Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], “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.”
“Teacher! Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Doesn’t this sound like a tattletale in a playground fight? Teacher! He cheated! Make him play by the rules!
And Jesus says something we may not have expected: Who am I to judge over you?
Well, you’re Jesus.
Sometimes Christians think they have been personally delegated by God to tell people what God thinks of them. But that those Christians are part of God’s select who will be going directly to heaven. Jesus doesn’t even say that about himself here. Who am I to judge you? You and your brother work it out.
And then he warns us about greed and tells this parable about the wealthy landowner.
All kinds of greed—like what?
Anything that will fill that hole of fear, insecurity, not-good-enough-ness
Anything that will guarantee security for life—as if there’s such a thing.
White people have had much more of that financial security for decades—centuries—than Black people. And there are multiple attempts to pull the ladder up after us so “those people” can’t access the same resources. Stay tuned next week for more on this, as Jan and I discuss Heather McGhee’s book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.
Security for life—how un-Jesus-like. He always lived right on the edge. Have you heard that expression? “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”
“One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” says Jesus. How anti-capitalist of him. So if life is not about being wealthy, and it’s not about judging each other, what joy is left?
Well, let’s dive into this parable and see what it tells us.
Notice that the man in the parable does not have any other people mentioned in his life. No family, no servants, no farm-workers, no villagers. It’s all about him. He has more wealth, in the form of harvest, than he can even store in his barns.
In Genesis, we hear about Joseph interpreting a dream predicting 7 years of drought, and he organizes storage of harvests for seven years ahead of time so that the people can survive that drought. He stores food, not for his personal benefit, but in order to distribute it later to help people survive.
That’s not what’s happening in this parable. This guy is storing the harvest purely for himself. He has no plans to help anyone else. No plans to share. It’s all about him and his comfort and security.
Consider what it would mean to have all that land in Jesus’ day. It means that other people don’t have enough land to grow enough food to feed their families. It means he must have lots of workers, lots of servants or slaves. His wealth is costing other people—in work, in land, in food. Yet it does not cross his mind to share in the abundance, to give thanks, to take care of anyone else around him. There is no talk of doing justice, loving kindness, or walking humbly with God. It’s all about him. He has blinders on.
Does this mean we shouldn’t have any wealth at all? That wealth by definition is evil? No. It took me forever to realize that Jesus’ message is not saying we should all renounce all our possessions. I thought I was always supposed to take jobs that paid crumbs and live struggling to pay my basic bills, that this was somehow noble. That’s actually not what Jesus is saying. Listen again: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” If you store up treasures and you share them—with God, with your community—that’s a whole different thing.
Whatever amount you have—$200 or $20 million—put it to work for that relationship with God and with your neighbors. Be part of the redeeming work of building God’s realm. Look out for each other. Don’t accumulate wealth just for its own sake; get it circulating for the good of the community.
What I realized at times when I didn’t have any money was that I had to depend on others who did have money to help me out. Family members, trust funds, scholarships, loans, gifts, whatever. So did Jesus and the disciples. Jesus is always depending on others to invite him over for a meal. He doesn’t draw a salary from anywhere. He doesn’t have any land, doesn’t grow any crops, doesn’t have any inheritance. He depends on those who have to share out of their abundance. He encourages them to be generous toward God by supporting his ministry of building God’s realm—and by doing that work themselves. You may recall that the early church in Jerusalem depended on Paul to keep passing the hat in all these new communities around the Mediterranean to help keep them going. The Church today depends on passing the hat, too. We all put in what we can, sharing out of our abundance to keep the work of building God’s realm going.
I’m thinking about what it means in these days to live in a capitalist society where the top 1% have so much wealth and the bottom has so little. The gap between haves and have-nots is wider than ever. Some of those ultra-wealthy people are looking for ways to spread the joy beyond their immediate circle. They set up foundations, charities, scholarships, and the like. And that’s good. But some, like the wealthy landowner, lose track of their moral compass. They just want to accumulate wealth for its own sake, and they don’t share it; they don’t put it to work to better the world. They don’t even want to pay taxes to build the roads and fund the schools. They move their money to bigger barns offshore to keep it siloed away from everyone else.
Jeff, a friend I used to know, came to seminary from the world of finance, where he had clients with vast amounts of wealth. It was not his job to judge how they had made their money. It was his job to help them figure out what to do with it. Unlike me, he was totally comfortable talking with people about money. He could say to his clients, as Jesus might have said to the wealthy landowner in this parable, “You have more wealth than you can possibly spend in your lifetime. You have the houses, the fancy cars, the art collection, the well-stocked wine cellar. You’ve put your kids through college. Now what? What do you want your legacy to be? How can this wealth be a gift to change the world?”
What a gift Jeff was to his clients to help them frame their abundance according to some moral compass.
God doesn’t just ask the wealthiest to consider their legacy. God asks all of us, with whatever gifts and resources we have. Notice that the wealthy landowner is talking to his soul about taking it easy: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Don’t worry about all those pesky people in need. Just take care of yourself.
When has that been God’s message to our souls, ever? Yeah, kick back, relax, eat, drink, be merry, and don’t worry about those pesky needy people.
So Bob Bakke, bless him, left some money when he died earlier this year. And it turns out that some of his estate will be coming to us. We could say, “Hey, we could kick back, relax, eat, drink, be merry, not worry about anyone else for a while.” And yes, we can put on a new roof, and we can fix up the windowsills, which were crumbling. That helps this building continue to be prepared to serve as a ministry to us and to the broader community. And we can ask, How is this gift from Bob’s estate something we could share? How are we called to build God’s realm with it? To put it to use in the community?
It’s not just what we do with the leftover wealth when we’ve already paid all the other bills. How is our contribution to the greater good given not out of the leftovers but right off the top?
Jesus warns us against all kinds of greed. What is behind greed, the obsession with accumulating more and more and more? Is it a need to be competitive, to be the best, to have more than everyone else? Is it a deep-seated insecurity, a black hole of need that will never be filled by any amount of money or things? Is it a theology of scarcity? Is it a lack of social connections, a lack of community?
Greed represents a profound lack of faith in God to provide. God may not give me these things, so I’d better grab them for myself. God calls us to live out of a sense of abundance and a faith that, working with us, God will provide. God also calls us to live in community, to care for God and each other at least as much as we care for our own needs. The wealthy landowner did none of that.
God says to the landowner, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” When we are connected to community, we already know: our money and possessions will go to you and you and you, to those in need, to those who love us and are connected to us. Our legacy will continue the connections and the good work and the building of God’s realm that we have started in our lifetimes.
What is your legacy? What would you like to see continue? How are you working with God right now to share the abundance and to build God’s realm? How could Prospect carry on our work?