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Sun, Aug 04, 2019

“Rich Toward God”

Duration:13 mins 48 secs

“Rich toward God”

Sermon on Luke 12: 13-21

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

            Many years ago there was a little story in the back of the Washington Post Magazine that I clipped and saved. The author, Jeanne Marie Laskas, told about a dinner invitation from a friend who had moved to a new house. Laskas was looking forward to renewing this friendship – she remembered their two families sitting together on the back porch of the friend’s old house, chatting and spitting watermelon seeds into the grass, and expected another relaxed, comfortable evening like that one. But as she and her family drive up the long, winding driveway to the friend’s new house, they are awestruck: the house is enormous, palatial, a movie star’s or Silicon Valley executive’s kind of house. As the two couples sit by the poolside having shrimp cocktails while their children play, they already know this is likely to be their last get-together. Laskas has come to the conclusion that there is no way in the world that she can ever have these people over to her house.

          Wealth, as great as it is if you have it, has some unfortunate side effects, one of which is that it tends to divide people rather than unite them. A question of wealth was apparently dividing at least one family in the crowd listening to Jesus, when a young man tries to get Jesus to arbitrate a dispute between him and his older brother: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus refuses to mediate and instead tells the Parable of the Rich Fool, a man who had such a bumper crop of grain that he had to tear down his old barns and build new, bigger ones.

          This seems like a simple story about greed, but it is really a story about insecurity. It is insecurity, after all, that has prompted the younger brother’s question. It’s fair to assume that he wasn’t concerned about who would get the Waterford crystal or the family silver – but he may well have been worried about having enough to live on, given the inheritance laws of the time. When parents died, the lives of younger siblings could suddenly become very insecure.

          The rich farmer, for his part, is storing up his grain and goods against future scarcity. There is no hint in the story that the man has been predatory or unethical, that his gains are ill-gotten. He has undoubtedly worked very hard to plan for his harvest, and most people would say he was being wise and prudent – but Jesus calls him a fool.

          The problem with the farmer is not that he was taking care of his harvest. The Bible says an abundant harvest is a gift of God, a blessing. Of course you would want to get it gathered in and stored before it could wither and die. The rich farmer’s problem is that he thinks it is all for him. In the biblical understanding, the “blessing” of a bumper crop was that it could feed everyone, not just the lucky farmers who had a good year. A bumper crop was a gift to an entire community, a provision for everyone against leaner times to come.[i]

          The rich farmer doesn’t see it that way, though. He is totally self-preoccupied. Everything is about him: my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul. He turns a blessing into a curse by turning inward on himself, focusing only on his own happiness and security. In his concern to protect himself against any possible future worries, he shuts out the rest of the world. In the end, the rich farmer misses what life is all about. He doesn’t need anyone else, he doesn’t care about anyone else. He’s like those survivalists who prepare for possible disaster by building a bunker in Montana and stockpiling it with guns and food, making sure that only they and their immediate family are provided for.

          The Gospel cautions us against the idea that life can be risk-free. That is a useful message for a society like ours, which is obsessed with security. At the height of the Iraq War, we gave up our constitutional right to privacy to the National Security Agency, so concerned we were to be safe at all costs. Ironically, perhaps, this work of surveillance has been taken over by the giant tech companies, so now just about everyone has access to our personal data – hardly something that makes us feel safe. Gated communities are everywhere now; distrust and suspicion taint our dealings with our neighbors.  We are especially suspicious of our neighbors from other countries; in the name of national security, we are delivering immeasurable harm to children as we sequester migrant families in squalid conditions at our southern border. If we are trained in distrust, we begin to see threats where none exist.

          I heard a story about a group of Mexican Christians who were visiting the U.S. for the first time. Their hosts were a Los Angeles congregation that had been their mission partners in Mexico, maybe in a town like Reynosa. After the Americans picked up the Mexicans at the airport, they drove them through some of the posh L.A. suburbs, each stately house set far back from the road and far apart from the other houses on enormous lawns. As the Mexicans looked out from the car windows, one of them observed, “These people don’t need God.”  What could he have meant by that? The Mexican Christians came from a place where they were reminded every day that life

was precarious, where you gave thanks to God for times of abundance and depended on your neighbors during times of scarcity, where a bumper crop was not a guarantee but a gift for the whole community. They came from a place where uncertainty was just part of life and made the good things that came your way just that much more enjoyable. To say this is not to glorify poverty or to suggest that we shouldn’t take reasonable precautions against adversity. It is to say that people whose lives are not insulated from hardship by a cushion of wealth tend to have fewer illusions about the human condition – a condition we all share in, no matter how much or how little money we have: that we are vulnerable, finite, contingent beings, limited in our ability to protect ourselves, dependent on the grace of God.

          The Gospel parable says that nothing we can secure for ourselves is truly lasting, which is why Jesus called the lucky farmer a fool. “This very night your life is being demanded of you,” God says to him. It’s not a punishment – it’s just the way things are. As one writer said, “We and our [stuff] float on the Titanic, and we know deep down how the trip always ends.”[ii] In spite of all our precautions, we don’t know when or how our lives will end, only that they will. So how do we live our lives in the most meaningful way? That is what Jesus is asking.

          In the logic of the parable, being rich toward God means being rich toward other people. It means seeing them as brothers and sisters, not as competitors in a fight for goods or survival. Most of all, being rich toward God means trusting that the God who is concerned for the sparrows and the lilies of the field is certainly concerned for us, will look after us, and will continue to hold us even in hard times.

A man stood up in a crowd and asked Jesus to help him get his share of the family inheritance. Instead, Jesus helped him toward a new understanding of life: a life that is rich in generosity, deep in gratitude, and full of the life of God.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

August 4, 2019

           

 

[i] David Buttrick, Speaking Parables (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 124.

[ii] Martha P. Sterne, “Building Bigger Closets,” https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-05/building- bigger-closets.

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