Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
It is a Biblical truth, universally acknowledged, that when a story begins “A man had two sons”, there is trouble about to begin. Someone is going to come out on top, and someone is going to end up looking like a fool. In the Old Testament we have Cain and Abel right off the bat, soon followed by Jacob cheating Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. There are many others. If the story tells of two brothers, make sure you’re near the door.
So begins our gospel this morning: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” The fight has already begun.
Jesus will have none of it. He calmly and unequivocally removes himself from the midst of family drama, and sends brother #1 back to deal straightforwardly with brother #2. He refuses to be caught in a triangulation, which is where I’m mad at someone, so I go tell someone else to step in and fix it for me.
Instead he warns his hearers against “all kinds of greed; for…life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” He tells a story of a landowner, a rich prosperous farmer, whose land produces abundantly. His fields and flocks produce so generously that the existing barns and storage buildings cannot hold it all. This is an sign of God’s blessing, far more than enough, resources laid aside for years to come. Surely this one is blessed by God!
What will he do with all of it?
He asks just that question, and begins to fret and to worry about what is to be done. “For I have no place to store my crops.” Remember we’re hearing this from Jesus, of whom we read just verses ago: “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”(9:57) The language is exactly the same: whereas Jesus has not even a place of his own to sleep, this man has no place to keep all his extra supplies. So he decides to tear down the existing barns to make room for larger ones, to hold all the grain and wool and everything else.
And he says to himself: Self! You’ve got it made. Relax, enjoy, all is well. There’s nothing to worry about.
Except that one little thing, which we all will face. That reality of which Ash Wednesday reminds us every year: You are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Much medieval art featured the presence of some object (frequently a skull) as a Memento Mori: “Remember that you will die.”
In our time we have www.deathclock.com: “The Internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away” where you can enter a few facts about yourself and find out how much longer you have left.
So Jesus asks this man: All this wealth, all these baskets of grain and wool, all these barrels of wine and bottles of oil, these sheep and cattle—what indeed will become of them? Whose will they be? Not yours, certainly—there never was seen a funeral hearse pulling a U-haul trailer.
“This night your life is required of you.” That which you thought was the sustenance and substance of your life—both its purpose and its contents—will be taken from you.
“So it is among those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.”
What can that possibly mean, to be “rich toward God”? God needs no grain or wool, no wine or oil. God made all the sheep and cattle and everything that exists—so God does not need, in Godself, anything that is.
Nor does God ask for anything in order to purchase his goodwill. There is nothing you or I can do to make God love us more, because that’s not how it works. God loves you and me because God is love. God offers that love without condition, without distinction. As Christians we speak of Jesus as the most complete and perfect expression of that divine love, even when people feared and rejected and crucified him. They could not bear to hear him; they would rather kill him than change their minds and ways in order to make room for him and the message he brought. And even then, when human fear and rejection and hate had done their absolute worst, God still had the last word. On Easter day, in the upper room behind locked doors, the risen Christ greets the frightened disciples and says “Peace be with you.”
Shortly before the episode in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus has criticized the religious establishment, the recognized clergy and civil leaders of the community, in this way: “You take care to make a good show, to clean carefully the outward appearance, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You give one-tenth of your income to support the religious system, but you neglect to give justice to your fellow human beings, and you neglect the love of God above all.” (11:39-42) You’re doing all of these things, and that’s all well and fine, but you’re missing the point of all of it.
And notice again who he’s talking to in the gospel this morning: Someone (unidentified) from the crowd says to him “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Someone has an estate to settle; someone (another wealthy prosperous farmer, perhaps?) has died, leaving wool and grain and wine and oil, barns and sheep and cattle and house and furniture to be divided among those who remain.
Jesus tells them also, this is not the point. Ultimately it does not matter who gets the larger share of the livestock, or the newest wagon in the barn, or Grandmother Sarah’s pearl necklace. Ultimately it’s about how you deal with one another in the sharing of the goods (of which there are plenty); in the way you treat one another in the face of temptation and acquisitiveness and greed.
I suspect that being “rich toward God” has something to do with being generous in this life. The prosperous farmer in the parable isn’t criticized for being successful, or for having lots of good things. The problem is the failure to perceive the obvious—that he was mortal, that he had a limited amount of time on this earth. The true statement “I have everything I need and more” led to a false assumption: “I’m all set, I don’t need to do anything else but just enjoy what’s mine.”
And yet he is called “Fool”, and told that “this very night your life is demanded of you.” The grammar in Greek is better translated “THEY demand your life”—it’s unclear whether that suggests that God, or the angels of God come to announce this man’s death, or that the man’s possessions in themselves somehow ‘suck the life’ out of him.
Shannon and I are fond of watching some of the reality shows on the History Channel. One of our favorites is “American Pickers”. The hosts, two friends named Mike Wolf and Frank Fritz, travel around the country in a large panel van looking for “rusty gold” that people have collected over the years. And they find some characters. And they find places—barns, storage units, warehouses, whole multi-story buildings—crammed to the roof with stuff. Acres of land containing multiple buildings, and each building chock-a-block with stuff. Sometimes they’ll buy items from the owners—old gas station signs, old motorcycle parts, old toys, all kinds of things that they can resell to serious collectors. But sometimes the owners won’t sell any thing, for any price. They hold onto every last rusty hunk that stuff, even as the piles around them threaten to come crashing down on them, unwilling or unable to let go of any of it.
They have been possessed, as it were, by their possessions. Their life force, their ability to look past the doors of those barns and storage units, has been cut off. And the stuff, which could be taken out of the barn, out of the storage unit, out of the strongbox and sent forth to become a blessing to someone else, just sits and rusts and falls to pieces. This is the warning Jesus issues to his hearers this morning. This is the word of challenge; the call to metanoia, to turn around and change one’s mind and behavior.
God blesses, in order to spread blessing. If that blessing is not shared and spread and passed along, it becomes stagnant and dusty and burdensome. But if it is shared and spread and passed along, it becomes the source of the kind of abundance and generosity and plenty that is part of God’s Shalom, God’s desire of peace and sufficiency for all God’s people.
To whom will you be a blessing today?
How will you go and share good news, kindness, the grace of God, with someone who needs a sign of hope this morning?