Choices, Luke 12:13-21
First United Methodist Church, August 4, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
In my experience with Jesus, he’s not one to avoid answering tough questions.
We pastors, on the other hand, learn through experience that one ought be cautious in responding to tough questions.
“Preacher, what does the Methodist Church have to say about…gambling…the death penalty…euthanasia…human rights…immigration.” Let me check the Discipline and I’ll get back to you.
“Pastor, do you believe God is going to let me have my little dog Poochie in heaven?” Oh, I don’t know, but I think God is pretty amazing!
Jesus doesn’t proceed with caution. One day he is asked, “Jesus, in all of scripture, what is the greatest commandment?” It’s a huge question! But he gives a direct answer.
“Should we pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Jesus has an answer. It isn’t a simple answer, but it’s an answer.
Yet when this man approaches Jesus and insists, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me,” Jesus refuses. “Who made me a judge over you?” Jesus asks him.
Actually, there’s a lot of scripture that says Jesus is the judge. But it seems Jesus has no interest in becoming judge over this situation. He refuses to get involved in this dispute over the family will. We’re not told the man’s name. What Jesus does tell is a story about a spectacularly successful farmer who sensibly (it would seem) built large barns to hold all of his crops, ensuring himself a safe and secure future.
Jesus does name this man: he calls him “Fool.” The story he tells is an answer to the unnamed man’s question, but it probably isn’t the answer he was hoping for.
At first glance, what the rich man does, the “fool” as Jesus calls him, doesn’t seem such a bad thing. He’s taking care of his stuff. We can relate. We’ve got stuff. We need to take care of our stuff.
As I quote the late comedian George Carlin this morning, I admit he was not a favorite of mine. He wasn’t on prime time because of his use of profanity, and yet his social commentary could be spot on.
In one monologue, he describes the obsessive accumulation of material things, and the anxiety that can cause for us in these modern days:
“You got your stuff with you? I’ll bet you do. Guys have stuff in their pockets; women have stuff in their purses…Stuff is important. You gotta take care of your stuff. You gotta have a place for your stuff. That’s what life is all about, tryin’ to find a place for your stuff!
That’s all your house is; a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.
A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down and see all the little piles of stuff. Everybody’s got his own little pile of stuff.”
The parable is called “The Rich Fool” in our Bibles, but it could just as appropriately be called, “A Place for Your Stuff.”
Jesus prepares the man for the story he’s about to hear, telling him, Take care. Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
We know that. And yet, how many of us still have too much stuff?
I have a friend who was employed for 6 months to clean out someone’s attic who had passed away. Apparently, it was packed full of stuff, some of it very valuable, some of it not. I was shocked, really. Not at the stuff, but six months of full-time employment to clean stuff out of an attic.
I have another friend whose family has employed someone to clean out their father’s condo. He’s moved to assisted living and had his children and grandchildren take what they wanted. They did, they figured it all out pretty well, but there was still so much. A lifetime of accumulation of treasures.
One of the things we’ve learned in going through Scott’s parent’s belongings after his father’s death and his mom’s move to nursing care, is that we don’t want our children to have to go through all our stuff. It’s too hard. That doesn’t mean we’ve started organizing and clearing. It doesn’t mean we aren’t buying anything anymore. It just means we intend to downsize. Someday.
There are 2 characters/actors in the parable: along with the rich man, we have God. We have the opportunity here to “listen in” on what the rich man is thinking; the reason why he’s doing what he’s doing. “What should I do? I have no place to store my crops.” He comes up with a costly solution. I’ll pull down my barns and build larger ones! Then I can store all my grain and my goods.
So, here’s George Carlin again: So now you have a houseful of stuff. And, even though you might like your house, you gotta move. Gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff! And that means you gotta move all your stuff. Or maybe, put some of your stuff in storage. Storage! Imagine that! There’s a whole industry based on keepin’ an eye on other people’s stuff.
In the 1st century world, economics were viewed somewhat differently than we tend to look at them. One person having a lot, meant another person would have less. If one person became richer and richer, it meant that another person would become poorer and poorer.
In studying this text, I’ve learned a new economic term that maybe is already familiar to you: Zero-sum game. One person’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the gain or loss of another. Security for this man would mean insecurity for another.
Which leads us to the big issue that Jesus is sharing: the rich man didn’t think about anybody but himself. It’s all about “me” “myself and “I.” There’s no word of thanksgiving for God’s part in his good fortune, and there’s no concern about his neighbor, or anyone else. It’s the stuff he’s accumulated. That’s the big deal. Time to relax, to eat drink and be merry!
Now, the second actor in the parable—God—speaks. The lack of space for all his stuff becomes unnecessary: You fool, God says. This very night your life is being demanded of you. And your things? Whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.
This text gives us so much to think about!! Let’s talk through a few of them.
First, I think it’s fair to ask: Not talking particularly about stuff right now—but what’s wrong with storing excess crops? I remember how Joseph saved excess grain during the seven years of plenty in Egypt and how that came in handy during the seven years of famine Here’s what it says in Genesis 41: “There was famine in every country, but throughout Egypt there was bread. When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do.” And since the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. Moreover, all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world (v. 54b-57).
As that story continues, not only is Egypt fed because of Joseph’s actions, but so are people in neighboring countries. That results in a reunion of Joseph and his family. So storing didn’t turn out badly in this story. Why is it a problem now?
The difference is in the use of the product Joseph stored. It wasn’t for himself, it was for others, it was for God’s purposes…
So, there’s nothing wrong with “having” it’s what we do with what we have. It’s being good stewards, of giving God the glory and sharing what we have. I don’t fully understand the zero-sum game, but I know that even though I have enough there are others who don’t, and so it only makes sense to share. It doesn’t make sense to store up more than I need and let it go to waste.
Jesus calls the rich man a fool for leading an isolated and self-absorbed life. Life isn’t about the possessions we accumulate. Life and possessions are a gift of God to be used for God’s purposes of care and compassion, for those who don’t have the ability to provide for themselves…It’s not all about me and what I have, but about what I might be able to do with what God has given me.
Secondly, what’s important in life and what isn’t? How do you measure a life? It’s not only the lyrics of a song in Rent, but it’s an important question for us to consider as Christians.
I think of the man trying to get Jesus to settle an inheritance dispute between he and his brother. At the same time, I remember when we talked about Mary and Martha, and Martha’s urging Jesus to deal with her sister, to make her get up from listening to him, and to help her in the kitchen. Martha, Martha, you’re distracted by so many things. Jesus might say to this guy, Dude, you’re distracted by so many things. It’s the relationship that matters. It’s not the stuff. Your parents never intended for you guys to be fighting over their property, over their stuff! It’s the relationship that counts! In the same way, God (our heavenly parent) never intended for us to get so focused on the good gifts that we’ve been given that they become more important than our sisters and brothers. Be blessed in the relationships, don’t be distracted by the things that don’t matter.
And third, what does it mean to be rich toward God? It isn’t defined in this particular text, but we have examples throughout the gospel.
Being rich toward God is about using one’s resources for the benefit of one’s neighbor in need, like the Samaritan did (10:25-37).
Being rich toward God includes intentionally listening to God’s word, as Mary did, when Jesus visited in Galilee (10:38-42).
Being rich toward God means fully trusting that God will provide for the needs of our lives, giving us this day our daily bread (11:1-13).
Being rich toward God means giving alms as a means of establishing a lasting treasure in heaven. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (12:22-33).
Maybe life isn’t about “tryin’ to find a place for your stuff.” Maybe it’s not about our abundance of possessions. Maybe the better way is just walking around all the time, winging as the ravens, blooming as the lilies, rich toward God.
That sounds pretty good to me.