Sunday, August 4, 2019
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he 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.”
In my church in New Jersey, there was a widow named Jo Hook. Jo took a liking to me and I to her, and one day she invited me over to her house for dinner. She was an incredible cook, but I can’t tell you what I ate that day. What I can tell you, however; what I will never forget, is what her house was like. Jo lived in this incredibly charming Colonia-era stone house that was chocked full of the treasures that she and her late husband had collected over a lifetime of travel and adventures. And I was enthralled.
A few years later, Jo became ill and died. Since everyone loved her, the church was packed for her funeral. Once we had laid her to rest, her family did what all families do when the parents are gone: they closed the house. None of Jo’s children lived close by. All of them led busy lives. And so they hired a company to come in to that charming house and sell everything. I was curious, so I went to the sale. Strange people met me at the door and asked me to come in and look around, having no sense of who I was or who I had been to Jo. And what I saw that day has never left me: literally everything in her house – from the furniture to the knick-knacks to the rugs and drapes and dishes and clothing had price tags on them. Everything she had collected and purchased and been given and loved and held a precious memory was for sale.
A friend of mine once told a similar story about his friend, the heiress Alice Tully, of Lincoln Center fame. When Alice died, all of her valuable things went to Christie’s Auction House in New York. But the rest of it, photographs, dishes, even things like stockings went to another auction house where it was pawed over by strangers. My friend told me that seeing that shook him so deeply that he wept uncontrollably. He said: “No one’s life should be reduced to people groveling over stockings.”
We spend our lives collecting things that we love and that have meaning for us. If you come to our house, you will soon learn that there is a story for every painting and vase and rug and knickknack. We love it all. But the hard truth is that one day, when are no more, people will take our things and divide them and sell them and fight over them and throw them away.
One day, someone in a crowd called out to Jesus: “Rabbi, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” This was probably a younger brother who was unhappy with the unequal distribution of assets based on ancient Judaic inheritance practices. In that day, it was customary for the oldest male child to receive 2/3s of the entire estate, leaving 1/3 to be divided between however many other males there were. Maybe the man in the crowd that day hoped that this rabbi with his radical new ideas would say something fresh about dividing inheritance money more equitably. If Jesus had ideas about that, we don’t hear them here. Instead, Jesus used the moment as a jumping off point to tell a story about the true measure of our lives.
Once upon a time there was a very rich farmer who had a bumper crop. The harvest was so great that he didn’t have any place to store it all. So he decided that he would tear down the barns he had and build much bigger ones to store the tremendous surplus. Then he would kick back for the rest of his life, take an early retirement, and enjoy the fruits of his labor. Sounds pretty good, right? But the party ended before it ever began. God spoke and said: “You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus ends this unsettling story by saying: “So it is with everyone who stores up treasures for himself or herself, but is not rich toward God.”
This is not an easy passage to preach because it seems to fly in the face of ideas we hold dear – ideas like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps; like saving for a rainy day. That’s certainly how my folks raised me. From the time I was a little kid, I was taught to work hard and save my money – the more saved, the better because you didn’t know what the future would hold. My mother canned an abundance of food – hundreds of jars of green beans and tomatoes and corn and pickles and jam for those long Indiana winters. Jesus certainly can’t be disparaging being prepared, can he? What was so wrong with the rich farmer building new barns to hold the surplus grain?
Well, as with so many stories in the Bible, in order to really understand them, you have to know the setting and culture. To begin with, this man was no ordinary farmer. He was a major landowner. This was an agri-business. And that made him significantly different from almost everyone else in that society. Most everyone worked the land, but the land they worked was not their own. They worked for “the man.” And all of those non-land owners bought their daily bread, their staples, from “the man.” His success or failure was essential to the entire community’s success or failure. He was, quite literally, his brother’s and sister’s keeper.
So, what he might have done with all that surplus grain was sell it to his neighbors at a reduced rate – meaning abundance for everyone. He still would have made a profit just by the sheer volume of his sales. But instead he hoarded the daily bread of others. One commentator has suggested that by doing so, he could dole that food out bit by bit, creating a demand that wasn’t really there and thus driving the price up.
In addition to that, the rich man completely removed God from the equation of his life and his success. He speaks in the first person (“I” and “my”) eleven times in this short story. Not once is there a mention of the God who created the seed and soil and sun. There is no prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings of a bumper crop. Instead there is a singular attention to what this wealth will mean for him and him alone.
But then God speaks. And this is the only time in any of the parables of Jesus that God actually says anything. And what God says should give us all pause: “You fool, your time’s up. You’re planning for your future at just the moment that your life is over. And all these things you have accumulated, whose will they be once you’re gone?” As the writer of Ecclesiastes put it: “one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.”
The rich farmer died. And one day, we will too. And all those things we have collected and loved and treasured – and maybe hoarded – will be left behind. And that singular truth, which our whole culture is poised to ignore, Jesus calls us to pay special attention to. He tells us this story so that we will never forget.
Now, that being said, it’s also foolish to pretend as if our comfort and well-being is not important. It’s foolish to pretend that having enough doesn’t matter. It’s foolish to pretend that we don’t need to plan for our retirement. I certainly do! But according to Jesus, what’s more important than that is to plan for one’s “expirement.”
So how do we do that? Should we give all our money away? I don’t think that’s what Jesus was saying. That implies that the rich farmer’s main problem was that he was rich. But there are lots of rich and faithful people in the stories of the Bible. So money wasn’t his problem. Fear was his problem. He was afraid of not having enough. And it was his fear of lack that drove him in his selfishness. It is my fear of lack that drives me in my selfishness.
But the challengeof the Gospel (and I underline that word “challenge”) is the call to live by faith, and not by fear. And we have to exercise that faith muscle because our whole world is driven by fear. But in this world of fear, we are called to a counter-cultural lifestyle – something Jesus called being rich toward God. Well, how do you do that? It’s actually pretty simple. It was the same thing the rich farmer in the parable was called to. We are rich toward God by being rich toward all those who bear the image of God. And that’s everyone.
So friends, by all means, enjoy your lives. I do. Eat, drink, and be merry. I do. Just make sure that you also do whatever you can so that others may have those same joys. Be rich toward God.