Text: Luke 12:13-21
Last weekend about 20 people gathered at the seminary in Elkhart, Indiana to talk about what the church needs to be talking about over the next decade. One of the questions each of us was asked to speak to was What is the church most afraid to talk about? As we went around the circle, the first five answers went something like this: Affluence, wealth, upsetting the seminary donor base, class, how embedded we are in a capitalist system that goes against so many of our values. Do you sense a theme emerging here?
Marriage therapists often comment that typically the most difficult and contentious topic for couples to talk about is not sex, but money – finances.
Lucky for us, the weekend after it was determined that money is not just difficult for couples to talk about, but also the thing that the church is perhaps most afraid to confront, CMC is having a stewardship Sunday in which we talk about that very thing.
Maybe you’ve heard these numbers before, but they bear repeating. Everence, the stewardship agency of Mennonite Church USA, estimates that in the Hebrew prophets and New Testament teachings, there are about 50 references to baptism, 225 references to prayer, 300 to faith, love – 700, and over 2350 references to money and possessions. For Jesus, the only thing he teaches about more than money is the kingdom of God – with these two topics often overlapping. The Bible apparently does not share our present hesitation to address the issue. According to these numbers, for every one sermon about love, there should be three about economic justice and how we manage our finances. I confess to not hitting that ratio, although I’m willing to work on it.
Money is in many ways ethically neutral; having potential for great good or great harm, but the prophets and gospels pay special attention to the seductive power that wealth can play in our lives. For the prophets, the comforts of wealth can make people deaf to the cries of the poor and suffering. The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy that the love of money, not money itself, but the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10). Maybe Jesus spoke about money and wealth so frequently because he saw it as the chief rival to God in matters of devotion, allegiance, and faith. When Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, you cannot serve both God and money, he uses this word for money, Mammon, which is basically a personification of money’s god-like power. You can either serve the life-generating, self-giving, creative force in the universe, God. Or you can serve the ego-centric, self-inflating, ultimately destructive force in the universe, Mammon. You cannot serve them both.
This is not a uniquely Judeo-Christian perspective. Such cautions are present throughout the world’s cultural and religious traditions. EF Shumacher, for example, claims that the aim of Buddhist ecomonic teaching is “to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.” (Cited by Wendell Berry in “Two Economies” essay in What Matters? p. 120)
What’s a little unnerving about all this is that these cautions against greed and the seductions of wealth were in place long before the industrial revolution and the many revolutions since brought into existence the greatest engines of wealth creation the world has ever known. The wealthy of the pre-industrial world would now generally be considered poor by our standards.
This lectionary year features Luke’s gospel, and in Luke 12:13-21, Jesus is confronted with one of the many situations dealing with money matters. In this case, it’s an issue of a family inheritance, which becomes an occasion for parable.
A crowd has been gathering around Jesus, and someone in the crowd speaks out and says to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
The Torah did contain some family inheritance laws and Moses is recorded as having arbitrated similar kinds of disputes. The elder brother was to receive twice the inheritance of all the rest of the siblings, and, in one case, Moses ruled that if there are no brothers in the family, that daughters could receive the inheritance.
The text doesn’t say this, but I wonder if the request to Jesus is coming from a younger brother who has been listening to Jesus’ teachings about just distribution of wealth and thinks things should be split a little more evenly.
Rabbis had the role of interpreting the law, but Jesus declines. He replies, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbiter over you?”
The Gospel of Thomas, which is this remarkable early Christian book discovered in the middle of last century, contains various sayings attributed to Jesus. It includes this slight twist on this story in Luke: “A [person said] to (Jesus), “Tell my brothers to divide my father’s possessions with me.” He said to the person, “Mister, who made me a divider?” He turned to his disciples and said to them, “I’m not a divider, am I?” (Gospel of Thomas, v. 72) And then it moves on to another matter.
Jesus chooses not to play the role of probate judge, but he gladly plays the role of parable-spinner, and, after cautioning about greed, and stating that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, spins out 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?’
The man in the parable has a lot going for him. He’s rich, as Luke says. He has land, the means of production to create more wealth, and he has a particularly good year. The land “produced abundantly,” in the words of Luke. And he’s faced with the kind of problem that most people in the world wouldn’t mind having themselves. He’s got more than he knows what to do with. More than he needs. An abundance. Practically speaking, he’s got more crops than he can fit in his barns. So, what to do?
What he does first, is what many of us do when we’re in a situation when we don’t know what to do, he starts talking to himself. And in consulting with himself, he gives himself what he believes to be a brilliant piece of advice. Build bigger barns for greater storage capacity, take some time off, and enjoy life.
What’s striking to me about this parable up to this point is how inoffensive, tame, and basically logical these actions are. He had a really productive year, he decides to increase his savings account, and he takes an extended vacation to celebrate. It would be one thing if this man decided that he was discontent with the amount of wealth that he had generated and decided he was going to work all the harder the next year to make more – if he had said to his soul, “soul, you had a good year, but it’s not good enough. Next year we’re going to work all the harder and get produce even more.” This is the more likely scenario for our time. Or, maybe like the character of another parable, if he could have gone out and squandered his wealth and ended up destitute. But, instead, as the parable goes, he says to his soul, “soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” It sounds to me more like an early retirement than the actions of a greedy capitalist.
So, where is he going wrong?
After we have been privy to this man’s inner thoughts and wonderings, the parable ends with God getting the final word, and posing a question that does not get answered. “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?’”
We may tend to interpret God’s words as a judgment against the wealthy man’s decisions, but there’s no indication of that in the text. God does not condemn any of his actions. What God is doing, basically, is reminding the man of his mortality, he could die even this very night, and, God is noting that he hasn’t done such a good job of factoring that into his plans for his wealth – “and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
I mentioned a couple weeks ago in the mid-week blog that Wendell Berry is one of favorite writers. In an essay about how the economic practices of one generation affect the next, he reflects briefly on this parable and suggests that this man’s problem is that “he is prepared for a future in which he will be prosperous, not for one in which he will be dead.” (“Two Economies” essay in What Matters? p. 120).
Let me repeat that. Could it be that where this man goes wrong is that he is preparing for a future in which he will be prosperous, rather than for a future in which he will be dead? God always gets the last word, and death always gets the next to last word.
Orienting our economic lives around preparing for a future in which we’re dead doesn’t exactly sound like a joyful undertaking, but it does shift the focus of things. What it does, and what this man in the parable fails to do, is that it decenters wealth from ourselves, and opens up the possibility of thinking generationally about wealth, about well-being, about the kind of world we are helping create while we are alive.
It’s usually not good practice to try and assign characters in Jesus’ parables to actual people, but what if this rich man Jesus tells the parable about was the father of these brothers who ask Jesus to divide the inheritance among them? The father has died unexpectedly, has left them with big barns full of wealth, but has also left them with a spiritual inheritance of not thinking a whole lot beyond one’s self about the uses for that wealth. Jesus refuses to arbitrate their dispute, but he does leave them with a question: This wealth that passes through your life, whose will it be?
There’s one other piece from this parable that might be particularly instructive and especially challenging for us. One of our baptismal vows we make is that we are willing to give and receive counsel from one another in the church. It implies a resistance to individualism and an openness to insights, wisdom, counsel, that comes with being in relationship and accountable to each other in our discipleship. What if giving and receiving counsel also applied to our economic lives?
The person in this parable receives no counsel from anyone. He thinks to himself, he speaks to himself. He has a conversation with his soul and makes his decision based on the best idea he’s able to personally come up with. If you read down through the parable, you see a lot of I’s and my’s, and no We’s and Ours.
So in closing, I offer this alternative parable:
There was once a comfortably middle class woman who got a much bigger end of year bonus than expected. And she thought to herself, “What should I do, I didn’t budget for this. I know what I’ll do, I’ll go to my small group and tell them about the situation, seeking their counsel.” And she said to the group, “Group, I need some counsel.” After some initial hesitation of advising someone else on how to use their money, they started sharing their ideas. Give it all away too Mennonite Central Committee, someone predictably suggested. I have a neighbor, commented another, who just lost their job. Pay off your debts, suggested someone. Pay off my debts, suggested another, and I’ll use the money that would have gone toward monthly payments to save up to pay off someone else’s debts, and ask them to do the same.
I’m not really sure how to end the parable, except to imagine that the more the group gets into the conversation, the more possibilities they discover, the more challenged they are about their own finances, and the more inspired they are to pursue that question together: “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”