Theme: Reordering priorities
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, help us to see how we order our lives to be consistent with the teachings of your son, Jesus Christ, through whom we pray. Amen.
Leonard Sweet officiated at a funeral recently of a man who died of a heart attack two weeks after he declared bankruptcy. With his beautiful wife, five kids, and many grandchildren circling the grave, this is how he began the eulogy:
“One of the wealthiest men in the world died on His name was . . . . He made his wealth in real estate. The real, real estate of life. You say: how cruel can you be? In front of his grieving family you are calling a man ‘wealthy’ who died right after declaring bankruptcy.
“I say: how crude can you be? You are calling a ‘wealthy’ person someone who made their fortune from the real estate of land and property and not the real, real estate of life.
“In our Scripture lesson this morning, Jesus gives us a different understanding of wealth than the one we’re used to. In fact, according to Jesus, the wealthiest person in the world is someone you’ve never heard of — someone who made their wealth in something other than land.
“Not that there isn’t wealth to be made from real estate. Forget that one word ‘Plastics.’ Here’s the word that created some of the biggest fortunes of the past 50 years: ‘Autopia.’
“‘Autopia’ is a word invented by Rayner Banham to describe the car culture that started in California in the wake of the Interstate Highway System and spread to the rest of the US, and from the US to the world. ‘Autopia’ is what gave us suburbia, malls and the whole panorama of cartocracy, or even better, autocracy. In an auto-cracy or autocratic culture, Car Is King and Real Estate is King Maker.
“Thanks to autopia and autocracy, the need for inexpensive family housing after the Second World War pushed new developments beyond the boundaries of existing cities and towns. Cornfields and pasture lands were bulldozed into pre-planned, pre-fabricated suburbs. And what was good for the growing “baby boom” families was good for small farmers as well. Hardscrabble farmlands were suddenly gold mines, as developers greedily subdivided grassy meadows into grids of cheap houses. Old family farms became one-time windfalls, the land itself being the final cash crop for a generation of farmers who could make more money off the interest from the sale of their farms to suburban developers than from selling the products of their labor.
“Owning real estate has always seemed like the ‘golden ticket’ — whether it was ‘forty acres and a mule’ or forty acres and a bulldozer. Stock values can evaporate overnight. Paper money is only worth what the government backing decides is its value. But real estate is, well, REAL. You can see it. You can hold it in your hand. You can walk on it. You can build on it. Real estate is never worth nothing. Even with ‘underwater’ mortgages – that’s when the house isn’t worth as much as the money owed on it--the property still has value. That’s why the bank will eagerly take it back.
“But for the people whose names are on the bottom line of an ‘underwater’ mortgage, what seemed like their best, most reliable investment, is suddenly worth nothing to them.
“Nevertheless the message of today’s gospel lesson is clear. Real estate is the BEST investment you can make. But the ‘real estate’ Jesus is talking about isn’t measured by the acre. The real estate of Jesus’ parable isn’t buildable with water rights. The real estate Jesus implores us to invest in is the real estate of life -- real relationships that bind us together and help work together to usher us into the presence of God.”
Jesus was hanging out with his disciples when a crowd started gathering around him. As it got larger, he began teaching in parables. When it got even larger, he began criticizing the Pharisees. After some teaching about confession, Jesus receives a request to settle a dispute.
Apparently one of Jesus’ hearers asks Jesus to settle an inheritance issue. Jesus declined to get involved, which provoked a teaching moment and time for another parable. Jesus warns the people about greed and possessions. This leads to the Parable of the Rich Fool.
You heard the parable. A rich man decides to build bigger barns. It is odd that the man decides he will live off the abundance of this one harvest and not plant for a while. Jesus is not explicit, but the audience knows that there are a lot of poor people, a lot of poor people, and this man is going to sit on this great harvest and not even going to try to sell it?
The rich fool may also think that if he unloads his grain after the harvest, he won’t get good a price for it. It’s likely that everyone else had a good harvest and grain prices are down. But God tells the man that he is going to die that very night and so what good will his barns be then?
God says, “You fool!” When anyone says this, it gets attention. Imagine God saying it to you. It would make me sit up and take notice! God tells the fool, “Your soul has been bankrupted by your balance sheet; foreclosure is imminent. You’re dead!” A low grain price will be far better than nothing for the grain. A bank account will be absolutely worthless after death.
There is no happy ending to this parable. There is no second chance for the rich man even if he repents and changes his ways.
After nearly 2,000 years of Christianity, the business practices of the rich fool are no different than they are today. Our corporations maximize profits to increase share price with little regard to the ethics of their actions. This need for greed, nearly lead us into another great depression. Instead, we are in a severe, indefinite recession.
Jesus is prodding us to take account of our possessions in light of our relationship with God. The rich fool takes no account of God or God’s plans. He is only thinking of himself and is implicated in his greed. There is only death and nothing. Jesus is not fond of people with many possessions. Yet, we are a country of people with many possessions. We can’t just point to corporate greed and think that we are only talking about corporations. We need to also look at ourselves.
Is there room for bigger barns in Jesus’ economy? The man asking Jesus to intervene in his inheritance dispute is focused on resources he does not have. The rich fool is focused on what he does have, but wants it to be bigger. The disgruntled brother and the rich fool are like Martha of Bethany. They are all distracted by many things. The two in our story can only seem to think about wanting more money.
“The issue (for Martha, the disgruntled brother, the rich man, and for us) is careful discernment regarding various dimensions of value. Such discernment is especially challenging when money is at stake. It can be even more difficult when the presenting problem involves a ‘fair’ distribution of capital and labor.” (David J. Schlafer)
Our story today is about a failure to put things in perspective. When we look out of a window, do we see our own reflection or do we see God’s people and what God created? Jesus is calling us to see beyond ourselves and to reorder our lives accordingly. Before we build a bigger barn, we need to ask ourselves how we have been rich toward God.
We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, give the gift of perspective, through which we may use our resources rightly and for the spread of your kingdom, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Text: Luke 12:13–21 (NRSV)
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 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.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 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. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 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?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”