Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 31, 2022
Luke 12:13-21 Commentary
Whether it’s Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, prompts for charitable donations on Giving Tuesday (after the two biggest shopping days of the year), or the persistent sound of the Salvation Army bells ringing at storefronts, Christmas seems to be the season when we think it is important to at least remind each other that our money is not meant to be spent only on ourselves.
The problem is, of course, a drop in the donation bucket isn’t a sure-fire sign of a heart rightly ordered, and our issues with greed are a daily companion.
This is an especially challenging parable to consider in twenty-first century US and Canada. Setting aside momentarily the recent economic challenges caused by inflation, and considering more broadly our economic standards, practices, financial plans, definitions of the good life, and our attitudes about what we deserve or have earned, this parable has the potential to strike at the heart of our “stewardship.”
I used quotation marks around stewardship on purpose. If that rich farmer was alive today, he might have won an award for his business practices. And we would likely find ourselves uncomfortable challenging the man about his right to the inheritance. We are an affluent people very much concerned about our retirement plans and being able to “relax, eat, drink, be merry” after we’ve gotten what we deserve through our “work” and earned a little heaven on earth.
The man who wants his inheritance is looking for Jesus to justify what he thinks is rightfully his. In response, Jesus refuses to be manipulated, and uses the moment to jump into a warning about greed: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Jesus then tells the story of a rich farmer. The man already has barns full of crops when one year his harvest is exceedingly abundant. What is the man to do? He literally dialogues with himself and comes up with a plan to tear down his full barns, and make even bigger, better barns! What a great idea! He encourages himself by promising that the whole endeavour is what will lead to a life of security, characterized by relaxing, drinking, and being merry. Doesn’t sound half-bad or all that foolish to us, does it?
But then the surprise happens. God comes to him and calls him a fool, giving him the bad news that this very night his days on earth are ending and all of this wealth he has stored up for himself for those future days are staying right here on earth. God frames it as a cutting question, “All those things you’ve prepared for yourself, when you’re gone, who will they be for?”
Jesus’ one-sentence commentary clarifies the crux of the problem for the rich man, and makes clear why he used this story to respond to the man who wanted him to justify a fight for wealth. Anyone who is focused on gain, gain, gain for personal sake, “who store up treasures for themselves” is not going to be rich in things worthy in God’s sight. Self-focused can become selfish, oblivious to the true source of these good earthly things and oblivious to their purpose in God’s world.
It could be more folklore than actually true, but once, when oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) was asked by a reporter how much wealth would finally be enough, he answered, “Just a little bit more.” At one point, as one man, Rockefeller held 1% of the US economy’s wealth. And yet, Rockefeller was also widely known for his philanthropy and was convicted to pursue charity by his Christian faith. Even so, was Rockefeller like the rich farmer? It’s difficult and complicated to parse out what is happening in a person’s soul. Good thing God is always able to search and know us within.
A number of scholars like to quote St. Ambrose and his student, St. Augustine (both fourth century) on this passage. (Unfortunately, they don’t provide the source!) Ambrose is believed to have penned, “The things that we cannot take away with us are not ours… Compassion alone follows us.” Augustine further commented about the rich fool: “He did not realize that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns.”
It’s also interesting to consider that the rich fool’s plan is so close to being biblically accurate. In fact, he may have been inspired by the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament. Ecclesiastes 8.15 begins this way: “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.” Sounds like our farmer’s plan, right?
But the second half of that verse goes like this: “Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.” In fact, the whole chapter is on the seemingly meaningless attempt to make sense of why some are undeservedly rewarded while others unfairly suffer. The chapter ends with a resolution that the wise observe all that occurs on earth and realize that they cannot comprehend all that occurs or make meaning that will satisfy. What is key, as verse 15 shows, is recognizing that all we have, including our life, belongs to God. The land, the crops, the barns, the goods, our very souls, are not ours, they are God’s. We will become rich if we use what belongs to God in ways that turn those blessings back towards him.
Perhaps if the rich man had not been so isolated and alone while he was considering his financial situation someone might have helped him see the error of his ways. Notice how singular and self-focused the man is throughout the parable. Though Jesus says that the land produced the abundant crop, implying that it is the gift of God, the man calls them my crops… my barns… my grain… my goods… my soul. He only speaks to and with himself: he thought to himself… he said, ‘I will do this…’ I will say to my soul… the first person is emphasized throughout the Greek.
Greed can be insidious, easily becoming our idol. This makes it all the more important that we talk about it with both God and others. Though it is very counter-intuitive to our cultural norms, it is very necessary if we are to practice attentioned discipleship and grow in a life rich towards God.
Last year HBO’s The Gilded Age premiered with an all-star cast. For those with a little knowledge of history, the Gilded Age was the period of time (1870-1900, i.e., Rockefeller at his prime) when the US economy saw significant expansion as wealth was accumulated by a new group of people (not just the generational wealth of old money) through industrialization. The result was a clear concentration of wealth in society and many workers continued to suffer from poverty and inequality. (The term “The Gilded Age” comes from a novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner; Warner and Twain used it to comment on how all of the social problems were simply covered by a thin gold gilding.)
There are two central families in the show, one with “old money” (generational wealth), and one with “new money.” Both families are engaged in philanthropy (giving time and money to charitable causes), but for the most part the purpose of the philanthropy is usually pointed towards selfish purposes. Episode 5 is even entitled, “Charity Has Two Functions”! Throughout the show, you get the sense that the most important function to the Russells, the up-and-coming new money family, is that it paves the way for their success and belonging among the upper echelon of society. The matriarch, Bertha Russell, will stop at nothing to show off her wealth and prove her family belongs—even if that means very publicly giving it away. It is a battle to her, and charity is a weapon in the war.
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