Sometimes it is surprising what people will ask a pastor. Most pastors field their fair share of biblical and theological questions. Often people will call with a follow-up query to a topic that cropped up in a sermon. Those are the kinds of pastoral inquiries one would expect. Once in a while, though, pastors get asked for advice on matters about which they don’t know a whole lot more than the next person. As most of us pastors would probably confess, when such unusual requests get made, you feel ill-equipped to say or do anything.
This happened to Jesus in Luke 12. A stranger approaches Jesus with a practical matter involving a family argument. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!” It’s not even a question, is it? This is a demand, and Jesus seems a bit upset about it. “Mister,” Jesus says, “I don’t know who you are or what you’re talking about! I am not a judge and have no authority here at all.” It was a curt retort.
But you can’t blame Jesus. After all, this section in Luke’s gospel contains Luke’s closest parallel to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is teaching important spiritual matters. In fact, he had just finished giving a lovely set of instructions to the disciples about how they are to rely on the Holy Spirit when they face opposition. In terms of the gospel, this is very important advice. But that only makes this stranger’s interruption the more striking. If I am midway through a lecture on the fruit of the Spirit, I will not be very happy if someone raises his hand to ask if I have any advice to give on how to do estate planning!
The only explanation for someone’s making such an intrusion is that this person is preoccupied with money. This stranger had not really been listening to Jesus at all but had been ruminating on his financial woes. So the moment there was a lull in Jesus’ speech, he burst in with this inheritance question. Jesus was not pleased at this interruption but he recognized what was going on here and so immediately offers some warnings about greed.
What’s more, Jesus uses the occasion to offer up a very brief parable. But when you think about it, this is a rather unusual parable. Most of Jesus’ parables illustrate some aspect of the kingdom, of grace, of salvation. This parable, however, is more generic. In fact, the main and only character of the parable does not have any obvious connection to anything spiritual whatsoever. He looks to be a secular figure in every sense.
But it is precisely this secular atmosphere and the complete isolation of this rich man that delivers this parable’s punch. This man is completely out there on his own, doing his own thing with no reference to anything or anyone else. He is, Jesus says pointedly, a “fool.” Biblically speaking, that is a powerful word that plays not an individual note on the larger biblical keyboard but in fact whole chords. In the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament a fool was anyone who fails to notice how the world works, thus adapting himself accordingly. Fools are the ones who spit into the wind, who saw off the branch they’re sitting on, who are constantly trying to row their boat against the current because they simply do not pay attention to how life works. Fools are also un-teachable. It’s not only that they fail to make good observations on what works and what doesn’t, fools also refuse to listen when others point these things out for them.
Fools, the old adage has it, are often in error but never in doubt. In fact, the more foolish a person is, the more likely it is that he or she will become more and more isolated as time goes by. People give up on fools. “There is no sense in talking to him,” folks eventually conclude. We have all heard the phrase “a fool’s paradise.” And that phrase is a reflection of how it often goes: having cut himself off from those who could teach him valuable lessons, having blinkered his own vision to keep from seeing the consequences of his own actions, the fool becomes an island unto himself.
But biblically speaking there is one last piece of folly that often attends such folks and it is reflected in that verse from Psalm 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” The last straw, the ultimate piece of damnable folly is to live cut off from God. Actually when we read, “The fools says in his heart, ‘There is no God,'” what that means is not full-blown atheism in the modern sense of claiming that there is no God in existence anywhere. In biblical times there were very few, if any, atheists in that hardcore philosophical sense. More likely what that meant was along the lines of thinking “There is no God HERE.” There is no God who is close enough to see, or be bothered with, my life. So what I do, what I say, what I think, how I behave has nothing to do with God in that God, even if he exists, doesn’t see me anyway. (And if that does not bear some resemblance to what sociologist Christian Smith has termed “moral therapeutic deism,” then I am not sure what would!)
Even this parable’s dialogue is actually a monologue–the only person this rich man talks to is himself! But this isolation is a sign of the man’s basic problem: he neither sees nor cares for anybody but his own self.
The sin of this rich man in Luke 12 is that he has isolated himself from his fellow humanity, from the larger community, from God himself. But then he is interested in no one but his own self. He is not interested in sharing with those who have less. He doesn’t even see such folks. They exist beyond the margins of his consciousness. (I realize that some readers of this may think I am obliquely—or overtly—pointing to a certain prominent political figure in 2016 but honestly, I wrote all of the above several paragraphs three years ago when last this passage was on the Lectionary docket. But if this seems to have current relevance . . . well, that’s the words of Jesus for you.)
The man’s failure is, as such failures always tend to be, a double failure. Not only did he fail to see God, as a consequence he likewise did not take note of all those little reminders of God that surround each of us every day. What are those reminders?
The images of God in our midst.
The more open a person is to God in his or her daily life, the more likely it is that this person will begin to SEE God all over the place: the face of the neighbor is the face of God, the face of the poor is the face of God. But in the case of this rich man, he lost sight not only of that God but of God’s children who were also nearby.
No one had that kind of spiritual vision more than Jesus. Thus, in Jesus we see the exact opposite of this rich man’s fatal flaw of spiritual blindness. Although it is not unusual for Jesus to reach for agricultural images in his parables, still it is interesting that the crop this rich man raised and then wanted to store away for himself only was grain. Wheat. The stuff that becomes the staff of life. But by hoarding it, this man was not a life-sharer or life-giver but someone who deprived others of life. When God says in the end that this fool’s life would be demanded of him, the punishment fit the crime.
But please notice God’s last question: “Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” It is an open, unanswered question. The implication, however, seems to be that by his death, all that life-giving, staff-of-life grain will go to feed the very people he had failed to notice! By his death he became a dispenser of life after all. But not in an heroic way. That does not make this parable’s ending a “happy ending” after all. Yet sometimes it does happen that by death can come new life.
This rich man who ignored God is, of course, a counter-example for what Christians are to be. But that is no surprise since Christians follow a man who once said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
By his death and resurrection Jesus gives us the staff of life. It sets the tone for our own daily dying and rising with Christ, too.
In Luke 12:20 some translations (including the NIV and NRSV, though not the older RSV) have God saying to the rich fool that “this night your life will be demanded of you.” But in the Greek the word rendered as “life” is psyche, the common word for “soul.” It may well be that the sense of this is the taking of the man’s life, but the punch of these words is that it is finally the man’s soul that is at risk. This relates, then, to Luke 9:24-25 where Jesus famously says that if you forfeit your soul for anything to be found in this world, what could you ever give in exchange to get that soul back? Without knowing it, then, the rich fool is trafficking not in the mere physical things of this life but in eternal matters whose import cannot be overstated.
The New York Times has long had a column called “Metropolitan Diary” that features six to eight brief letters sent in by readers who relate real-life experiences in the Big Apple. Many of these anecdotes are examples of kindness and warmth in the midst of a city reputed to be cold and uncaring. Some are laugh-out-loud funny tales about the quirks of people: after all, in a city of 8 million folks, you are bound to see just about everything at least once! But many other anecdotes center on the outrageous wealth that many people in New York City possess as well as the sometimes startling things people do with that wealth.
Here is an example. A couple from the Midwest was visiting New York during a cold stretch of the month of January. As they walked up Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, a bitterly cold wind came up, causing the woman’s ears to get painfully cold. They decided to duck into a boutique to purchase a hat for her. The woman rather quickly found a lovely cashmere knit hat and was about to buy it when her husband noticed the price tag dangling from the cap: $350. They put it back and quickly fled the store. As they came back out onto the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue, however, they saw a woman passing by carrying her little poodle dog–and the dog was wearing that very cashmere knit hat!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 31, 2016
Luke 12:13-21 Commentary