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August 26, 2001
We were shocked last year when the Texas Rangers agreed to pay a player $272 million to play baseball. The salaries of professional athletes as a whole cause the average person to sputter in indignation. Congress has been debating the estate tax and has considered abolishing it, yet Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and other very rich people in America have urged that we keep it.
And what is the middle class doing? Accumulating more possessions. One of the faster growing segments of the gross national product today is the storage business. Investors cannot build mini-storage, self-storage units fast enough. They provide safe, temperature-controlled environments in which to store our stuff for which we have no room at home. Americans are building bigger barns, and they frequently look like storage units. Nothing wrong with that, unless we develop the barn-building syndrome that afflicted the landowner of today's text from the gospel of Luke.
Among the biblical gospels, only Luke includes this dialogue between Jesus and the quarreling brothers, although the noncanonical gospel of Thomas contains a similar story. The gospel of Thomas is one of those early books about Jesus that for some reason or another did not make it into the Bible. Saying 63 of the gospel of Thomas reads: "Jesus said, There was a rich person who had a great deal of money. He said, 'I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce, that I may lack nothing.' These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!" [http://www.miseri.edu/users/davies/thomas/Trans.htm]. This passage from the gospel of Thomas stresses the uncertainty of life, and Luke also has that stress.
Returning to Luke, Jesus is asked to arbitrate a dispute over an estate. In first century Palestine, all laws were grounded in Scripture. It would have been natural then to ask a rabbi, like Jesus, to decide the matter. Jesus, however, refused to judge between the brothers. I suspect that he just did not want to get involved in a bitter family quarrel.
Instead, Jesus responds with a word about a larger issue, saying: "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed" (v. 15), and he warns us that, "life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Jesus refuses the role of judge and prefers the role of Teacher. He emphasizes that the concerns of greed and jealousy are nothing compared to one's life.
What is greed? Greed is wanting too much, more than you need. Greed is wretched excess. By that definition, The Biltmore House is a monument to greed. If Vanderbilt had a motto, it must have been "excess is barely enough." The house is gargantuan - 250 rooms. Yet, it was built as a summer home for one family. The dining room is as high as a five-story building. The dining table seats sixty-four. I guess when you are that rich, you make friends easily. Millions of dollars worth of art are on the walls - Renoirs and Whistlers, Renaissance tapestries. It is beautiful, but is it not about greed? Who needs a $100 million house? Who deserves to have this much? Of course, Vanderbilt was not the only person to have more than he needed. Today, there is plenty of excess around.
Junk bond king Michael Milken paid himself more than $500 million. Who needs that much? Hotel mogul Leona Helmsley, now a billionairess, sued to get the bulk of her late son's estate. Her lawsuit left her sons kids with less than $500 each. There is a name for someone like that. Former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos took tax money from people who could barely afford food and then used it to buy lavish parties, a yacht and thousands of shoes. She needed the shoes, she said, because she had to change clothes a lot. Haiti is even poorer than the Philippines. Yet while people there were starving, Haiti's ruler, Baby Doc Duvalier, lived in a palace and spent millions shopping.
In addition, the rich keep getting richer. Today to reach the top of the Forbes richest Americans list, you need not millions but billions. One of these billionaires, Ted Turner, says the magazine's ranking makes the rich want to get even richer: "You're on this list, you see, and you want to move up the list. You want to be number one."
Maybe we need to stop and hear what Jesus had to say about Greed. He said, it is just not what life is about.
Jesus tells us a story, an "object lesson, " a parable (vv. 16-20), in which he illustrates the folly of greed. The parable is about a man who is already rich and has a plentiful harvest. This bounty is not the result of wrongdoing. The man did not cheat anyone to achieve this gain. He was a good farmer: He tilled the soil, and the rain and sun came in due season, and rewarded him with a lavish harvest. There follows then a mental monologue by the rich man. The decisive moment in this parable is not the external response of the rich man--rather, it is his internal decision.
And notice that the passage shifts from talking about life to talking about the soul. The first section of the passage handled the question of the substance of life; the second section turns to the soul.
In verse 18, the rich man makes a decision: he will stop accumulating; he will "store up" all his grain, and sit back and enjoy. Jesus does not praise the rich man for tearing down his barns to build bigger ones, but neither does he condemn that action (at least not directly). This parable is not about building or not building barns. It is about a fool! This rich man believes that he is capable of hoarding enough to bring delight and protection to his soul. He envisions only his own pleasure over the years. The fool lives for himself, talks to himself, plans for himself and congratulates himself.
The rich fool forgot that his soul is not his. Now we are all somewhat like this rich fool in that we speak of the soul as our soul. It is my soul--so we speak--and I will decide what to do with it or about it. But it is not my soul. The soul belongs to God. Ultimately everything belongs to God. God made the world, and it is his world. But we are here talking about the soul, and that also belongs to God. And God may require that soul anytime he pleases.
Of course, we all know that. We know that we can die suddenly and unexpectedly. We know that we can never accumulate that which is needed to bring strength and safety to the soul. Our soul is not our possession, and it is certainly not under our control. In the parable, when God suddenly requires the man's soul, he dies. And all that he has on earth no longer belongs to him, but now passes on to others.
The rich fool should have known that God would ask him for his soul. He had done a phenomenal job of looking out for himself, but he gave his soul poor instructions about how to find security and pleasure. "For what good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?" (9:25, NIV). The rich fool forgot about God.
The rich fool also forgot about death. Anticipating his own happiness, he instructs his soul to "relax, eat, drink, be merry" (12:19). But life is short, and it should have occurred to the rich fool that he could not take his wealth with him when confronted with mortality. The rich fool forgot about God and death.
The rich fool also neglects the opportunity to be generous with his wealth while he has opportunity. Time after time, Luke addresses the difficult subject of the burden of possessions. In Luke 3:11, John the Baptist proclaims "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same." Jesus cautions, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (18:25, NIV), and tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31). The rich man is a fool because he forgot three things.
He forgot about death.
He forgot about God
He forgot about the sorry state of being a person of greed.
Luke will continue, even after Pentecost, to stress that the standard for discipleship is the voluntary sharing of one's goods with others (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32). The act of being a generous individual, with the conviction that one's bounteous possessions are to be shared, is an attitude of a disciple, but it is an attitude that is lost on the rich fool. He does not see that accumulating his plentiful crop in bigger barns deprives others. He does not see that he does not need to build larger barns for himself; he needs to fill the barns of others.
His foolishness is not just greed, but is his complete, utter self-concern. Notice the pronouns of this brief passage (12:13-21):"I, I, my, I, I, my, I, my, my, I, my." So said the farmer whose soul was enjoying what his land produced and was wondering where to store it all.
The trouble with possessions is that, if we are not careful, our possessions can possess us. The "I, me and mine" refrain is a popular song in human hymnody, especially for those whose philosophy is "Enough is never enough." That is why we build houses, three-car garages, tool sheds and storage units--to store stuff.
In the United States, barns were once synonymous with being American. From Montana to Maine, big barns, small barns, stone barns, log barns, round barns, and square barns dotted the American landscape. A barn is a place animals, feed, and machinery are stored. If you farmed, you needed a barn.
As for the architecture of the barn, it came directly from the church! The clever brains and rough hands which conceived and constructed European cathedrals and monasteries also built barns - and, quite naturally, in a similar style. The banked barn, popular in Ohio, shows the influence of church architecture. It is a two-floor rectangular barn that is normally built into a hillside. The upstairs layout suggests a basilica with a center bay inspired by a nave, and the side bays reflect church aisles.
You have probably noted the irony here. Jesus warns us about being barn-building fools, yet the barns we build are modeled after the places where we worship the one who warned us about barns.
But barns are not bad. Jesus just asks whether we really need to build bigger ones. People who are as invested in barn-building as this rich man in the text do not have time for the kingdom of God, can not spare the energy for advancing the agenda of the church, lose sight of divine priorities, and become blind to their growing and deathly materialism. Jesus is warning us not to let our souls sink so low beneath the weight of "stuff" that we lose a sense of what is important in life. The rich farmer, poor in heart, worships his desires, desires that are made possible by his possessions. He adores the idea of his success. Believing possessions will satisfy his soul. He becomes a barn-building fool.
Now you might say that he did not figure on dying so soon. Of course not, who does? But die he did, and he was not ready. The apostle James is not sympathetic. James 5:1-3 reads, "Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days."
Peter Gomes of Harvard Divinity School comments on these verses, saying that it "applies to the scene outside the place in which the last rites of the church were said for the fabulously wealthy Aristotle Onassis. His super-rich friends all gathered about after the funeral, and the chief speculation was how much he had and who had gotten it. One exchange went like this: 'How much did he leave?' The answer? 'Everything; he left everything.'"
Most of us do not consider ourselves rich, but the people to whom Jesus addressed his remarks would. Eighty percent of the world's population considers all Americans to be rich and wonders why we are not happy.
But being rich, possessing an abundance of belongings, is not the problem. Forgetting God--forgetting to get down on your knees and thank God, the giver of life and all things--is the problem. Jesus notes the irony. The man thinks he is the creator of his own wealth. Jesus says, "Not so." It was the land that produced the abundant crop. The rich man had little to do with it. God gave him his blessings!
Where and how we store our stuff, in an attic or in a barn, is not the problem. The problem for us, and for the rich man, is our attitude toward ourselves and toward God.
An abundance of possessions - gathered, ordered, loved and stored - can incubate an attitude of greed. The selfish song of "I, I, my, I, I, my, I, my, my, I, my" can distract us and cause us to forget God, forget our mortality, forget we can't take it with us. "I and my" can cause us to miss the point of what Teilhard de Chardin wrote: "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."
Greed makes us forget that we are spiritual beings. We were not created to be barn-building fools. We were created to be sons and daughters of God in Jesus Christ. And we need to be true to our creation. It is all right to build barns, or to do the things of this world, as long as we remember what it is all about. What is life about? What is our soul about? Jesus tells us at the end of the last verse. It is about being "rich toward God. It is about consecrating our lives to God.
A few years ago, I went to Grand Canyon, and I head a story about the Grand Canyon mules. The eyes of the mule are so set that it can see where each of its four feet land. That is why it is the animal of choice for the long trek down Bright Angel Trail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. In 100 years, there has never been a fatal mule accident. Moreover, the mules always pass hikers on the outside of the trail; their feet land very close to the edge, but their remarkable vision enables them to walk safely.
That is the kind of vision that we need if we are to be spiritually safe, a constant vision of God. We must say to God:
Take my will and make it thine.
Take my heart, for it is thine own
Make it thy royal throne.
Take my soul, for it never was mine.
Gomes, Peter. The Good Book. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1996), 296.
On barns: www.wpt.org/barns/gallery.html.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 9/20/01