Written by Andy Lang
Sunday, August 1
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
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.
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 with
Colossians 3:1-11 with
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 has that discomfort contributed to the economic dislocation being experienced by many, including our church members?
by Kate Huey
Our churches give considerable attention today to deciding who should be "in" and who should be "out" of the church. They often turn to Scripture to justify this judgment, even if the verses supporting their stand are few and far between. However, there are many, many more references (thousands of them!) in the Bible to money and possessions, many of those providing strong instructions about the dangers of greed and of placing trust in material goods, or worse, making them our idols. Money and possessions represent many things: security, power, prestige and self-esteem, independence, enjoyment, anxiety and worry. Yet how often do we address the subject of money and possessions in our churches: from the pulpit, in adult education classes, in church school for children, in our newsletter, outside the subject of giving to the church?
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 city that is nevertheless surrounded by many mansions and expensive homes, and is the home itself of impressive--and costly--medical facilities and arts institutions, as well as highly paid sports figures. In a country where enormous wealth and persistent poverty stand side by side, how do we help our members wrestle with the question of money and material goods in relation to their spiritual welfare?
Have you ever fantasized about receiving a windfall of money, and how relieved and secure you would feel at last? Isn't that what happened to the rich farmer 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 interesting to think about what was in the minds of those listening to Jesus: it's not unreasonable to think that Jesus' story might recall the story of Joseph in Genesis, who built new barns to hold the abundant harvests during Egypt's "fat" years so that the people (including his own family, who had tried to kill him) 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. He seems to be completely turned in on himself and his own future, however lonely it might be. How, indeed, might it be "merry"?
It always helps to read our passage in its context, and we find much more than the parable in this section of Luke. Jesus is addressing the 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, The Message, 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." We might spend fruitful time exploring what "rich toward God" actually means.
Not really such a bad guy
The rich fool doesn't seem like an evil man who has cheated and stolen his wealth; like all of us, he's benefited from good luck, from the rain that "falls on good and evil alike." 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 excellent problem. He turns inward and stays there, figuring that he can be self-sufficient and secure solely because of his wealth. Notice how he keeps saying "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!
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 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 things are irresponsible or wrong, but they do distract us from what is really important. 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). As beloved children of God, we have a Parent who wants to give us good things, if we can just make room for them in our lives!
What are we worth?
We're used to looking for the price tag on items, 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 the rush hour traffic on one's way to work. It certainly can soften the heart toward all those other drivers, who are all dealing with their own struggles.) Our value is not correlated with the value of our possessions, of course. And because of that, when there's an abundance of goods, Jesus says that sharing is the way to go. 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.
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: "For most of us fools in a foolish society," Bauckham writes, "the awareness that security lies entirely beyond our reach in God can come only with the shock of divine intervention in our lives." In a sense, the rich fool has used his wealth to set himself up as a kind of "god" who can ensure his own welfare: "…the seduction of wealth is the illusion it gives us of control over our lives." What then does it mean to be "rich toward God"? "This is the wealth we acquire when, trusting the future to God, we use what is given us unselfishly.…The way to real life is to give our lives away" (all quotes from Bauckham). Could this be what it means to love God back, the God who first loved us?
Richard Swanson observes that the rich fool "imagines that his fields have produced for him, and that such abundance exempts him from future work, and (more crucially) from present sharing. Economies work because they are knit together….Both earning and sharing are essential to the fabric of God's world." Swanson finds a way to bridge the gap between two very different socio-economic settings, and to shine the light of the gospel on both.
Our attention to both wealth and death
Gary E. Peluso-Verdend offers this helpful perspective: "The text seeks to reorient our attention from what we think we are owed to the relationship between life and wealth." 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: "The farmer does not notice God's hand at all, however; he mistakes the community's wealth, of which he should be a steward, for his own….Jesus judges that the horizon of death should orient our attention to sharing wealth in the community and living life trusting in God's abundance."
Not only would the man himself die, unable to enjoy his good fortune, but the treasure he stored would be subject to decay and go to waste: "When the fruits of the earth are not used to enhance the life of the earth," Dianne Bergant writes, "they lose their value; they spoil and even decompose. Life itself is the far greater good; goods only enhance life."
Finally, we turn to R. Alan Culpepper: "Practical Atheism: This is Peter Rhea Jones's provocative term for the rich fool's approach to life. The rich fool may protest that he has always believed in God, but when it comes to managing his life, dealing with possessions and planning for the future, he lives as though there were no God. The parable, therefore, probes our basic commitments. What difference should our faith in God make in the practical matters of life?" 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.
A longer preaching version of this commentary can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel
For further reflection
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.
Ernest Hemingway, 20th century
Fear of death increases in exact proportion to increase in wealth.