Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – August 4th, 2019

Luke 12:13-21 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

The Parable of the Rich Fool

13 One of the multitude said to him, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And 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; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

Spoiler alert: This is not going to be a sermon about money. It’s about something much more important.

Nonetheless, over the course of the last twenty centuries, I imagine that there have been thousands of sermons preached on this Gospel text, each one with the same theme: Money is bad.

Martin Hengel, in his little book Property and Riches in the Early Church, argues that early Christians were all pretty much united in the belief that riches were an acid that dissolved the soul. He quotes the greatest preacher of early Christianity, John Chrysostom, who wrote of today’s lesson: “[O]bserve, that concerning things that are common there is no contention, but all is peaceable. But when one attempts to possess himself of anything, to make it his own, then contention is introduced, as if nature herself were indignant, that when God brings us together in every way, we are eager to divide and separate ourselves by appropriating things, and by using those cold words ‘mine’ and ‘thine.’ Then there is contention and uneasiness. But where this is not, no strife or contention is bred. This state therefore is rather our inheritance, and more agreeable to nature.”[1]

I should mention here that, with the notable exception of the rich women who attended Jesus and his disciples and saw to their needs, for which we owe an incalculable debt of gratitude, for the most part early Christians were the “have-nots” of their day. That alone would seem to have predisposed them to a certain degree of suspicion, if not outright hostility, to riches. As well, in the first century A.D., at the time of Jesus’ ministry and the birth of the early church, Palestine was full of sharp differences that broke along political, social, and religious lines. The majority of society was composed of a great underclass, whose members couldn’t help but view the excesses of their supposed “betters” with deep resentment. Pontius Pilate, for example, was noted for his exceptional greed and cruelty. He was so cruel, in fact, that after he ordered the bloody repression of messianic disturbances in Samaria, he was dismissed and recalled to Rome in 37 A.D. When your Roman bosses think you’re too cruel, that is definitely a condemnation!

In addition to Pilate, rabbinic accounts from the time tells of the avarice and despotism of the leading Jewish high-priestly families, chief among whom was the house of Annas: “This family used their privileged position to exploit those who came to Jerusalem on pilgrimage at festival times and to oppress the more humble ministers of the temple; they often worked hand in hand with the Roman prefects.”[2]

And Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, says: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matt. 6:33). In other words, “don’t put the cart before the horse.” “[T]he immanence of the kingdom of God demands freedom over possessions, complete trust in the goodness and providence of the heavenly Father (Matt. 6.25-34 = Luke 12.22-32). Service of God and service of mammon are mutually exclusive:

No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and mammon (Luke 16.13 = Matt.6.24).”[3]

The admonition is clear: Set your priorities on God’s kingdom, and the matters of the earthly realm will sort themselves out.

And that is really the clue for us today. Riches, money, possessions are simply commodities, tools, means to an end. They become a trap, like they did for that farmer, only when they become our masters, instead of our servants.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said the following when preaching on this same parable:

King said: “There is nothing in that parable to indicate that this man was dishonest and that he made his money through conniving and exploitative methods.” That’s not why Jesus called him a fool. This man was, as far as we know, a fine, upstanding citizen who made his way honestly in the world. He was, in fact, probably just the kind of man we want our sons to become and our daughters to marry.

But then King said this:  “The other day in Atlanta, the wife of a man had an automobile accident. He received a call that the accident had taken place on the expressway. The first question he asked when he received the call: ‘How much damage did it do to my Cadillac?’ He never asked how his wife was doing. Now that man was a fool, because he had allowed an automobile to become more significant than a person. He wasn’t a fool because he had a Cadillac, he was a fool because he worshiped his Cadillac. He allowed his automobile to become more important than God.” (from Rev. Danny Bradford’s sermon, “Rich Toward God”)

The farmer is a fool not because he is wealthy or even because he saves for the future, but because he lives only for himself, and because he believes that he can secure his life completely on his own.

He says: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” “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’” (12:17-19). Do you detect a note of arrogance here? There’s nobody else in his conversation, no mention of a wife or of children, not a word of thanks or appreciation to his workers who have toiled under the hot sun, day after day, to sow the seed, and weed, and winnow, and harvest. There’s no recognition of anyone beyond himself. Worst of all, he expresses no gratitude toward God for his abundance. He takes God and all the world for granted.

That is the real message of today’s parable. The point Jesus makes is not that it’s automatically bad to have wealth or possessions. What’s bad, again, is that we so often allow them to own us rather than the reverse. This farmer’s possessions had come to possess him. He’s left muttering to himself, because there’s no one else in his world. He has condemned himself to live a prison totally of his own creation. How sad. How tragically sad.

In the end, he discovers that all of his work will be for nothing – his life is going to end that very night, and everything that he has spent his life accumulating will be given to someone else whom he has not chosen.

Although the example in the lesson focuses on wealth and possessions, anything that winds up owning us – our work, for example, or even our recreational pursuits – anything that causes us to skew our priorities is what’s meant by this story.

This parable is really about gratitude and community.

First, gratitude. Nothing about this farmer, not his words, not his lifestyle, not his attitude, showed the slightest recognition of gratitude. In his world, there was no room for it. And, if he thought of God at all, it probably was in the context of hoping that God would  just leave him alone. His soul wound up as shriveled as a prune. He couldn’t have been a happy man.

In contrast to the farmer in today’s Gospel lesson, listen to a story of Honi the traveler, a character all Jewish children are told about –

One day Honi met an old man planting tiny fruit trees. He asked the old man, “When will the trees bear fruit?”

“Probably years after I am dead,” the old man replied.

Honi said, “Then why plant them, then, if you’ll never eat their fruit?”

The old man replied, “I didn’t find a world without trees when I was born, so I plant them for others, as they did for me.”

Gratitude never goes out of style.

Secondly, this parable is also about community. It might seem odd to say this, since this farmer had no one but himself and was apparently part of no community at all.

But that’s exactly the point. He had cut himself off from any and all relationships. His deliberate choice condemned him to a life of loneliness and isolation. He never realized that his barns of grain had become his owners rather than his possessions. Living in community with others had become an impossibility for him, and sadly, he didn’t even realize it.

Community is what makes us human. As John Donne wrote so many centuries ago, “no man is an island.” We are all interdependent. There’s no such thing as a totally self-sufficient person, and there never was. Even that proud, narcissistic farmer had workers to sow his seed, reap his harvest, bring in his grain, and build his barns. He had a ready-made community right under his nose, and he refused to even acknowledge it, much less be part of it.

Being autonomous is a fine thing, but individualism has its limits. God brings us together here, week after week, as a community. This is where we have the opportunity to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, RSV). Christianity is a religion of community. This has been true since the earliest days, when followers of The Way met together – often in secret – in homes, in meadows, in desert caves, and in catacombs to worship and break bread with each other. As Jesus himself said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20, KJV). It’s only in community, as Prof. David Lose says, that we find “sustenance and comfort and help and hope”[4]; it’s only in a community like St. John’s where we can band together to do the work Jesus gives us to do, and find the strength with and through each other to do it.

You can be a Christian individual, but you can’t be an individual Christian. No matter how many times you talk to God out there in the woods, or see God in the sunrise, eventually, sooner or later, you have to come back into the fold, you have to quench your thirst at the well of the Water of Life. It’s here – not out there – where we most directly experience life with God, and we do it with others. You can’t go it alone. You have to show up. You have to be counted.

When we let a false sense of security keep us home and lull us into thinking that our isolation is actually “peace, perfect peace,” and that nothing is required of us, we delude ourselves. We become exactly the same kind of fool that the farmer was.

So, today, let’s decide not to be fools!

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

[1] Chrysostom, John, quoted in Hengel, Martin, Property and Riches in the Early Church: Aspects of a Social History of Early Christianity, p. 2

[2] Hengel, p. 23

[3] Ibid, p. 24