“Storing Up Treasures”, Colchester Federated Church, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Luke 12:13-21) August 4, 2019

Today we heard the “Parable of the Rich Fool”/the “Warning against greed” found in Luke’s Gospel.  It’s a parable that’s only found in the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Thomas (should this ever come up at trivia night.)  So it may not be that familiar to us.  Jesus tells this parable in response to someone in the crowd asking Jesus to tell that person’s brother that he must divide the family inheritance with them.  Jesus answers that request by asking who set him to be a judge or arbitrator over these folks?  Jesus says, “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”[1]  To further clarify his teaching, Jesus launches into the Parable of the Rich Fool.

In the story there’s a rich man who has land that’s producing abundantly during a time of harvest.  The man wonders to himself what he should do about this abundance because now he doesn’t have anywhere to store all these crops.  Then the rich man says to himself that he will pull down his barns and build larger ones, and in those larger barns he will store all his grain and goods.  And the man will say to himself, “You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years.  Take it easy!  Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.”[2]  Though God ends up saying to the man in this parable (this parable that Jesus told the crowd that day in response to a family dispute about inheritance), “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”[3]  Jesus concludes by saying that this is how it will be for those who store up all sorts of treasures for themselves but aren’t rich toward God.

This isn’t exactly an easy parable to interpret.  Because it seems that the rich man doesn’t act in totally egregious and selfish ways.  In many ways, he’s being responsible with his land and resources.  This is someone who seems to work hard and have land that produces in abundance when it comes time to harvest the crops that he’s planted.  It takes hard work to farm and have one’s land yield an abundance of crops in the first place.  The man is working (probably with other folks) and planning for the future that is yet to be.  It’s wonderful that he has an abundance of crops, but then the question becomes where he will store these crops.  He’s working, planning, and saving for the future—seeking to protect his belongings.  In so doing, he says to himself that he has goods stored up that will last him for many years, so he can take it easy—eating, drinking, and being merry.

This way of life seems better than some alternatives that we can easily imagine.  This is a man who is working, planning, and saving.  He could have been reckless with his resources, wasting them in “dissolute living” like the younger brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  He could have not cared about anyone who may depend on him and just not saved at all for the future, living for the moment with no thought to times that could get harder (future famines for instance when the land wouldn’t be producing abundantly through no fault of his own.)  The rich man also could have just been a little lazy and not worked hard at all.  He could have let that land just lie fallow and produce nothing for him or for anybody else for that matter.  Thus, the alternative ways could have been wasting resources, failing to plan for the future, and simple laziness.  The rich man doesn’t do any of those things.

So why is Jesus so hard on him—hard enough to refer to him as the Rich Fool?  It’s not because he lives a life of hard work and having good common sense.  It’s because the man appears to be consumed by his possessions.  The very meaning and value of his life depends on those possessions.  New Testament Professor Arland Hultgren points out, “The man and his possessions are so intimately tied together that they are inseparable.  In English translation the personal pronoun ‘I’ shows up six times and the possessive ‘my’ five times (‘my crops,’ ‘my barns,’ ‘my grain,’ ‘my goods,’ and ‘my soul’) in the six verses of the parable.”[4]  The rich fool’s identity is so tied up with the things he owns (and possibly his status and achievements) and he’s driven by acquiring those possessions, status, and achievements to the exclusion of other pursuits.

Because of that, the rich fool can easily end up not paying attention to the calls of God and the needs of his neighbor.  He’s too busy paying attention to gaining and maintaining his crops, barns, grains, goods, and even his soul.  He’s placing all his trust and faith in those temporary possessions as opposed to the permanent grace of God.  And we can remember that Jesus ended the parable by comparing a person who stores up treasures for themselves vs. someone who is rich toward God.  A person who doesn’t just turn inward but looks out toward God’s good world and fellow children of God.

Jesus is reminding us in this story that it’s foolish to invest everything we have and everything we are in material possessions.  Because material possessions don’t last and ultimately don’t matter as much as we may think that they do.  Ironically (given the character in our parable) it was the farmer (Dale) who I worked for every summer in high school and college and even into seminary who used to question people’s obsession with money and possessions.  He would say to me, “What are people gonna do with all that money when they die?  Eat it?”  And he would just laugh and laugh at how mixed up he felt our priorities were as a society.

There’s wisdom in questioning what we ultimately value especially when it comes to possessions.  Because as soon as we drive our brand new car off the lot at the dealership it loses value.  I bought a brand new smart phone (that I still have!) and accidentally dropped it on a concrete sidewalk on the third day it was mine and cracked the screen something awful.  There went the value of my new fancy smart phone.  The latest and greatest technological devices we buy are soon outdated or even obsolete.  A fashion trend begins (and ends) and begins again.  Though sometimes we’ll find ourselves simply out of style. Investing everything we have and everything we are in material possessions (or even fads and trends) can be quite misguided and it ends up costing us dearly in the end.

Years ago by now Mitch Albom wrote the bestselling book Tuesdays with Morrie where he reconnected with his old sociology professor who was suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  In that book, Mitch spent quality time with Morrie reflecting on life and the lessons he learned along the way and was still learning as he lay dying.  At one point Morrie reflects on wealth, relating, “We’ve got a sort of brainwashing going on in our country . . . Do you know how they brainwash people?  They repeat something over and over.  And that’s what we do in this country.  Owning things is good.  More money is good.  More property is good.  More commercialism is good.  More is good.  More is good.  We repeat it—and have it repeated to us—over and over until nobody bothers to even think otherwise.  The average person is so fogged up by all of this, he has no perspective on what’s really important anymore . . . You can’t substitute material things for love or for gentleness or for tenderness or for a sense of comradeship.  Money is not a substitute for tenderness, and power is not a substitute for tenderness.  I can tell you, as I’m sitting here dying, when you most need it, neither money nor power will give you the feeling you’re looking for, no matter how much of them you have.”[5]

Jesus doesn’t have many positive things to say about wealth in the Gospels (even though passages like this one would be news to certain Prosperity Gospel preachers who think that God wants everyone to be wealthy and that’s a sign that you’ve somehow gained God’s favor.)  It sometimes makes ministers a little leery to point out Jesus’ warnings about wealth especially if one happens to serve an affluent congregation in an affluent community.  But Jesus isn’t hard on wealthy people because people who are wealthy are automatically bad.  That’s not true at all.  Nor are people who are wealthy automatically good and somehow favored by God over people who are poor.  Jesus questioned the value of wealth and the priorities of wealthy people because wealth can have an affect on people that’s ultimately not healthy and doesn’t lead to empathy.

Because wealth can isolate us from one another and enable us to ignore what’s happening in the world around us.  The rich fool focuses inward as he’s worried about his crops, barns, grain, goods, and soul—talking about his possessions and himself a whole lot more than talking about the need to love God with everything we’ve got, love our neighbors, and love ourselves.  His identity is so tied up in his possessions and Jesus recognized that mindset as a dangerous way to live our lives, not just for our fellow human beings but for the sake of our own souls.  And so we can take to heart Jesus’ final words in this cautionary tale— we can remember Jesus’ call to not hoard things for ourselves and therefore not be rich toward God.  For Jesus himself came that we might have life and have life abundantly.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 12:15, NRSV.
[2] Luke 12:19, CEB.
[3] Luke 12:20, NRSV.
[4] Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, 109.
[5] Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie as quoted by J. Barney Hawkins IV and Ian S. Markham in Words that Listen: A Literary Companion to the Lectionary, Volume 2, 125-126.