Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
August 4, 2019
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 toward God.”
The New York Times has a column entitled “Metropolitan Diary” that features about a half dozen brief letters sent in by readers that describe what it is like to live in New York City. Many of the stories speak of kindness and warmth. Other relate the quirks found in some of the city residents. Still others point to the outrageous wealth that many New Yorkers possess and what people tend to do with that wealth. Calvin Seminary professor Scott Hoezee tells of a diary entry written by a couple visiting the Big Apple from their Midwest home. It was in the middle of January, during a particularly brutal cold wave. As they walked up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the woman’s ears started to get painfully cold. They decided to check out a small boutique to purchase a hat for her. The woman quickly found a lovely cashmere knit hat and was about to buy it when she noticed the price tag: $350. She put it back quickly and left the store. As soon as they made their way back to the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue however, the woman they saw a woman passing by, carrying a little poodle dog. The dog was wearing the very same cashmere knit hat.
The ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca once said, “If what you have seems insufficient to you, then though you possess the world, you will yet be miserable.” I like to pair Seneca’s words up with those of one of my favorite philosophers, deadpan comedian Steven Wright. Wright once said, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”
Laura and I are currently in the midst of a kitchen remodel. I know that many of you have endured this experience before and have survived. But I would appreciate any words of encouragement! The kitchen remodel includes some painting and floor maintenance in other rooms so it has turned our entire house into some rooms which resemble a war zone and other rooms which are acting as storage closets. What I have learned from this project is that there is an industry out there based on providing storage boxes and containers to put your extra stuff into. You want to make certain you have enough boxes to hold all of the stuff you really don’t need. And I have also learned how much stuff Laura and I actually have. Perhaps you never really appreciate how many possessions you have until you have to move them to a different place. We have things that we never use and things we really don’t need. I have discovered that we have many things I didn’t even know we had. As I look around my house I see trinkets and memorabilia that were at one time important to me but as the years have passed grew less and less important. Where at one time I was eagerly seeking to add to my collection, now it seems that I am in a search for ways to reduce it.
We used to have a bumper sticker on our refrigerator door that said, “Live so that the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.” I am moving toward a different goal in life I think, one that a very wise person once told me. “Live so that your children will not be embarrassed when they have to clean out your home and basement and attics and closets when you die.”
Jesus was in the middle of encouraging his disciples to hold true to faith, even under duress when he was interrupted by a man in the crowd who wanted Jesus to settle a financial dispute between siblings. Jesus refused to enter into the family squabble but instead used the situation to teach about the seduction of wealth and possessions. He told the man a parable of a rich man, who after a good year of harvest had an abundance of crops. Concerned about what might happen in the future, the rich man tore down his existing barns and built bigger ones to store his more than adequate harvest. The rich man’s words expressed his desire to continue on his present course of action, accumulating more resources without sharing them. His expectation was that his comfortable life, lived without consideration of the suffering of others, would continue with a more organized and prepared future.
It is important to note that unlike some other parables, there is nothing really wrong going on here. There is no stealing, no padding of financial accounts, nor taking advantage of employees. On the surface, the rich farmer seems to be preparing for his retirement much as any of us do. He saw an opportunity to supersize. He looked forward to the time when he could stop his labors and eat and drink and be merry. His goals resonate with our own when we reflect upon our IRAs and 401Ks.
Yet Jesus said that he was a fool! His folly wasn’t that he wanted bigger barns. Farmers need storage space. He was a fool because he believed that his ample goods would safeguard his future. He believed that he could safely and successfully manage all that might come his way. He considered no one but himself as he contemplated the problems of his expanding wealth. His sin was clearly illustrated in the conversation he had with himself: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? I will do this- I will put 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…David Lose writes that the rich farmer had fallen prey to worshipping the most popular of gods, the “Unholy Trinity of Me, Myself, and I.” The rich farmer doesn’t not consult with anyone. He does not consider the needs of his neighbors. He does not consider what benefit might come with sharing his bounty. His vision extends only to himself and how he can acquire and secure even more.
The rich farmer was living the good life. He was wise in his own eyes. Yet he was in Jesus’ words, “a fool.” He clung to the priorities that he had chosen in life and missed what Jesus might call the “blessed life.” The rich farmer’s future was well planned but it brought insecurity and anxiety because he missed the very presence of God in the blessings of seed and harvest. The rich man was prepared for success in life but his preparation was not life-giving or life-sharing.
Jesus taught that finding a treasure is fine. It is not a sin to be rich in things. However we all must realize that our accumulation of stuff and our obsession with the control of material things tends to lead us to neglect our relationship with God. We begin to identify ourselves with what we own. We begin to think that we alone, through adequate preparation, are responsible for our future. We begin to worry about whether or not we will have enough or whether or not someone else will take what we deserve. It is as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Things are in the saddle and they ride mankind.” We drift toward greed, a sin that Thomas Aquinas said is a self-absorption which is absent of the experience of love. We fail to understand that it is far more important to be rich in God. It is God’s good pleasure to give us what we need for each day. It is God’s good pleasure to secure our souls. Only as we recognize that the gifts of ultimate worth, dignity, meaning, and relationship are gifts freely offered by God, can we hope to place our relative wealth in perspective and be generous with it toward others. When we comprehend what God’s gifts in life truly are, than the harvest can become what it truly was meant to be- not a possession to hoard, but the blessings by which God cares for all of creation.
In a sermon on this passage from 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of how much of the wealth of our nation was built on the backs of those who suffer and struggle. Dr. King wondered about the life of the rich farmer. “He may have had great books in his library, but he never read them. He may have had recordings of great music of the ages, but he never listened to it. He probably gave his wife mink coats, a convertible automobile, but he didn’t give her what she needed most, love and affection. He probably provided bread for his children, but he didn’t give them any attention; he didn’t really love them. Somehow he looked up at the beauty of the stars, but he wasn’t moved by them. He had heard the glad tidings of philosophy and poetry, but he really didn’t read it or comprehend it, or want to understand it. And so this man justly deserved his title. He was an eternal fool. He allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. And he was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others.
Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that “if you have to be greedy, then be greedy for love. Be greedy for justice and wisdom and significance. That way, when it comes time to show God what is in your treasure chest, there won’t be any doubt in your minds that you are rich.”