Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost University Lutheran Church
Luke 12:13-21, Eccl 1:2,12-14,2:18-23 Ps 49:1-12, Col 3:1-11, Jon Heiliger
Year C August 4, 2019
A couple decades ago my mom and I were talking about her finances and she expressed a not too uncommon concern, “I don’t want to outlive my money.” I replied, “Mom, God can work that equation a couple different ways.” I think this was before I went to seminary and had basic pastoral care classes. But my mom’s got a good sense of humor so we shared a laugh about it.
The rich man in Jesus’ parable did indeed bask in the surplus of his possessions for the rest of his life; it was just much shorter than he could have imagined. This is a parable, it is not a statement that God strikes you dead in the middle of the night for being disobedient to God’s commands. That may be what we deserve, but that is not who God is. Gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Each new day we awake to the glory and beauty of creation for all to enjoy. The rain indeed falls on the just and the unjust alike. And yet, there is wisdom that God would like for us to receive, and Jesus as the incarnation of the fullness of God dispenses that wisdom through his teachings and through his actions.
A side note here, unrelated to finances but very related to life in community is that of communication. Jesus, when participating in the artform of communication, is not a big believer in triangles. That is, people such as Martha speaking to him about Mary, instead of Martha talking directly to Mary to sort things out. And today, an aggrieved brother wanting Jesus to intervene with the other brother. Jesus did not fall into the trap with Martha, and he sidesteps it again with this brother. We as a community of people seeking to follow Jesus have in our constitution, our covenant of how we will live together, that we too will go directly to our brother or sister in Christ if we have something to resolve. It may not initially feel like the easiest way, surely talking first to a spouse, a significant other or a close friend is easier, but if our goal is to grow into the likeness of Christ, then speaking directly to one another is the best first step. Matthew 18 lays out additional steps if step one is unsuccessful. But back to Jesus.
When the brother tries to rope Jesus into a family feud, Jesus does not tee off on him, but nor does he acquiesce to the request. “Friend” Jesus says, not “Manipulative, scheming, aggrieved brother”, but “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” That was a rhetorical question for sensing the motivation behind the question, Jesus then turns to the crowd and issues a plea, then a stern warning and offers a parable. The plea is to Take care! Be thoughtful.
Know what you are doing.
In about my second or third year in commercial real estate, I went into my oldest brother Dave’s office to discuss a transaction I had been working on. It was a little murky, I had worked with this client, but so had other brokers, so I did not have an exclusive arrangement. Then with a different broker he ultimately landed on a property that I was peripherally connected to. As I was hemming and hawing complaining to my brother he saw right through me. He was more experienced in the business, eight years my senior, and he’s known me my whole life. His straightforward reply was, “Sounds to me like you’re trying to justify a commission”. Well, my brother had seen the situation clearly, so all I could do was smile, blush a bit and say, “I know it; it’s just frustrating.”
Jesus’ stern warning is, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” It even made God’s Top Ten, “You shall not covet,” that is, desire, long for, scheme about, wanting what is not rightly yours. Or always wanting a little more. Although this brother who spoke with Jesus thought his problem was not getting the family inheritance in a timely fashion, or possibly losing out on it altogether, Jesus saw a much deeper problem in the person’s life. Greed. Greed that was causing conflict with his brother such that he is appealing to Jesus to intervene. Jesus tells the brother, and the crowd that is around, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
And this was back in the day before billboards and magazine ads, before tv commercials and algorithms that know what you’ve searched for so targeted ads start appearing in your browser, or Facebook feed. We live in a society that does not encourage us to scale back on our wants. We have industries dedicated to trying to convince us of all we do not have, or how what we do have could be better with this latest upgrade, or change in style. Jesus tries to get our attention, “Take care!…one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”.
Jesus then goes on to illustrate this through a parable. A parable of a self absorbed person who forgets the 1st Commandment, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” The Lord your God who brought you into the promised land. The Land that had produced abundantly, but whose temporary occupant, the rich man, claimed as his own. The rich man then goes on a me, myself & I rant: “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 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.” I, I, my, I, I, my, I, my, my, I, my. No God. No neighbor. No friends to speak of, no community. “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Jesus says in John’s gospel, “I came so that you may have life, and life abundantly.”
St. John Chrysostom, one of the early Church Fathers wrote about riches being neutral, when given as alms for the poor that is a positive use of wealth, but when riches are hoarded and cause further covetousness, then that is an evil purpose.
How different this parable would have been if the man had said, “Thank God for the abundant harvest that has come in. We need to build bigger barns so that we can set aside grain for the lean years and our families will be alright. So that there will be enough to share with the sojourners traveling through the land, and we can be generous to those in need.” He could have remained a wealthy man, while also living a life of thankfulness to God, a life of generosity towards his family, neighbors, widows, orphans and aliens. And how blessed would he have been through those relationships with others, that they could indeed eat, drink and be merry just as Jesus is found countless times in the gospels breaking bread and sharing in a meal with others.
The parable closes with the stark truth that we as humans are finite beings. We can make all these grand plans, and it is prudent to do some planning, but not to go overboard such that we convince ourselves that we are in control of what will happen later today, or tomorrow or ten years from now. We trust in God and as followers of Jesus seek to learn how to live rich towards God. In Luke’s gospel, being rich towards God is linked to trusting in God for provision, like the seventy sent out with no purse, no bag, no extra cloak or sandals. It is to believe in a God who loves us and will give graciously the Holy Spirit to all who seek, who ask, who knock. In the verses following today’s reading Jesus will encourage his followers by reminding them that as God the Father provides food for the birds of the air, we should not worry about what we will eat or what we will wear, because we are of far greater value to God than the birds, and God provides for them. We will continue this theme next week, so between now and then, we may want to reflect on Jesus’ words about being rich toward God. What might that look like individually, and what might that look like for us as a community? Amen.