Below is an audio link to the sermon by The Rev. Posey Krakowsky on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.
Psalm 107: 1-9, 43
The Parable of the Rich Fool
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And 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.” 16 Then he told them 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?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (235)
What is your identity? How do you define it? When someone says “tell me about yourself?” — where do you start?
Maybe some of you have watched all or part of the recent HBO series named Big Little Lies. If you have, and if you are all caught up, please don’t tell me what happens, because I am not. For those who don’t know it, the show centers on five women living in modern day Monterey, California. Their primary bond is that they all have children in the same grade at a private school. And — as you can intuit from those two descriptors — they are all (except for one) quite, if not very, wealthy.
Early in the current season, Laura Dern, who plays the most wealthy one of the five, discovers that her husband has lost all of their money in a risky business deal. Not only has he lost it, but he is quite likely going to prison as a result. There is a crucial scene where Dern’s character confronts her husband in jail — he in his orange prison jumpsuit, she in her perfectly tailored business suit, expertly coiffed hair, and expensive jewelry. As she listens to her husband’s explanation for how they ended up in this situation, she grows more and more angry. At a certain point, she loses her temper, jabbing one manicured finger hard at the prison glass barrier, launching towards him with a full animal snarl on her face, and shrieking at the top of her lungs: I. WILL. NOT. NOT. BE. RICH!”
Would it surprise you to realize that her wealth is the primary source of her identity? Would it amaze you to realize that even the prospect of no longer being rich has caused her to come completely unglued?
Reading our parable today, her snarling face came immediately to my mind. Can’t you imagine the questioner in this parable confronting Jesus, poking him in the chest, saying, “teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But Jesus won’t go there — he won’t allow himself to be pulled into family dramas.
That specific refusal reminded me of the Mary and Martha story — and it is one clue that the two stories are connected. Another is that this particular parable is also, like the Mary/Martha story, unique to the gospel of Luke. In that story too, Jesus refuses to let Martha pull him into a family drama. He reminds her instead, as Stacey Carpenter told us a few weeks ago, that her focus is on the wrong things. And no, Jesus is not saying that Martha’s gifts to the world are less worthy than Mary’s. What he is saying is that when she uses her gifts, her focus should still be on delighting in and enhancing God’s creation. Appreciating the bounty of God’s blessings. Making sure to answer God’s invitation to share that bounty in her own unique way.
What Jesus wants us to see in both stories is the mutability and instability of all the things we think make us secure on earth — in contrast to the profound faithfulness and abundance of God’s love for us. In today’s parable in particular, he turns his focus to the false promise of safety inherent in storing up and focusing too much on material wealth. Even those who amass great fortunes may lose them in a heartbeat. Just ask the residents of Paradise, California, a town destroyed last year by fires. How about the migrants being detained at our southern borders, who came all this way because of a promise of asylum and safety, a promise that has not been kept? Or folks who go bankrupt because of a healthcare diagnosis?
This parable is a particularly pointed critique of those who could have made things better in Jesus’ time — the ruling class whose primary focus in life was consolidating wealth for power’s sake. The man he describes does not even work his own fields — “the land of a rich man produced abundantly.” The Hebrew Bible has clear guidelines of periodic debt forgiveness — guidelines that helped assure that Israel would not al-low the equivalent of what we would call indentured servitude and debt peonage. Jesus’ listeners would have known that. They also would have known that, in contrast, Roman culture and rules allowed landowners to amass more and more land, while those they had conquered became more and more destitute. Jesus is describing a man who profited by subscribing to the Roman way of doing business.
Jesus is not criticizing living an enjoyable life. Instead he is pointing at those who do so without taking stock of how systemic advantages benefit them at the expense of others. Advantages that often make it impossible for others who have less to hang on at all. This parable applies to those who refuse to recognize that their prosperity is not fully theirs alone — it comes about through the work of many others. Too often such persons do not make the conscious choice to see themselves as part of a complex whole, and thus give back in their turn. Jesus reminds us that all that we have is from God. So the issue is not about having money. Instead, it’s about the hoarding of it by those who do not recognize it as a gift from God that should be shared.
“Be on guard,” he says, “against all kinds of greed. For one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Thinking again of the Laura Dern character. Who is she without her wealth? What does she fall back on in hard times? How does she define herself if not by fancy homes and expensive clothing? Listen to the man in our parable, “my crops, my barn, my grain, my goods.” Who is he when all is gone?
It’s not surprising that this parable appears where it does in the gospel of Luke. Just before this, Jesus has reprimanded the Pharisees — one branch of the religious authorities of his time. Just after this parable, he will go on to censure the greed and misuse of power by nations — the harmful choices made by political states. With these three interlocking stories, Jesus is connecting private choices with religious choices and national choices. Because all of it is interconnected. And all of it can work together to either generate great good or cause grave harm.
We see the kind of damaging cancerous alliance between the three in our own country right now in the prosperity gospel rhetoric used by Christian theologians to justify the recent tax cuts that actually benefited only the wealthy. The same rhetoric goes hand in hand with a shaming of those who are systemically disadvantaged by economic policies designed to leave them behind. We are told that the very rich are the model of what we should aspire to be — and we are told that we are not seeing things right when we uncover how morally bankrupt those rich exemplars can be. We are told that the poor bring poverty on themselves — yet the way our economy functions, it is nearly impossible to become one of those select rich few. And worst of all, to keep people voting for the rules as they are, we see a vicious sleight of hand where racism and fear are deployed to consolidate votes for policies that will ultimately harm those who cast them.
It is that kind of sleight of hand that Jesus condemns the most — in the passage just before ours, he refers to it as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Because such a sleight of hand has to, of necessity, make it seem that if you are not rich, it is the fault of some designated “other.” An other that must be punished for taking what should be yours. The message is that God is all about rewards and punishments — God singles out winners and losers. That theology puts limits on God’s ability to love us all, just as we are. It shames us if we are not good enough — all the while constantly changing the rules to make sure that most of us do not measure up. It causes the listener to doubt that God loves them. It makes the listener think that God is not a loving God.
But we know that is not so. Jesus never says that we must do a certain proscribed set of things in order to win God’s approval. Instead, he is asking is us to focus on God and allow ourselves to be influenced by God’s love for us.
St Augustine once said that sin is misdirected energy — it is love for the wrong thing. Jesus reminds us that when we direct our energy towards the Giver and not the gifts themselves, our outlook changes. We start to ask, how can we use our gifts, our talents, our abundance, to build up others, not to trample them on our way past? Jesus is not asking us to be ashamed of what we are or what we have. Instead, he is asking us to seek God’s invitation to use what we have been given and do so with grace. Not as a handout to “losers” because we are “better.” But instead as a genuine ripening and productive use of our talents and abilities to bring about the kin-dom of God here on earth.
When we do so, we not only help others grow and flourish, but we flourish and grow ourselves.
“You fool,” God says to the man, “to whom will your riches go?” This particular man will never know — the parable tells us that he dies before he can share them with others. Imagine instead how much joy he could have experienced if he had shared his wealth while he was alive. Imagine if he had used them to start a school or a shelter for or-phans. Or to build a hospital for veterans of the many Roman wars. We could go on and on imagining what he might have done.
It’s interesting that this is the only New Testament parable in which God speaks directly — and I think there is a reason for that. To me, God’s words are as an invitation to all of us — to each of us — don’t delay sharing the joy of God’s gifts to you. Whatever those gifts may be. In this parable, God gifted this man with enormous wealth. And the man kept it all to himself. What a waste of the opportunity to find joy — to flourish — and to use his abilities to allow others to flourish as well.
What is your identity? How do you define it? When someone says “tell me about your-self?” — where DO you start? Perhaps if we focused on the Giver instead of the gifts — our answers to these questions would be clearer and more gratifying.