The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13), Year C.
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “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.”Luke 12:13-21
“…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. It’s one of those phrases that’s quoted so often it’s almost taken on its own as Gospel Truth. It’s a begrudging acknowledgement that there are some things in life that are inescapable, no matter what’s happening in the world, no matter your struggles, no matter your plans, death and taxes come for us all. While the world’s changes and chances lift some up while crushing the dreams of others, seemingly the only certainties are the distant, uncaring forces of death and government.
Today’s Gospel gives us a different take on Death and Taxes. Rather than death and taxes coming as a far-off inevitability, a man in the crowd calls out to Jesus, asking Him to confront them head-on. The man is in an inheritance dispute with his brother. Death came for their father, and now they are fighting over how to handle the inheritance. Before the man called out to Him, Jesus had been teaching about not worrying about the changes and chances of the world, saying, “…even the hairs on your head are numbered. Do not be afraid…” (Luke 12:7). The man’s request that Jesus act as judge over this very material dispute puts Jesus’ teaching to the test. It’s no secret that when reading this chapter in Luke, we too feel compelled to offer a similar question. “Yes Jesus, God will provide. God loves us more than the sparrows, God will give us the words to say when we have no words, we all know the promises. But I can’t eat promises, what I am I supposed to do with my brother who won’t give me what I’m owed? How can we live faithfully in a world where the only certainties are Death and Taxes?”
The man calling out to Jesus, presumably the younger brother, is living into these inevitabilities when he asks Jesus to be a judge on this dispute. What he is asking for at face value is not unreasonable. He’s not asking for his brother’s share of the inheritance, he’s not asking for the whole farm. He just wants what’s rightfully owed to him, culturally and legally. He probably believes that his brother is being the greedy one, keeping all the family wealth for himself. He also probably believes that he’s got a good shot that the teacher who has been going through town proclaiming how all wrongs will be righted and judgement of God is coming will see things his way. He feels that he’s in the right. I can only imagine His surprise when Jesus, instead of examining the case and making a reasonable arbitration, turns to the crowd and says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” and then launch into a bizarre parable about a foolish rich man. If I were the man, I would have turned to a friend and asked “wait…did Jesus just call me greedy?”
I imagine the man shared the same frustration we do with Jesus when talking about money and believing that God will provide. Too often preachers and pious people make big promises, from their tall pulpits and comfortable homes, “trust in God and He will provide”. It’s easy to say, hard to believe, and even harder to live. It’s even more frustrating when Jesus seems to dodge the question. Here a man has brought a real, material problem to Jesus, and it looks like Jesus is just dodging the question. Rather than face the inevitabilities directly, He talks about being “rich toward God”. Whatever that means.
But Jesus isn’t dodging the question, He’s cutting through the distraction and going straight to the real problem: this isn’t about an inheritance, it’s about fear, and it’s about priorities. The parable that Jesus gives to the man (and the crowd) is commonly called the Parable of the Rich Fool. This name may be surprising to us, considering how the Rich Fool generally follows what we would see as good financial advice. When he has a bumper year, he doesn’t go out and spend all his gains. Instead, he reinvests in his property, tears barns down that are too small and replaces them with ones that will be better in the future. He knows that next year may be a lean one, so he keeps a nice reserve. That way, whenever the next downturn happens, not only will he be safe, but he may even be able to profit more when scarcity makes the grain prices go up. Either way, he’s been responsible, shrewd, and by all appearances, a wise businessman. So why is he a fool?
While his priorities and actions follow the wisdom of a world that believes in only two certainties, they are wildly out of sync with reality. In this parable Jesus is challenging our understanding of wealth and money. Because above any other purpose money has, they way we manage our money is a sign of our priorities, and often it is dictated by the fear of not having enough.
The first clue that the Rich Fool’s priorities are off are in the very first line: “The Land of a rich man produced abundantly.” Who was it that produced abundantly? Not the rich man, but the land itself. The Rich Fool’s priority is to think of how to keep it all for himself, while forgetting that God is the real owner of the land. He thinks he is making the right decision for himself, which it is, but that is exactly the problem. Even though he has received an abundance from God, he is still afraid of not having enough. Not only is he already rich, but the abundance God gives is so much that he cannot even store it without building bigger barns. He is someone who’s money management is dictated by fear, and cynical disbelief in God’s abundance. Only when he has more wealth than he even knows what to do with, does he feel slightly secure.
Yet even his security is founded in a wrong priority. He thinks being outrageously wealthy will grant him security. Convinced he is a shrewd, responsible, and just businessman, he says “…relax, eat, drink, and be merry”. This is our other clue how wrong the Rich Fool’s priorities are. Whether he realizes it or not, he’s quoting Isaiah 22:13, except in his greed he remembered only the first part, forgetting that the whole line is “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” That very night, God comes to him and says “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” That night when he dies, God asks a terrible and difficult question of the Rich Fool: all that wealth he gained, all the grain he stored, all the things he prepared, whose will they be?
It seems that for all the wise business strategy of the Rich Fool, he made the most basic mistake in investment strategy. He failed to diversify his spiritual portfolio. That night when he dies and an accounting of his life is being demanded of him, all the wealth that he had, who does it go to? There is no mention of family, friends, or community. In life he kept all the wealth for himself out of fear and prioritizing himself over all others. Now that death has come, what will he answer? What good did all that grain do sitting in bigger barns for one man when it could have feed many?
This is the question Jesus calls the man in the crowd to consider. He has already lost a father, and in this inheritance dispute, his hope of dividing the family wealth, he is risking losing his brother too. Jesus is making him consider how important that inheritance really is. Wealth is driving a wedge between family, what are their real priorities? Is there no other way for the brothers to reconcile without dividing the land? Jesus also calls us to question the righteousness of the wealth in the first place. Is it really worth it for the brothers to fight so bitterly over an inheritance of land that they don’t truly own? That their father really never owned? The land provides, God provides, the truth is that God is the true owner of the land. When that certainty of death comes, and their lives are being demanded of them, how will they answer about how they used their wealth?
Of course we who are a part of the crowd hearing this story must consider the same questions. When our lives are being demanded of us, what shall we say? How do we use our wealth and our time on this earth, “the things that we prepare, who are they for?” Are they for us? For our children? For all people? For a better world? Do we say “I believe” but live as if the only two certainties in life are Death and Taxes? Are our priorities and money management based in fear of not having enough, or believing that God will provide?
To be clear, this parable and these questions are not a demand that we all take a vow of poverty and live as friars. Even the friars need a society with an economy to support them. Oftentimes this parable and the difficult questions it demands of us leads people to the simple conclusion that the answer is, “You can’t take it with you! So increase your pledge!” But such a simplified answer is living into the same problem of the Rich Fool, a cynical belief in only two certainties. As so often the case with money and wealth, the problem is not about the money itself, but how it is used and distributed. Money is nothing on its own, it’s just scraps of paper, shiny stones, and these days, numbers on a spreadsheet. Yet money is a material sign of faith. Faith that those scraps of paper and spreadsheet numbers mean something, faith that a good or service has value, and most importantly to us, what we put our faith in when distributing, spending, and saving money. What made the Rich Fool so poor was his lack of faith. He believed in only two certainties, Death and Taxes, and lived in such a way that was only for his own preservation. He did not realize that there is another certainty in life, God will provide.
In the story we see how God provides through the land, that it gives even a spiritually bankrupt rich fool an abundance. Had it not been for his fear and hoarding, the many small farmers that undoubtedly worked that land would also share in the abundance God provides. God has provided, and God continues to provide. Which is part of the reason this story isn’t about just increasing your pledge or taking a vow of poverty. God’s wants His creation to thrive, God wants for all people to live a happy, fulfilling, and secure life. Think about all the food in the grocery store, more choices than our ancestors could even dream of, but also remember how much of it is simply thrown away. There is enough for all, it’s just not given to all. There is nothing wrong or evil about wanting security and fulfillment, but when fear of not having enough dictates our society, or dominates our lives, or so forgetting God’s abundance that we hoard so much grain we have to build bigger barns at the expense of feeding the hungry, that’s when we have to fear God’s terrible question. If we remember that there are three certainties in life, if we believe and live into the certainty that God provides for us all, then we will be truly rich. Amen.