Soul Investment

August 4, 2013

Sunday, August 4
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
Soul Investment

Weekly Prayer
God beyond all seeing and knowing, we meet you in the night of change and crisis, and wrestle with you in the darkness of doubt. Give us the will and spirit to live faithfully and love as we are loved. Amen.

Focus Scripture
Luke 12:13-21

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 towards God."

All Readings For This Sunday
Hosea 11:1-11 with Psalm 107:1-9,43 or
Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14; 2:18-23 with Psalm 49:1-12
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Focus Questions

1. How do you respond to the term "practical atheism" to describe how most Christians live in relation to their money?

2. If you received a windfall of money, how would it affect your sense of security?

3. How does this parable speak to the way financial wellness (not wealth) affects our relationship with God?

4. Why are we so often uncomfortable when talking about money in our churches?

5. How does this story connect with the prayer that Jesus has just taught his disciples to pray?

Reflection by Kate Huey

Our churches seem to spend a lot of time deciding who is "in" and who should be "out" of the church, often using Scripture as justification, even if supporting verses are few and far between. However, it seems that such judgment is rarely if ever reached on the basis of wealth, even though the Bible does refer many, many times--thousands, actually--to money and possessions, mostly warning about the dangers of greed and of placing our trust in material goods, or worse, making them our idols. Money and possessions represent many things in our culture: security, power, status and self-esteem, independence, enjoyment, anxiety and worryÖthe list goes on and on. Yet how often do we address the subject of money and possessions in our churches: from the pulpit, in adult education classes and church school for children, or in our newsletter, unless we're talking about giving to the church?

In our passage from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is approached by "someone in the crowd" who is obviously embroiled in a family feud over an inheritance and needs a religious authority like Jesus to render a judgment against his brother. Jesus has been encouraging his followers to be fearless and faithful in preaching the Kingdom of God (the Big Picture), and along comes this man whining about a problem that sounds petty in comparison. Rather than giving the kind of judgment provided by many religious texts (Deuteronomy, for example), Jesus recognizes a teaching moment and gives the man--and the crowd (including us)--a warning: "Beware! Watch out! Be on guard against greed! For one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions" (v. 15). 

Seeking "the good life"

What is "the good life"--what makes our lives rich and full? We know how easy it is to measure the quality of our lives in the quantity of our goods and the size of our income. If our income is $20,000 a year, we might think we would be happy if only we could make $30,000 a year. But people who make $30,000 a year could also think they would be happy if only they made $50,000 a year. And even people who make $100,000 a year may think they need $50,000 more, and so on.

Jesus knew that material things, no matter how fun and wonderful and lovely and useful they may be, will never truly satisfy us. We will always want more. Material goods make very poor gods for us to worship. This truth is at the core of our relationship with God. Just as the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures had to call the people back repeatedly from worshipping "other gods" than the God of Israel, so Jesus and Paul, the passionate apostle who followed him, preached a gospel of spiritual values centered on the one true God, not the many, petty, fragile little gods that somehow command our attention and too often win our hearts.

Words like these are hardly a crowd-pleaser, and many people must have drifted away after hearing them from Jesus, so he addressed his disciples, telling them about the flowers and the birds which are gloriously beautiful and which don't worry for a moment about what they want or need. Jesus talks not about our net worth but about our infinite value in God's eyes.

Even the rich are worried

Of course, even the rich are often worried, usually about their future, about losing what they have, and about getting more. The poor, however, are worried about survival right here, right now. The gap between the haves and the have-nots, in Jesus' time and now, is a sign of human fallenness and greed, because God has provided enough for all people, if we were just and fair in our living.The reign of God is marked not by inequity and need brought about by competitive accumulation, but by the abundance of God's generosity and justice.

Most churches have members and friends at various points across the spectrum from financially secure to profoundly worried about money (and some who appear to be wealthy are in fact struggling with tremendous debt). I write this reflection looking out my window at one of the poorest cities in the United States: Cleveland, Ohio, a struggling city that nevertheless is surrounded by many mansions and expensive homes and is the home of impressive, world-class--and costly--medical facilities and arts institutions. While many civic leaders are boasting of a renaissance for the downtown area, one wonders when the poor and working class folks of its neighborhoods will also experience this new beginning, this new hope, just as much as the entertainment, business and sports sectors. We live in a country where enormous wealth and persistent poverty stand side by side, and the gospel calls us to wrestle with the question of money and material goods in relation to our spiritual welfare and the common good. This parable from the Gospel of Luke speaks as well to the subject of financial wellness, which also relates to our relationship with God. We have to wonder if the discomfort of the church with the subject of money has even contributed in its own way to the economic dislocation being experienced by our nation and the world, including many of our church members.

Where do you find security?

Many of us fantasize about receiving a windfall of money that would make us feel secure and free of worries, as the rich farmer felt in this parable. True, he started out with advantages in his society, where a tiny percentage of folks actually owned land. On top of that, his harvest that year was staggering, and he had to tear down his barns and build new ones to hold it. It's always interesting to think about what might be going on in the minds of those listening to Jesus; perhaps Jesus' story makes them remember the story in Genesis about Joseph, who built new barns to hold the abundant harvests during the "fat" years in Egypt so that the people would have enough to eat during the "lean" years. But Joseph wasn't plotting for his own profit and he wasn't motivated by greed. The rich fool, alas, thought only of himself. From the telling, that's all he had, anyway, and he even had to carry on his "financial planning" all alone. While he had more than he needed, he would probably never have as much as he wanted. He seemed to be completely turned in on himself and his own future, however lonely it might be. How, indeed, could it ever be a "merry" one?

We find much more than just a parable in this section of Luke: Jesus is addressing the larger question of value, of our value, and he tells us that we are precious in God's sight, so we shouldn't worry about "stuff" or believe that a storehouse of treasures constitutes real wealth. The phrase "rich toward God" is intriguing. In his translation, Eugene Peterson tells us what "rich toward God" is not: "That's what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God" (The Message). We might spend fruitful time exploring what "rich toward God" actually means.

What did he do with what he had?

The rich fool doesn't appear to be an evil man who has cheated or stolen his wealth; like us, he's benefited from the sun and the rain that fall, as we hear in Matthew's Gospel (5:45), on everyone, both the good and the evil. The trap he falls into is in his next steps: when he has a windfall, he doesn't run into the village celebrating and announcing his plan to share his good fortune with the community, let alone get their help with deciding how to deal with this most excellent problem. Instead, he turns inward and stays there, figuring that he can be self-sufficient and secure solely because of his wealth. Eleven times he uses the first-person ("I" and "my") and never "our" or "their." Several commentaries point out the irony that the community, unaware of his solitary thoughts, will inherit his bounty and probably think well of him, although Dianne Bergant suggests that his wealth simply went to waste.

It's tempting to think that Jesus is just down on material things and wealth. But it's much deeper than that: he knows the seductive power of possessions, and he wants to clear the way for us to receive much greater blessings and joy. The rich man's anxiety about the inadequacy of his barns mirrors in some ways our own preoccupation with handling our possessions, protecting them with security systems, investing them safely, worrying about them. It's not that such precautions are irresponsible or sinful, but they can distract us from what is really important, or lead us to place our trust in the wrong places. Again, Eugene Peterson's translation of the passage following this story, when Jesus speaks of our hearts and our treasure, is enlightening: "What I'm trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God's giving....Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions" (The Message). Jesus wants his listeners to move their focus from possessions to the things that matter to God first, trusting in God's plan and God's good intention to provide what is needed. As beloved children of God, we have a Parent who wants to give us good things, if we can just make room in our lives for them!

How do we measure true value?

We're used to looking for the (metaphorical or real) price tag on everything and missing the incalculable worth of our own lives, how precious we are in God's eyes, not just some of us, but every single one of us. (This is an interesting thought to meditate on, say, during rush hour traffic on one's way to work. It certainly can soften the heart toward all those other drivers, who are dealing with their own struggles: they are all of infinite value in the eyes of God.) We can't measure our value and our security, however, in our accumulated goods--what an offensive concept it is to speak of a human being's "net worth" measured in dollars and cents! Our value is not measured by the value of our possessions, of course, but even the enjoyment of our lives is not experienced most powerfully all on our own. When there's an abundance of goods, Jesus says that sharing is the path to joy. That was the mistake of the rich fool. He could have known an incomparable joy in the short time he had left, if he had spread out the abundance of his goods among the community. What did all that "stuff" matter, when his final moments came?

One of the striking features of this parable is the voice of God, the only time in the Gospels, Richard Bauckham notes, when God actually speaks in a parable. Perhaps that's because the rich fool has shown blatant disregard for God's role in his life, so a direct word from God is most timely: Bauckham writes that all of us "fools" need to be jolted into remembering our dependence on God, not on material things or anything we can do for ourselves. In a sense, the rich fool has used his wealth to set himself up as a kind of "god" who can ensure his own security and welfare. It seems to me that much of Jesus' preaching is about attitude adjustment, and this story is no exception. What does it mean to be "rich toward God"? Bauckham says that it means trusting God enough to share what we have received. Could this, then, be what it means to love God back?

Jesus' words are true today

Richard Swanson observes that the rich fool assumes that the abundant yield of his fields "exempts him from future work, and (more crucially) from present sharing. Economies work because they are knit togetherÖ. Both earning and sharing are essential to the fabric of God's world." Swanson seeks to bridge the gap between two very different socioeconomic settings and to shine the light of the gospel on both. How amazing would it be, in our present political and economic climate, if our leaders and thinkers embraced such a gospel ideal?  

Gary E. Peluso-Verdend also encourages readers of this text to focus on the connection between money and our spiritual health. Perhaps that is what Jesus is trying to help his questioner to do, but we are often in need of the same reorientation. In a "Me" culture, it's even easier to fall into the trap of the rich fool, Peluso-Verdend writes, and to keep for ourselves what really belongs to God and to all of God's children; Jesus uses our mortality as a powerful reminder of the need to share while we are still here and able to do so. It seems to me that the Gospels teach us the path to true joy, however counter-intuitive that path may seem when we think of others and the greater good first, before ourselves. While it's important to be responsible about money, to plan for our retirement and our needs, we need to plan for what someone has called our "expirement"--for the death that comes to all of us, and most unexpectedly to the rich fool in this parable. We need to ask ourselves if we can share more, if we can give more to the needy. We need to ask if our lives, in all their multi-faceted and multi-tasking glory, reflect the priorities God wants us to have.

Giving it all away: a story

I'd like to share a story about my Aunt Therese Anne, a nun who taught music all of her life. Throughout my childhood, she was my favorite aunt, and she was beloved in the family and in her religious community for her gentle, sweet spirit. She had lights in her eyes, and was gifted in her music and her teaching, in Catholic schools in Kentucky and Maryland. My Aunt Therese Anne had a profound appreciation for things that are beautiful--flowers and cats and the music of Beethoven, especially. She loved the peaceful image of the lion and the lamb, and kept a large picture of that image over the piano in the room where she gave piano lessons.

When my aunt was only 48 years old, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and spent three years struggling against the disease. Like all those who loved her, including the sisters in her religious community, I was heartbroken when she died. We share a communal sense of grief, even though we may not have known each other while she was alive. She has been gone for more than thirty years, but we still remember her and share stories about her. At the end of my three years of seminary in Kentucky, I met a nun in Lexington, Sr. Ellen, who was a good friend of my aunt and had lived with her during her last few years of life. She told me a story that didn't surprise me, but one that helps me think about material things in a new light. Before my aunt died, she was superior of the convent she lived in. One of the other nuns died, and my aunt and Sr. Ellen had the task of cleaning out the deceased sister's room. It was full of stuff, so many things to distribute and dispose of. The deceased sister had kept everything to the very end. 

My aunt, even as she fought her disease, gave me back the picture of the lion and the lamb that I had given her years before. She gave me the diamond that her mother, my grandmother, had asked her to keep for me. She gave me the three little ceramic kittens I had brought her from my college trip to Europe way back in 1971. These, all of them, were treasures to her. Sr. Ellen said that, when my aunt died, they went into her room and found it completely empty. She had given it all--all of her simple treasures--away, just as she had given her life to God. We remember her still, not for those material gifts, but for the sense she had of what was truly important: life and love, God's children and God's creatures, and the music of God's love and care. Perhaps she understood much better than most folks just what Jesus was talking about in this story about a man, and his barns, and his too many things. In any case, it seems to me that she really, really lived what she professed to believe.

Are we living what we say we believe? Really?

R. Alan Culpepper raises the notion of "practical atheism," which he attributes to Peter Rhea Jones. Like the rich man, do we say that we believe in God but live as if we secretly don't? It has been said that our most powerful and accurate statement of belief is our checkbook (or our electronic bank statement, as the case may be). A close reading of how we use God's abundant gifts would eloquently tell the story of what we really believe, and in what (and whom) we have placed our trust. We have been learning in the Gospel of Luke just what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. This week we have a powerful lesson on the obstacle of greed that might block our path along the way. What will our loved ones have to "dispose of" when we are gone?

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/august-4-2013.html.

For further reflection

Serbian proverb
"A greedy father has thieves for children."

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed."

Oscar Wilde, 19th century
"Ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you."

Pablo Picasso, 20th century
"I'd like to live as a poor man with lots of money."

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 20th century
"There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."

Ernest Hemingway, 20th century
"Fear of death increases in exact proportion to increase in wealth."

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CONTACT INFO

Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey
Dean of the Amistad Chapel
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, Ohio 44115
216-736-3855
hueyk@ucc.org