Then Jesus 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.”Luke 12:16-21
This is the second to last of our Sizzlin’ Summer Sermons for 2020, and the hits just keep on coming. The questions keep on popping up, too.
When it was exactly in the course of his ministry that Jesus told this brief and powerful parable is not precisely known- Luke includes it in the midst of a slew of familiar phrases to us now; lilies of the field, the number of hairs on your head, lamps lit and prepared. These particular brief sentences strike their mark with stark clarity; there’s little doubt about their meaning and less room to spin Jesus’ words out of their original intent.
Nonetheless, we 21st century listeners need to do some work to prepare ourselves to really hear the fullness of this message. The assumptions we bring to this parable as modern day Americans are in many ways upside down as compared to what the average Jew in Palestine would have carried with them. Just the notion of being a wealthy farmer in the fortunate position of upgrading a barn would be outrageous for most of Jesus’ listeners; yet to our ears it sounds like a prudent business strategy.
Many who hear this parable, especially in an American context, may wonder why the rich farmer is called a fool for what he does… (The puzzling part for us may be about what he’s going to do with all of his crops while one barn is torn down and another is being built; that part has always puzzled me.)
To us, the rich man is a wise and responsible person. He has a thriving farming business. His land has produced so abundantly he doesn’t have enough storage space in his barns. So he’ll just build a bigger one to store his grain and he’ll have ample savings set aside for the future to enjoy his golden years.
Isn’t this what we are encouraged to strive for? Isn’t it wise and responsible to save for the future? The rich farmer would likely be a good financial advisor. He seems to have it all figured out. He has worked hard and saved wisely. Now he can sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of his labor, right?
Not exactly. There is one very important thing he has not planned for – his reckoning with God. So, as unpredictable as life can be, 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?”
The rich farmer is called a fool not because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future, but because he appears to live only for himself, and that he believes that he can secure his life with his many possessions. His attitude has given me an ‘ear-worm’ of a tune that has been running though my head all week long, from the Beatles, “Can’t Buy Me Love.” You remember how it goes.
I’ll buy you a diamond ring my friend if it makes you feel alright
I’ll get you anything my friend if it makes you feel alright
‘Cause I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love.
It seems like the rich farmer didn’t know this song, or sing it, however good or bad…
This parable brings to mind a couple people I’ve known, like some I’m sure you’ve known, too, people who died very shortly after their retirements. (And I’m aware of those actuarial studies that refer to the first year of a man’s retirement as the most dangerous of his life.. the transition is much harder than you might expect/which I do keep in mind for myself, by the way.)
I remember being with a slightly older colleague at a meeting, now a decade ago when the Stock Market was tanking. I can still see him smiling as he told me that he had already moved his retirement funds into safe places so he had little to worry about in his upcoming retirement. Just a couple of weeks later, on the day of his funeral as his life was celebrated, I recalled that moment, aware that he never had the chance to enjoy the fruits of his wisdom — his choice of barns in which to store the abundant ‘harvest’ which had been his.
It could well be that you have a story like this yourself, of someone who worked long and hard and in the end, was never able to enjoy what they worked so hard to earn. It’s tragic, and pretty sobering, too… and it makes us look for meaning in what would otherwise be just a sad and hopeless story.
So here are a couple of brief takes on what this story can mean for us in a positive way…. I preface these points with some memorable words from the fairly famous New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, a perceptive statement I remember whenever I run into a passage that seems to go deeper than it appears on a first reading…
“My point is not that these ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now simple-minded enough to take them literally.”
So, first of all, this story isn’t really all about a barn, as easy as that is to picture in our mind’s eye. Now, of course we know that already. But we tend to focus on the material wealth this man amassed, and not so much the motivating forces behind it. Jesus has already shared with his audience his one sentence philosophy of life, for all circumstances: “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Luke 9: 4)
This parable drives home the first part of Jesus’ statement with indisputable clarity. When the rich man talks in this parable, he talks only to himself; the only person he refers to is himself: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” “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.’” There is a self-centeredness in this character portrait that leaves no room for anyone else, much less God.
It seems clear that this character wasn’t really looking to anything beyond himself, any meaning beyond himself, and he got just what he was looking for. He learns the hard way what the writer of Ecclesiastes realized, that you can’t take it with you. The man formulates the first part of the equation of this parable: “selfishness does not end well.’ This is combined with a second part of the equation that spells total disaster.
The man’s second malady is a fatal lack of faith. He is called a fool because he did not allow for faithfulness to be a part of the plan he made for himself. He ignores the wisdom of Proverbs: “Honor the Lord with your wealth, as the first charge on all your earnings, then your granaries will be filled with overflowing.” (Prov. 3:9-10)
It’s a challenging reality that we live with in these pandemic days, that our resources may be limited and we don’t know how long this will last. But we always have the opportunity to respond, generosity and faithfulness are always available to us, and every gift makes a difference in many ways. So to find our way forward, we may need to alter our way of thinking about selfishness and unfaithfulness and what it takes to overcome both of these all-too common conditions that we all suffer from, frankly, all too regularly. We always have to be reminded about our tendency to make something finite infinite. The way things are now is not how they always will be- and Jesus Christ asks us to grow into a hopeful and better future for all.
It is all about priorities. It is about who is truly God in our lives. It is about how we invest our lives and the gifts that God has given us. It is about how our lives are aligned: toward ourselves and our passing desires, or toward God and our neighbor, toward God’s mission to bless and redeem the world.
Our lives and possessions are not our own. They belong to God. We are merely stewards of them for the time God has given us on this earth. We regularly deny this truth because we want to be in charge of our lives and our stuff.
The allure of wealth is that it creates an illusion of infinite security. It whispers to us that we can transcend the everyday vulnerabilities and needs that remind us that we’re mortal beings ultimately and always dependent on others and, most especially on God.
Recognizing this hard truth is actually good news. Because all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, our future is secure beyond all measure.
What is scary about this parable about the rich fool simultaneously makes me hopeful. What’s scary, of course, is that I can identify a little too closely with the rich guy. After all, he’s not a cheat, or a thief, or even particularly greedy. He’s just worked hard and earned what he has, kind of like most of us dream about. His mistake, in the end, doesn’t have to do with the wealth; rather, he goes astray by believing that his wealth can secure his future, can make him independent — from others, from need, from God. And I can catch myself dreaming that, too: “If I just had a little more; if the mortgage were paid off, if this or that was taken care of, then … everything would be okay.” And then another worry would come to take that one’s place.
In the end, the Beatles were right: money can’t buy us love…or dignity, self-worth, security, faith, hope, or acceptance.
So it is that as we consider the man who sought to build a bigger barn and then died too soon, I’m wondering what it means not to hoard the good gifts of God, but to use them up.
And I am wondering what it means to live a life in community where we have others, and one another, to struggle with these questions alongside as we consider where and how all of our gifts are best used, in Jesus’ way. Amen.