St Mary’s 4/8/19 8am, 10.45am
(Ecclesiastes 1.2,12-14; 2.18-23)
Colossians 3.1-11 Luke 12.13-21
If we’d started at the beginning of the chapter we’d have learned that there are thousands of people gathered to hear Jesus, so many that they are trampling on one another. Jesus is in the middle of teaching them profound truths about the danger of hypocrisy, about God counting even the hairs on their heads, about the Holy Spirit who will give them words to say if they are arrested for following him.
And then, from nowhere, a man calls out, asking Jesus for help with an inheritance dispute between him and his brother. You can imagine the crowd groaning. What an idiot for spoiling such a special moment?
But Jesus turns it into an opportunity to teach a lesson to everybody.
I once cut a sofa in two. Not many people have done that. It was quite satisfying and the reason was so I could take it to the tip. But anyone passing may have thought we were in the middle of a very nasty dispute about possessions.
We all know how easily any challenge to our wealth, any claim on our possessions, can feel like an attack on our security and identity.
Jesus turns away from the man and issues a warning to everyone: ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions.’
Jesus puts his finger on the human instinct of acquisitiveness; more wanting more. It’s there in our epistle too, singled out above other evils when it speaks of ‘greed, which is idolatry’.
It’s the trap of regarding the sum of my possessions, not as a blessing to enable me and others to live, but the measure of life itself, the foundation of my security, that which gives me worth.
Jesus illustrates it with a parable. We commonly call it the parable of the rich fool, because God says to him ‘You fool!’ But we shouldn’t think this means he is unintelligent or stupid. He is foolish as opposed to wise. And wisdom is not about being able to solve tricky problems, it’s about knowing how to live well, how to live with the grain of how we and the world are made by God.
It is the simple scenario of a man whose land has produced such an abundance that he doesn’t know what to do. So he thinks to himself, or debates with himself, as one translation puts it: ‘What am I to do? I have not the space to store my produce’.
In that short sentence we have four self-references. And that is how it continues when he reaches for his solution. He says, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
Leo Tolstoy once wrote a story about a successful peasant farmer who was not satisfied with his lot. He wanted more of everything. One day he received a novel offer. For 1000 rubles, he could buy all the land he could walk around in a day. The only catch was that he had to be back at his starting point by sundown.
Early the next morning he started off at a fast pace. By midday he was very tired, but he kept going, covering more and more ground. Well into the afternoon he realized that his greed had taken him far from the starting point. He quickened his pace and as the sun began to sink low in the sky, he began to run, knowing that if he didn’t make it back by sundown the opportunity to become an even bigger landholder would be lost.
As the sun began to sink below the horizon he came within sight of the finish line. Gasping for breath, his heart pounding, he called upon every bit of strength left in his body and staggered across the line just before sunset.
He immediately collapsed, in agony, and in a few minutes he was dead. Afterwards, his servants dug a grave. It was not much over six feet long and three feet wide.
The title of Tolstoy’s story is: How Much Land Does a Man Need? In the end, Tolstoy suggests, all anyone really owns is a 6’ by 3’ piece of earth.
The rich man’s actions spring from a deep anxiety or fear. He knows he needs material stuff for his survival and that’s fine. We all know that and we pray for it daily, as Jesus taught us to. The difference is that he thinks it’s possible to protect yourself from all the uncertainties of the world, to overcome our dependency and construct such security that we no longer need to pray. Our life is no longer at the mercy of others or of God – it’s in our own hands.
That is an anxiety which none of us is free from. It is the kind of fear which says that no matter how large the cushion between me and poverty, I really need it to be even larger, not smaller.
It’s a fear which can never be allayed, so while this man appeared ready to be content for the rest of his life, we may be sure he wouldn’t have been. It’s an anxiety which constantly needs to be fed – the more the possessions, the more the need and the greed.
And no matter how much this man appeared to be taking control of his future, the one thing he was no nearer to controlling than he had ever been was the most fundamental thing – his existence, the fact that he had life at all, that he had been born, that he continued to have breath and a heartbeat from moment to moment. So God says, ‘You fool! This very night you must surrender your life.’
He failed to see that it is more fundamental that life is a gift than that we have ability to maximize our wealth. We are not self-made. We did nothing to create ourselves, and our continued existence at every moment is a gift.
And all that is because God is a giver, and the kind of human life which works with the grain of creation is one which is like Jesus, the life of God made flesh. A life of self-giving. A life which recognized that we can gain the whole world but lose our souls. A life which finds freedom, not by holding onto itself, but by giving itself away.
That’s why, whatever abundance we have, whatever disposable income, however small or great, the question ‘What shall I do?’ is not answered just by focusing on my needs but by looking at the needs of others.
If we have been blessed, then we have the duty to ask ourselves how we should dispose of our resources. That is stewardship – the recognition that everything we have belongs to the Lord and is only entrusted to us as long as we have the gift of life. And it’s about our discipleship, because how we answer that question is directly related to how much we are really following in the way of Jesus. It is the choice between storing up things for ourselves or being rich towards God. May God help us be truly rich.