The Land of the Rich Man Produced Abundantly…

Following charges of insider trading being brought against a large hedge fund company and some of its employees the chatter on the financial blogs this week was deafening.  Small and medium sized manufacturers and small investors decried what they called crony capitalism.  Some doubted the offenders would get jail time and were livid over the multi-billionaire owner not being charged.  The big issue for some was the lack of morality in contemporary economics.  Others argued that the financial markets couldn’t be considered moral or immoral, they are amoral.  Adam Smith argued the philosophical notion that self-interest would lead to moral behavior as perhaps a replacement for Christian morality. Was he right?

In our Gospel reading of today, when Jesus was asked to intervene in a family squabble over the distribution of an estate he carefully avoided taking a position but he didn’t miss a teachable moment.

Luke 12:13-21

13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And 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.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’18Then 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. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But 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?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

By this time in his ministry, Jesus had developed a reputation as one who helped others. Luke says that he not only healed people but he went around teaching and proclaiming the kingdom of God. Reports of his activity circulated as early as Luke 4.  People came to Jesus in droves This 12th Chapter of Luke begins saying that many thousands had gathered around him. But the motivations with which they came were probably as numerous as the needs they felt. Some came out of desperation, hoping for a cure for their servant or child. Some came to challenge him or justify themselves. Others came to Jesus with a complaint. It’s not that hard to imagine someone who felt that an injustice was being done would try to get Jesus to intervene on their behalf.

Jesus’ parable doesn’t warn against money, wealth, or material abundance. He warns against greed, about the insatiable feeling of never having enough. He said: “watch and be on your guard against excess”. The word Luke uses is the same word Plato uses to describe people that are gorging themselves and living in excess. The farmer’s problem isn’t that he’s had a great harvest, or that he’s rich, or that he wants to plan for the future. The farmer’s problem is that his good fortune has distorted his vision so that everything he sees starts and ends with himself.

Abundance brings problems. We often think that if we just had a little more, or if we were “swamped” with business, that all would be well with us. The story gives no indication that before the outstanding harvest the man was a greedy person.  But the presence of abundance made him a greedy person. Perhaps that is the way for us. Abundance may “trigger” in us the “greed gene,” a gene that is, for the most part, dormant and should remain dormant, but which can be triggered by overexposure to too much abundance. In a TED talk  (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design)  Jim Fallon, a neuroscientist, spoke about his discovery of a psychopathic killer gene, that interestingly enough he learned that he carried himself.  He says that its lies dormant in a child unless something truly traumatic happens.  We’ve seen this in our own family.  So maybe this notion of abundance triggering the greed gene isn’t all that unrealistic.

So, triggered by his newly experienced affluence, the farmer decides to build bigger barns. Again, this sounds like a reasonable course of action. But then the text says that the man decided to gather into these new barns not just the grain from the harvest but “my goods” (v. 18). He is now calculating how to maximize his wealth. But in Jesus’ parable, it is as if he is killing his soul by the expansion project.

Listen again to the conversation he has with, not a spouse or friend or parent or neighbor, but only with himself: “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.’”

Do you see what I mean? It is an absolutely egocentric conversation, even including a conversation with himself inside the conversation he is already having with himself! This is why he is a fool. He has fallen prey to the notion that life, and particularly the good life, consists of possessions, precisely the thing Jesus warns against.

Of what, then, does the good life consist? Read the rest of what Jesus says across the gospels and it becomes pretty clear: relationships — relationships with each other and with God. And, as you inevitably discover while reading, these two can’t really be separated. Hence Jesus tells stories like the parable of the Good Samaritan that invite us to think more broadly about who is our neighbor.  He preaches sermons that extol caring for the poor, loving our enemies, and doing good for those in need. Not once does Jesus lift up setting up a retirement account or securing a higher-paying job as part of seeking the kingdom of God.

Which doesn’t mean these things are bad. Really. Money can do lots of wonderful things — it can provide for our families, it can be given to others in need, it can be used to create jobs and promote the general welfare, and it can make possible a more comfortable life. It just can’t produce the kind of full and abundant life that each of us seeks and that Jesus promises. So it’s not about the money, it’s about our attitude towards the money and those around us.

Truth be told, I think most of know and believe that what Jesus says is true. We know that money can’t buy happiness. The thing is, even though we know this, most of us struggle to live this way. That is, most of us are seduced by the same message that captures the soul of the farmer in Jesus’ parable.

Which isn’t really all that surprising. Our culture inundates us with the message the farmer bought into. Advertisements are designed to exploit our insecurities. Inadequacy marketing identifies and exaggerates something about which we feel insecure — our breath, our body, our status, etc. — then it offers us something to buy — mouthwash, a weight loss program, a bigger car, etc. — that will remedy our concern and make us acceptable again.

What is the one distinct advantage that our addiction to affluence has over the abundant life Jesus extols: it is immediately tangible. Relationships, community, purpose — the kinds of things that Jesus invites us to embrace and strive for — are much harder to lay our hands on. We know what a good relationship feels like, but it’s hard to point to or produce on a moment’s notice. And we know that wonderful feeling of being accepted into a community, but it’s not like you can have Fed-Ex deliver it to your front door.

So we substitute material goods for immaterial ones because, well, they’re right there in front of us and we’ve got a whole culture telling us that this is the best there is.

All this teaching suggests the importance of proper priorities regarding possessions. They are a stewardship, not to be hoarded selfishly but to be used to benefit those around us. Jesus is not saying possessions are bad, but that the selfish pursuit of them is pointless. When the creation is inverted, the value of possessions is distorted. Those who climb over people or ignore them in the pursuit of possessions will come up empty on the day God sorts out our lives. What a tragic misuse of the gift of resources this man had gained! What could have been an opportunity for generosity and blessing became a stumbling block to his soul.

If we are not going to pursue material things, then how do we deal with our physical needs? You are not going to like Jesus’ answer to this question.  It is really fairly simple but by an large most of us have already rejected it as irresponsible and irrational: “Trust God.” Using creation as the example, Jesus points to the tender care of the heavenly Father and asks people to consider how gentle God is. If God can care for his other creatures, he can care for you.  From the beginning of this longer passage of Luke’s gospel, it’s basic exhortation is Do not worry. Given God’s care, we can be generous with the things God provides. The contrast between Jesus’ attitude here and that of the rich fool could not be greater. Jesus’ concern is with food and clothing (v. 22), the basics of life. His exhortation begins with a call not to worry and he explains his call away from worry by noting that life is more than food or clothing. The deepest dimension of life is relationship with God and with others. In 10:25-28 Jesus made it clear that real life has to do with relationship. Living is more than having; it is being in relationship with God and relating well to others. Placing concern for our daily needs in God’s hands is part of what it means to have relationship with God.

We can begin to see why Jesus warns his disciples, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (6:20b, 24).  The image which Jesus paints in his parables about the use of money and our attitudes toward possessions is complex. Jesus does not glorify poverty; it brings “evil things”—illness and perpetual hunger.  So having wealth is good and enables good living. But wealth itself is transitory. What the farmer assumes he is putting away for a comfortable future, on the night he dies, ends up going to others. The point is clear: “money, possessions, and the good life that they bring with them are at best ephemeral in character and in the end completely untrustworthy.”  Affluence can obscure our moral vision.  The possessions of the rich farmer have closed his eyes to the world around him and obscured his vision of people in need. Wealth creates chasms between people. The inability to see others becomes an impassable barrier that separates people one from another and prohibits meaningful interaction, but most of all Jesus said: 21”So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”.

Following charges of insider trading being brought against a large hedge fund company and some of its employees the chatter on the financial blogs this week was deafening.  Small and medium sized manufacturers and small investors decried what they called crony capitalism.  Some doubted the offenders would get jail time and were livid over the multi-billionaire owner not being charged.  The big issue for some was the lack of morality in contemporary economics.  Others argued that the financial markets couldn’t be considered moral or immoral, they are amoral.  Adam Smith argued the philosophical notion that self-interest would lead to moral behavior as perhaps a replacement for Christian morality. Was he right?

In our Gospel reading of today, when Jesus was asked to intervene in a family squabble over the distribution of an estate he carefully avoided taking a position but he didn’t miss a teachable moment.

Luke 12:13-21

13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And 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.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’18Then 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. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But 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?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

By this time in his ministry, Jesus had developed a reputation as one who helped others. Luke says that he not only healed people but he went around teaching and proclaiming the kingdom of God. Reports of his activity circulated as early as Luke 4.  People came to Jesus in droves This 12th Chapter of Luke begins saying that many thousands had gathered around him. But the motivations with which they came were probably as numerous as the needs they felt. Some came out of desperation, hoping for a cure for their servant or child. Some came to challenge him or justify themselves. Others came to Jesus with a complaint. It’s not that hard to imagine someone who felt that an injustice was being done would try to get Jesus to intervene on their behalf.

Jesus’ parable doesn’t warn against money, wealth, or material abundance. He warns against greed, about the insatiable feeling of never having enough. He said: “watch and be on your guard against excess”. The word Luke uses is the same word Plato uses to describe people that are gorging themselves and living in excess. The farmer’s problem isn’t that he’s had a great harvest, or that he’s rich, or that he wants to plan for the future. The farmer’s problem is that his good fortune has distorted his vision so that everything he sees starts and ends with himself.

Abundance brings problems. We often think that if we just had a little more, or if we were “swamped” with business, that all would be well with us. The story gives no indication that before the outstanding harvest the man was a greedy person.  But the presence of abundance made him a greedy person. Perhaps that is the way for us. Abundance may “trigger” in us the “greed gene,” a gene that is, for the most part, dormant and should remain dormant, but which can be triggered by overexposure to too much abundance. In a TED talk  (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design)  Jim Fallon, a neuroscientist, spoke about his discovery of a psychopathic killer gene, that interestingly enough he learned that he carried himself.  He says that its lies dormant in a child unless something truly traumatic happens.  We’ve seen this in our own family.  So maybe this notion of abundance triggering the greed gene isn’t all that unrealistic.

So, triggered by his newly experienced affluence, the farmer decides to build bigger barns. Again, this sounds like a reasonable course of action. But then the text says that the man decided to gather into these new barns not just the grain from the harvest but “my goods” (v. 18). He is now calculating how to maximize his wealth. But in Jesus’ parable, it is as if he is killing his soul by the expansion project.

Listen again to the conversation he has with, not a spouse or friend or parent or neighbor, but only with himself: “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.’”

Do you see what I mean? It is an absolutely egocentric conversation, even including a conversation with himself inside the conversation he is already having with himself! This is why he is a fool. He has fallen prey to the notion that life, and particularly the good life, consists of possessions, precisely the thing Jesus warns against.

Of what, then, does the good life consist? Read the rest of what Jesus says across the gospels and it becomes pretty clear: relationships — relationships with each other and with God. And, as you inevitably discover while reading, these two can’t really be separated. Hence Jesus tells stories like the parable of the Good Samaritan that invite us to think more broadly about who is our neighbor.  He preaches sermons that extol caring for the poor, loving our enemies, and doing good for those in need. Not once does Jesus lift up setting up a retirement account or securing a higher-paying job as part of seeking the kingdom of God.

Which doesn’t mean these things are bad. Really. Money can do lots of wonderful things — it can provide for our families, it can be given to others in need, it can be used to create jobs and promote the general welfare, and it can make possible a more comfortable life. It just can’t produce the kind of full and abundant life that each of us seeks and that Jesus promises. So it’s not about the money, it’s about our attitude towards the money and those around us.

Truth be told, I think most of know and believe that what Jesus says is true. We know that money can’t buy happiness. The thing is, even though we know this, most of us struggle to live this way. That is, most of us are seduced by the same message that captures the soul of the farmer in Jesus’ parable.

Which isn’t really all that surprising. Our culture inundates us with the message the farmer bought into. Advertisements are designed to exploit our insecurities. Inadequacy marketing identifies and exaggerates something about which we feel insecure — our breath, our body, our status, etc. — then it offers us something to buy — mouthwash, a weight loss program, a bigger car, etc. — that will remedy our concern and make us acceptable again.

What is the one distinct advantage that our addiction to affluence has over the abundant life Jesus extols: it is immediately tangible. Relationships, community, purpose — the kinds of things that Jesus invites us to embrace and strive for — are much harder to lay our hands on. We know what a good relationship feels like, but it’s hard to point to or produce on a moment’s notice. And we know that wonderful feeling of being accepted into a community, but it’s not like you can have Fed-Ex deliver it to your front door.

So we substitute material goods for immaterial ones because, well, they’re right there in front of us and we’ve got a whole culture telling us that this is the best there is.

All this teaching suggests the importance of proper priorities regarding possessions. They are a stewardship, not to be hoarded selfishly but to be used to benefit those around us. Jesus is not saying possessions are bad, but that the selfish pursuit of them is pointless. When the creation is inverted, the value of possessions is distorted. Those who climb over people or ignore them in the pursuit of possessions will come up empty on the day God sorts out our lives. What a tragic misuse of the gift of resources this man had gained! What could have been an opportunity for generosity and blessing became a stumbling block to his soul.

If we are not going to pursue material things, then how do we deal with our physical needs? You are not going to like Jesus’ answer to this question.  It is really fairly simple but by an large most of us have already rejected it as irresponsible and irrational: “Trust God.” Using creation as the example, Jesus points to the tender care of the heavenly Father and asks people to consider how gentle God is. If God can care for his other creatures, he can care for you.  From the beginning of this longer passage of Luke’s gospel, it’s basic exhortation is Do not worry. Given God’s care, we can be generous with the things God provides. The contrast between Jesus’ attitude here and that of the rich fool could not be greater. Jesus’ concern is with food and clothing (v. 22), the basics of life. His exhortation begins with a call not to worry and he explains his call away from worry by noting that life is more than food or clothing. The deepest dimension of life is relationship with God and with others. In 10:25-28 Jesus made it clear that real life has to do with relationship. Living is more than having; it is being in relationship with God and relating well to others. Placing concern for our daily needs in God’s hands is part of what it means to have relationship with God.

We can begin to see why Jesus warns his disciples, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (6:20b, 24).  The image which Jesus paints in his parables about the use of money and our attitudes toward possessions is complex. Jesus does not glorify poverty; it brings “evil things”—illness and perpetual hunger.  So having wealth is good and enables good living. But wealth itself is transitory. What the farmer assumes he is putting away for a comfortable future, on the night he dies, ends up going to others. The point is clear: “money, possessions, and the good life that they bring with them are at best ephemeral in character and in the end completely untrustworthy.”  Affluence can obscure our moral vision.  The possessions of the rich farmer have closed his eyes to the world around him and obscured his vision of people in need. Wealth creates chasms between people. The inability to see others becomes an impassable barrier that separates people one from another and prohibits meaningful interaction, but most of all Jesus said: 21”So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”.

 

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