Sunday, July 31
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
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 Matthews
Church folks spend a lot of time discussing who is "in" and who should be "out" of the church, or perhaps more to the point, who is in or out of God's good graces, often turning to Scripture for justification, even if supporting verses are few and far between. How often, though, do we use wealth - the lack or the excess thereof - as a standard for these judgments? Money and possessions do seem to be important in the Bible, which refers to them many, many times - thousands, actually, mostly warning about the dangers of greed and of placing our trust in material goods, or worse, making them our idols.
Material possessions represent many things in our culture: security, power, status and self-esteem, independence, enjoyment, anxiety and worry - the list goes on and on. Yet how often do we address the subject of money in our churches: from the pulpit, in adult education classes and church school for children, or in our newsletter, unless, that is, we're talking about giving to the church? What about money and greed in general, their presence and their power in our lives, and their role in the life of the spirit?
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"
How would you define "the good life" - what makes your life rich and full? Of course, an income that covers the basic needs of living - food, shelter, clothing, medical care, education - would be considered a starting point, but we also 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 comforting, lovely and useful they may be, will never completely satisfy our deepest longings. 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 grab our attention and too often win our hearts.
Words like these are hardly a crowd-pleasing sermon, and many people must have drifted away after hearing them from Jesus, so he addressed his disciples, reminding 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 doesn't talk about our "net worth" as the world measures us - he tells us instead that we have infinite, inexpressible value in the eyes of God.
Even the rich are worried
Of course, even rich people still worry a lot: about their future, about getting more (when "enough," as noted above, keeps moving higher and higher), and then about not losing what they have. Those who are poor, however, worry 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 are made up of folks who live 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 community that nevertheless boasts a rebuilding, rejuvenated downtown center with "outer-ring" suburbs of expensive homes and impressive, world-class - and costly - medical facilities, sports, and arts institutions. We were able to attract the recent, national political convention, along with many other revenue-producing events, by putting many resources into new hotels, restaurants, parks, and other amenities. A national sports championship, at long last, also has lifted the spirits of those who live and work here, who care about the good of the city.
Is everyone included in a new day?
Still, while many civic leaders are boasting of a renaissance for the downtown area, many of us - and not just in the churches - ask when the poor and working-class folks of our city's 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 bears on our personal 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, if money is a subject that can't be discussed in an atmosphere of trust and openness in the community of faith, where the most important things in life should be able to be thoughtfully and prayerfully examined.
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 such a future 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.
The seductive power of possessions
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, if we really think about it, 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, not hoarding, is the path to joy.
Abundance, sharing and 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? How might these words of Swanson challenge our shared civic conversation in the months ahead of us?
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, and 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, I agree that 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. I believe that 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
This passage from Luke's Gospel always reminds me of a story about my Aunt Therese Anne, my mother's youngest sister and a lifelong music teacher. 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 a lilt in her voice, and was gifted in her music and her teaching, in Catholic girls' schools in Kentucky and Maryland. My Aunt Therese Anne had a deep appreciation for things that are beautiful: flowers and cats and the music of Beethoven, especially. She kept a large, framed picture of her favorite biblical image, the lion and the lamb, over the piano in the room where she taught her students their music 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-five years, but we still remember her and share stories about her.
Stories that stay with us are treasures
I remember, years ago, at the end of my three years of seminary in Kentucky, when I met a nun in Lexington, Sr. Ellen, who had been 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 that 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 - each and every simple treasure - 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 and truly beautiful: 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?
In his thoughts on this text, 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) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in July from serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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."
"Seek not greater wealth, but simpler pleasure; not higher fortune, but deeper felicity."
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."
John Ruskin, The King of the Golden River, 19th century
"There is no wealth but life."
Epictetus, 2nd century
"Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants."
Emma Goldman, 20th century
"I'd rather have roses on my table than diamonds on my neck."
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Sunday, July 31