There’s nothing worse than a family arguing over a loved one’s estate. There’s something about money and possessions that bring out the worst in people. I have seen estranged family members who haven’t spoken for years. Yet they suddenly appear at the funeral home, ready to receive what is “rightfully theirs.” Before gay marriage was legal, I’ve known people who lost their partners and were not only excluded from the funeral. The in-laws also swooped in and took nearly everything the couple owned. I’ve watched brother and sisters nearly come to blows over who was going to inherit grandma’s china or grandpa’s coin collection.
Make no mistake about it, there’s nothing worse than a family arguing over a loved one’s estate. There’s something about money and possessions that bring out the worst in people. Even those who consider themselves to be” good little Christians,” cvan begin to act like sharks at a feeding frenzy when money is involved!
This is Luke’s context for our gospel lesson where someone in the crowd asks Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Obviously there is a squabble over the recently departed’s estate, This unidentified stranger wants Jesus to settle it. Thankfully, Jesus does not take the bait! He replies, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” This is a polite way of saying, “I wouldn’t touch your request with a ten foot pole! I’m not getting in the middle of your family drama. Your family will have to sort this out for themselves.”
Then Jesus said, “Take care! “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” I’m sure that most people in the crowd assumed Jesus was saying this to the man with the inheritance squabble and not to them. But we know Jesus. He never lets anyone off the hook, including us. And so, he does what he often does in order to get everyone’s attention. He tells them a story:
“Listen up. I have a story for you! The land of a rich man produced abundantly. He was blessed by God beyond his wildest expectations. And he says to himself, ‘Hmmm, what should I do with all of this bounty? My barns aren’t big enough to hold it all. I’m sure someone will steal it from me, if I leave this harvest out in the open. Oh, I know what I’ll do. I’ll pull down my barns and build bigger ones! They will have strong doors with big padlocks . Then I can sit back and relax. I won’t have a care in the world. All of my possession will be safe and secure. I can enjoy an early retirement and live comfortably in my old age.”
God says to him, “You idiot! You’re going to be dead before the sun goes down. You’re going to have a massive coronary, and your greedy family is going to swoop in and take everything! Surprise!'”
Then Jesus ended his story by telling the crowd “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God. Go home and think about what this means!”
Today, Jesus is asking us to think about what this means as well: “If one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” does this mean that all possession are bad? Do we have to sell everything we own and give the money to the poor? Or the church? Can’t we keep a few things and not be thought of as greedy or selfish? And, while we’re on the subject, what exactly does it look like to be “rich toward God?”
Friends in Christ, the biggest mistake we make in dealing with this parable is thinking it doesn’t apply to us. We hear the opening line “The land of a rich man produced abundantly,” And right away, we think Jesus is talking about someone else.
Yet, according to BBC News, in 2012, the total value of world income was close to $70 trillion per year, and there are seven billion people in the world.—So the average income is heading toward $10,000 per person per year. But this in not an accurate statistic because of a number of factors including the purchasing power of a dollar in any given country. We are also including billionaires and millionaires in this statistic so it skews the results since a small number of people are making an obscene amount of money, while a larger percentage are below the poverty line.
The other statistic we need to keep in mind is that more than a third of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, which means $730 a year. When we consider these adjustments
to the average world income, it’s clear that we in America are rich.
In fact, we are ranked as #4 on a Wikipedia list that measures a country’s average wage. The only ones who beat us are Luxembourg, Switzerland and Ireland. So let us consider ourselves to be included in this parable! Let’s walk in the shoes of the rich man, because according to at least 1/3 of the world’s population, we are very rich indeed.
This wealthy individual has an amazing harvest. He has more crops than he knows what to do with! But I would argue that his wealth is not the real problem in this parable. The problem is that he thinks about no one other than himself. He is under the false impression that material goods prove us with safety and security. So he builds bigger barns. He hoards his wealth thinking it will keep him safe and secure. He’s ready to relax, party hard, and enjoy the fruits of his labors.
The folly of all of this is that the man dies before the sun goes down! The parable hints that he is all alone when he dies, since he only thought of himself and no one else. The most damning evidence of this is that he has to carry on a conversation with himself since there is no one else around to hear it! It’s a sad, worst case scenario.
But I have to tell you, I saw a similar situation last week on HGTV’s House Hunters International! The man in question had a wife and two kids, so he wasn’t completely alone. But they were trying to buy an island. Yes, that’s what I said a private island! It was off the cost of Belize which, for the geographically challenged, borders Mexico and Guatemala.
This island was NOT going to be their primary residence. It was their VACATION HOME!!! The most ridiculous suggestion the realtor told them was they could build the house on stilts so that it hovered over the shallow water on the small bay of the island.
I found myself screaming at the TV, “You’ve got to be kidding me! One good tropical storm or a small hurricane would not only wipe out your house but it would wipe your family as well! I’m sure you want to build this on a private island so that you don’t have to interact too much with the poor people who live on the mainland.”
The closing scene is a barbecue they’re having with family and friends on their newly purchase island, which, of course, was being catered by one of the locals from mainland Belize!” I’m beginning to think that watching House Hunters International is not good for my emotional or spiritual well-being. Maybe I should stick with action films instead! The whole scenario made me think of the rich man in today’s parable. I’m sure you would agree that both of these men are acting very foolishly indeed.
But upon further reflection, I also came to the realization, that we are not off the hook in this parable, either. We may not be able to afford our own private island, or build bigger barns, but some of us have storage units because we cannot fit all of our stuff into our houses. Some of us have boxes in our attics and basements we haven’t opened in years. We have no earthly idea what’s in them. Some of us have collection of things we keep dusting off every time we clean but we rarely look at or appreciate them.
I say all of this, not to scold you. I say all of this because we are all the rich man in the parable whether we care to admit it or not. That being said, the issue Jesus is trying to address is not the rich man’s wealth, it’s his attitude toward it. His attitude is abundantly clear: He is only thinking of himself. It never dawned on him to share his amazing harvest with those in his community who were poor and hungry. It never dawned on him that everything we have is a gift from God. We are not supposed to be hoarders of God’s gifts, we are supposed to be stewards of them.
Jesus is telling us that it is very easy to be possessed by our possessions. Therefore, we need to “”Take care!” and “Be on your guard” because “Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” The sooner we learn this lesson, the better.
Karoline Lewis, preaching professor at Trinity Seminary, put it this way: “Notice that for the man in the story, determination of what matters has everything to do with himself and absolutely nothing to do with anyone else. There’s the crux of the issue. Our criterion for possessions, in the end, should not be about what we amass, but what we have that has meaning…and meaning should be determined by the presence of someone else.”
She goes on further to say, “What you have, what you keep, what defines you materially, is a measure of your self and who God asks you to be…It’s not at all easy. How do you choose what to keep, what to give up? And, what are the criteria? A family connection? A special memory? Or, do you just keep it all, and forever, and let others figure it out? The rub about this story from Luke is that we do not think of our possessions as greed, but as meaningful. They matter. Deeply.”
Friends in Christ, perhaps what Jesus is calling us to do is take a “possessions inventory” from time to time. We need to ask ourselves, “Am I being a good steward of this, or do I need to gift it to someone else?” Gary & I did this about two months ago when we staged an intervention on our basement. We told our neighbors that if they didn’t see us in a day or two to call the paramedics! We literally went through every item in that basement. We sorted through boxes that hadn’t been opened in years. We kept what was precious or useful to us. Some things we took pictures of and posted on Facebook. By the end of the day these items all had good homes. Above all, we asked ourselves if there was any good reason why we were holding onto a particular item. If there wasn’t we tried to give it away, recycle it, or some things went directly into the trash.
I share this with you because it’s so easy to be possessed by our possessions. I believe Jesus wants us to use our wealth not only to bless ourselves and our families, but to bless and benefit others, especially the poor and needly. May this parable, cause us to pause this week and think about the wonderful harvest of wealth and material resources God has given every one of us. May we be good stewards of these things and see them as an opportunity to bless others in the name of Christ. AMEN
Copyright ©2016 by David Eck