. Instead he proclaims that one becomes secure only by being rich toward God and others.
In the story the famer’s desire to hoard his goods not only ignores the role of God in his life, but is also an act of total disregard for the needs of others. What might appear as “good business” for the farmer actually has far reaching consequences for others in his community. It’s not explicit in the story, but the man is so focused on himself that he has ignored others around him who could also greatly benefit from his surplus. What good is a banquet of food if you are the only one in attendance?
Jesus looks out at the crowd and through this story sets forth a new perspective on what it means to be in the kingdom of God. We cannot find security through an accumulation of abundance, at least not in the way the farmer believed. There is however, an abundance we do have; it is through Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that we can be in all things more than the farmer, it is only in the abundance of the mercy of God that we can be confident that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. To know this love in our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies, is to be rich toward God.
People are always asking me questions about what they’re supposed to do. Like the man interrupting Jesus they want to know how to handle a specific situation according to what it means to live as a Christian. To be authentically Christian the question can no longer be, “What should I do?” but instead, “who am I to be?”
When we ask ourselves who we are to be, we can live our lives in such a way that we will already know the answer to the former question. We are to be disciples of Jesus Christ. We are to be a people of gifts. We may complain about one another to one another, like the interrupting man does, but this kind of bickering will never get through to God. Before God we are confessors not complainers. God is the center of the story, not us. All of the talk in the story about the farmer has been a monologue. He talks to himself, plans for himself, celebrates himself. All these things in my life, I accomplished them, I’ve earned this; I deserve this. It is only when God finally intrudes in the story that we get a glimpse of the truth: “You fool!”
We are to be disciples of Jesus Christ, intent on doing the will of God in the world so that his kingdom can reign abundantly, so that God can continually reconcile us to himself, to one another, and to his creation, so that we can be the body of Christ for the world redeemed by his blood.
For the first time in my life, I am tithing to the church. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve ever earned a salary and had the capacity to give back to God a tenth of what I am earning. Everyday I have been in Staunton God has continued to show me that this is exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to do. This is a gift; to be here as the pastor of St. John’s is a gift.
We are to be a people of gifts. This means that we are called to give back to the good God who first gave to us. This doesn’t have to just come in the form of money because we are called to give to God through our gifts, our time, and our service. For me, I give part of my salary to God as a discipline, so that I can remember from whom all of this comes from first. How often have I been guilty of the same thoughts as the farmer? I did this, I’ve earned this, I deserve this. When in fact I have done very little for this graceful life. I owe everything to the people around me, and to the God who gave me the greatest gift of Jesus Christ.
We are to be a people of gifts willing to offer ourselves to one another. Karl Barth once wrote, “When I really give anyone my time, I thereby give him the last and most personal thing that I have to give at all, namely myself.” How beautiful it is to offer ourselves to those around us, to those in need, and to those who need to feel the love of God through us.
Giving ourselves to other people is beautiful because it is exactly what God did for us through the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. God came among us, to spend time with us, just as he does every day, to give us the most precious gift in the world: himself.
Before us this morning the table has been prepared. Like our call to share ourselves with others, God desires to share this meal with us. We are invited to receive these gifts without any merit on our part but because God loves us. God has not kept his grace stored up in a barn for eternity, but out of God’s abundant love it has been presented to us in the death of his only begotten Son and the gifts of bread and wine.
Who are we to be? We are to be disciples of Jesus Christ, willing to share with others the gifts that God has given to each one of us. We can give back to the good God who first gave us life through our tithes and offering, we can give back by serving those in need, we can give back by sharing the love of God with others, we can give back by offering prayers for our enemies. We are not called to keep the riches of our lives kept away for our own selfish enjoyment; instead we are called to be a people who are rich toward God. Amen.