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.” –Luke 12:13-21
Jesus once had his disciples sit with him near the treasury in the Temple, the only Jewish banking institution of its day. If he were here today, I can’t help but think that he might ask his disciples to sit with him near a checkout at a grocery store, just to observe what people were buying. There have been numerous runs, I’ve heard – everything from toilet paper to paper towels to chicken to bottled water, to who knows what else. In these days of uncertainty, folks are being careful that they have everything they need and more.
Today’s parable has a word or two about that. A man comes to Jesus with what seems to be a legitimate question. He wants his brother to be fair with him and give him his share of the family inheritance. Now, disputes about inheritance were very common in that time. (Unfortunately, I don’t think they have diminished that much in our time, do you?) The social arrangement of the family was that when the father died, the eldest son took responsibility for settling the estate. Of course, he would always receive the larger share. For instance, in the story of the Prodigal Son, the older brother would have received a 2/3 share, and the younger brother got only 1/3. If there were more than two brothers, the oldest son got half of the estate, with the other half being divided among the siblings. Thus, being the eldest, being the executor of the estate, held much power. Now, it is in that context that this man comes to Jesus, quite upset. It would seem that his older brother was dragging his feet in dividing the estate, and this younger brother wanted Jesus to settle the issue. Jesus refused to get sucked into this controversy. However, he does seem to identify the issue at hand — materialism. Thus, he embarks on this unsettling parable.
It is always interesting to me that Jesus employed a story when he just as easily could have footnoted Law. Greed is a violation of the Law of Moses (Exodus 20:17); and it is spoken against in the teachings of the prophets. (Micah 2:2) Nevertheless, Jesus uses a story, a story about a man who was not described as being a bad man. Furthermore, this is not a story against making or saving or investing money; it is about a man who loses sight of that which is ultimate. His concern with worldly goods negates his longing for the vision of God. In listening to this disturbing story, let me call your attention to two phrases upon which this story turns: (1) One is in the very beginning, after the brother has made his request, just before Jesus begins the parable. The phrase seems to be a heavy indictment against preoccupation with things: “Take heed and beware of all greed, for a man’s life does not consist in his abundance of possessions.” (2) And then there is a remarkable little phrase at the end of this teaching, “rich toward God.” What does it mean to be “rich toward God”?
Tony Campolo tells about a family that made a commitment to support several poor children in Haiti. A little more than $100 a month was sufficient to feed, clothe and educate five orphaned children who otherwise would have had no hope. In order for the family to carry out its commitment, sacrifices had to be made. The children had to forgo some of the things that many of their friends took for granted. They rode secondhand bicycles, and sometimes their Christmas presents didn’t compare favorably with what their friends got. Nevertheless, the family stayed with their commitment for nearly a decade. One day the father of this family came home with exciting news. His company was sending him to Haiti for a week to take care of some business matters. Because his way would be paid by his company, he would be able to take the family along, provided they traveled in the most economical way possible. The family was thrilled with the prospect of meeting the five children whom they had supported for such a long time. The second day they were in Haiti, the family rented a jeep and drove out to the village where their young friends lived. The Haitian children, who were now teenagers, had been told of the visit and looked forward to the day when they would meet those who had done so much for them. The American family traveled for hours, but their tiredness did not detract from the joy they experienced when they arrived at their destination. The five young people whom they had supported stood waiting in front of their school. They had been there since the early morning, waiting to meet their American friends. As soon as the jeep stopped in front of the school, the five Haitian teenagers ran to it with happy excitement. The two American children bounced out of the jeep and into their arms, and there followed an hour or so of glorious hugging. Despite the language barrier, these young people communicated their affection for each other. At the end of that special day there was an unplanned ceremony in which the Haitian children gave their American friends Christmas ornaments they had fashioned out of twigs and sisal. After a long and affectionate good-bye, the Americans got back into their jeep to return to Port-au-Prince. On the way to the capitol city, the two children sat in pensive silence. Their silence seemed so strange and puzzling that their father asked what was wrong. “Oh, nothing,” answered his daughter, “I was just thinking that there is nothing we could have done with our money over the last ten years that would have made us happier than we are right now.”
Brothers and sisters, we are all aware that the subtle temptation of materialism is strong. But there is hope… Grace is stronger! Jesus in so many words and stories tells us that we are ultimately responsible for what we have done with what we have been given. I know you join me in the hope that our eventual legacies will be found rich, not so much in possessions, but toward God.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
What is your most treasured possession? Consider why it brings you joy, and offer gratitude for life’s small delights. Then contemplate what it is that you truly need to be content.
In Matthew 6:19-20 we find a similar admonition from Jesus, his familiar teaching about storing up treasures in heaven rather than on earth. Ask God for a mind and heart of discernment.
During this unsettling time, some persons’ financial “barns” are being unexpectedly and frighteningly depleted, while others’ are less threatened or even surprisingly growing (…grocers, manufacturers of in-demand items, delivery services, etc.) How might we as individuals, as the church, and as the larger community intentionally respond to the many needs with the heart of God?
Two Guides for Prayer:
Perhaps you can bring to mind the movie by Steven Spielberg, or even watch it on Netflix. As you may recall, at the outset of World War II, Oskar Schindler, a Moravian German, went to Warsaw to make a fortune. And that he did, by bribery and a form of slavery; he bribed German officials in order to secure cheap labor for his factory. That labor came in the form of Polish Jews who had been captured by the Nazis. However, as the story proceeds, Schindler’s heart is changed. He moves from being an industrialist governed by greed to a humanitarian who uses his wealth to save a people. At the end of the movie there is the most poignant scene where the Jewish survivors bid goodbye to Schindler as he prepares to flee the oncoming Russian army. They give him a gift – a ring that is inscribed in Hebrew, וכל המקיים נפש אחת מעלין עלכאילו קיים עולם מלא, Whoever saves one life saves the world entirely.
Robert Burns, from “A Winter’s Night”
“But deep this truth impress’d my mind: Thro’ all His works abroad, The heart benevolent and kind The most resembles God.”