The Eleventh Sunday of Pentecost: August 4, 2013
Hosea 11:1-11; Ps 107:1-9; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
Preacher: The Rev. Richard S. Kemmler
In response to a rather abrupt question from a man in the crowd around Jesus that day, I can imagine that Jesus might have first looked at him with a slight smile of indulgence on his face before replying: “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you.” And then, turning to speak to all those gathered around him, he uttered these dire sounding words: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then, in his usual way, Jesus followed up with a parable, the parable that we have just heard this morning.
This was not the first time that, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus warned his followers about money and the things that money can buy.
“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” (4:4)
“Woe to you who are rich. For you have received your consolation.” (6:24)
“For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits his own self?” (9:25)
‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (18:24)
In case we need more examples of how the subject of money frequently pops up as a subject in Scripture, here’s a bit of Bible trivia:
Of all the verses in the Bible, there are a whopping 2,000 verses devoted to the subject of money and what it can buy. On the subject of prayer a mere 500 verses, and even less than that on the subject of faith..
Even more surprising is the fact that one out of every ten verses in the four Gospels is about that same subject. And, of the 38 parables attributed to Jesus, 16 of them – almost half — deal with how to handle money and the possessions that it can buy.
Obviously, money was then, is now, and always will be, a subject that occupies a significant place in our daily lives. The sense of security that is derived from material wealth is without equal in its capacity to claim the focus of our lives. And, this is true for those who have wealth as well as for those who do not. It’s true for all of us.
So, it’s really is no wonder that Jesus spent a lot of his time talking to his followers about their relationship to money. As a matter of fact, Jesus said about as much about money as he said about heaven and hell.
As I’ve already told you, I spend a lot of time in Sarasota, Florida where most folks live in houses with garages attached. Driving around town I am repeatedly astonished to see how many of those garages are filled to overflowing with “stuff,” leaving no room for the family car or cars. And, it seems that the garages aren’t sufficient to hold all of the “stuff,” because there are scores of self-storage businesses all over town. They are there I guess for the even more stuff when there’s no more room in the garages.
Now we Manhattan apartment dwellers don’t have garages, but judging from my own case, I would guess that we, too, have a over-stuffed closet or two.
Yes, we are a society of accumulators. So, the question is: does this imply that our obsession with shopping and buying so much stuff mean that we will always be pulled away from what, according to Jesus, is essential to life ?
The point that Jesus is trying to make in today’s Gospel story about the successful farmer who had so much grain that he didn’t quite know what to do with it, except to plan to build bigger and better barns to store it away in, is exactly that question: “What is essential to life?”
It’s interesting that immediately following the story of the wealthy farmer that we read this morning, Jesus says to his disciples: “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” So, it seems that money and all that it can buy does tempt us to be distracted from what Jesus tells us ultimately matters.
So, what, I ask myself, am I supposed to do? It’s easy enough to say I ought not worry about tomorrow or that I ought not be concerned about laying away my riches. We’re all going to die at some point. Are our efforts really only vanity, greed and the hoarding instinct?
Was it only vanity, greed and the hoarding instinct that drove our farmer? Well, we get some clues to the answer to this question from the story itself. It’s in the pronouns the man uses. They are all first-person pronouns. If you bother to count, as I did, the farmer in his musings about what to do with his abundance uses the personal pronoun “I” six times and the possessive pronoun “my” five times.
His future seemed secure. He had no need to worry so much about drought, or whether there would be enough farm hands to gather in his crops before they spoiled. It seemed that he had made it at last, and, he could say, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.” (v. 19)
So, we ask: What did he do that was wrong? I think we all know where he went astray. Jesus himself pointed us towards the answer. Never once did it occur to our good farmer to give a thought to his field hands who had helped him plant the fields in the first place and then harvest the crops later. Not only did the farmer not give a thought to his field hands and other helpers, he didn’t seem to have given a thought to the ultimate source of all his wealth.
He failed to remember the sources of his good fortune and to put his good fortune into some relationship to those sources. If he had just been able to remember that his rich harvest came only partly from his own doing. If he had just been able to remember that he happened to have rich, fertile land that was filled with minerals and nutrients to produce an abundant crop. The rain that fed the soil and allowed it to release it goodness came, not from human toil, but from God — and it was a free gift. But, alas, he didn’t seem to remember all these things.
This kind of attitude is, it seems, very much still with us today. Some of you might recall an issue that surfaced during the last presidential campaign between Obama and Romney. Now I can imagine that probably most of us would prefer to forget that recent episode that seemed to go on forever. But, this exchange popped into my head again as I thought about the rich farmer and his abundance. It seems some individuals took something Obama said about business owners out of context, claiming that he had said that business owners didn’t deserve credit for their own business success because of government help in building those businesses . This generated an immediately and vehement response on the part of many business people so were quick to respond that they had built their businesses through their own diligence and hard work without the help of anybody, especially the government. Even Mr. Romney spoke in a speech about “people who built their businesses without any help from the government”. Even t-shirts proclaiming “Government Didn’t Build My Business, I DID” popped up!
Well, let’s face it, any one starting up a new enterprise enjoys many, many things that are part of our social and governmental infrastructures and institutions.
But, back to our farmer. His fault wasn’t that his farming had yielded more than an abundant harvest. He simply forgot that he wasn’t alone in his successful accomplishments. His abundance wasn’t due to his efforts alone. So therefore, his gains should not be his alone to do with as he pleased — to take his ease, to eat, drink and make merry. All he had, he had with God’s help and with the help of lots of others as well. So, it belonged, at least in part, to all those who had worked to make the crop so rich. And, finally, some of it certainly belonged to God and needed to be used to further God’s work on earth.
The same is true for us today. There is enough abundance in our world today that can and should be shared by all peoples. We haven’t, sadly, reached that ideal, that Christ-mandated ideal. We’ve a ways to go. Perhaps we’ll never reach it fully, but, as Christians, it’s up to us to continue to pray for and work towards that ideal.
So having said all this, I think, the final analysis, the Good News in today’s Gospel lesson is all about liberation – about freeing us from being imprisoned by our wealth. Jesus is telling us to let go a bit, to pause and acknowledge God’s place in our lives. Jesus is telling us to take comfort in the reality that God loves us and watches over us and provides the fundamental ingredients that sustain us. When we do this, we can more gladly share whatever we have with God and neighbor. And, finally, let’s never forget that the love of Christ is something that can never to hoarded. The love of Christ is there for each and every one of us to share in. And, when we know and experience this, we can truly “take our ease, to eat, drink and be merry.”