A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., August 4, 2013
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 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.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 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. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 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?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (NRSV).
In the church we often talk about our “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” We’re pretty good about the Savior part, that is, we’re pretty good about letting Jesus save us. But we’re not as good with the Lord part, that is, with letting Jesus be Lord, because that means listening to what he says and doing it, and he says a lot of things that are hard to do. In fact, I read an article just last week in which a theologian named Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite said conservative Christianity tends to focus on the death, resurrection, and return of Jesus, but shows “an astonishing lack of interest in his life and teachings.”[i] In other words, we’re fine with Jesus once he stops talking. But in this sermon series we have been on the road with Jesus, following him through Luke’s Gospel as he makes his way to Jerusalem, listening to everything he says and trying our best to do it, because he is not only Savior; he is Lord. Today he has some things to say about our relationship to money and things, and it begins with a request from someone in the crowd who says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
I think I’ve told you that at one of my former churches there was a man who asked me to do that very thing and I did—I told his brother to divide the family inheritance with him—and his brother told me exactly what I could do with my request. Jesus is wiser than that. He refuses to get tangled up in a family dispute. He simply says, “Friend, who made me judge and divider over you?” But then, in his very next statement, he gets to the heart of the problem.
“Take care! Be on your guard against every kind of greed,” he warns, “for life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.” And before we get into the parable that follows I want you to listen to the sympathy in Jesus’ voice. “Take care!” he says. “Be on your guard against every kind of greed.” As if greed were a bad thing, something that could ruin your life, or at the very least rob you of your joy. And then he tells the story of this man, this poor rich man whose land produced such an abundant crop he didn’t know what to do.
There’s that almost comical scene in which he talks things over with himself and says, “Self, what should I do? My land has produced abundantly and I have no place to store my crops.” And his self says, “Well, what about this? What if you tear down your old barns and build bigger ones?” And he says, “That’s a wonderful idea! Then I’ll have plenty of room. I’ll be able to store it all!” And he starts to picture it. He can almost see those big, new barns, filled to the brim, practically bursting open. He rubs his hands together and says, “Then I will say to my self, ‘Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years. Relax, eat, drink, and be merry!” But that’s when God says, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” That’s not a bad question, but it’s not the question I want to ask. I want to ask why this man was a fool.
What’s so foolish about storing something up for the future?
Sometimes I talk with people who are thinking about retirement and wondering how much money they will need to do it. Some of them seek out financial advisors who can calculate their assets, consider the amount of debt they are carrying, consult the actuarial tables and tell them exactly how much they will need, and often it is much more than they actually have. And so they work hard in their remaining years of employment, and save aggressively, and all the time they are wondering, “Will it be enough? Will I be able to provide for my needs? Will my money last as long as I do?”
Those questions don’t seem foolish; they seem wise. So, why is this man a fool, the one whose land produces an abundant crop and who wants to build bigger barns so he can secure his retirement, so he can say to his soul, “Relax!”? And why does Jesus tell this story just after he has told his followers to watch out for every kind of greed? Was this man greedy?
What was his sin?
He doesn’t steal his abundant crops. He doesn’t tear down someone else’s barns. The parable begins with the simple and unprejudiced announcement that the land of a rich man produced abundantly. The rains fell at just the right time, the sun warmed the fields, and the fertile soil nourished the crops. Perhaps, as in one of Jesus’ other parables, the seed produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. The rich man may have marveled at the miracle of it and thanked God for the bounty of his provision. Is there anything wrong with that? No! And I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with what he does next: he decides that he will tear down his old barns and build bigger ones. I don’t know why he didn’t just build additional barns, but there’s nothing criminal about tearing down your old barns and building bigger ones. It’s certainly better than leaving your crops in the field to rot. It’s really in the next section that we begin to see a problem because that’s where the rich man imagines his barns full of grain, and where he says to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years. Relax, eat, drink, and be merry!” Is there anything wrong with having ample goods laid up for many years? Is there anything wrong with eating, drinking, and being merry? No. It’s that word relax that provides the clue, that moment when the man says to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax,” because that’s when it becomes clear that until he has ample goods laid up for many years his soul cannot relax. It is clenched like a fist with worry.
And that’s a problem.
There are two places in the New Testament where greed is defined as idolatry: one of them is in Ephesians and the other is in Colossians: our epistle reading for today. Paul says, “Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God…Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” But do you know what idolatry is? It’s putting anything else in the place of God. To his credit this man hasn’t put money in the place of God. He’s not rolling around in a big pile of gold. He’s not even rolling around in a big pile of grain. But he has put something in the place of God. If God is the one who provides for our needs this man has put himself in that place: he has become his own provider. And the evidence is found in that moment when he says to his soul, “You have ample goods laid up for many years. Relax!” It proves that he wasn’t trusting God to provide for him: he was trusting himself, and once he had filled up his big new barns with his abundant crops he could relax, because he had finally provided himself with enough.
Peter Rhea Jones calls this “practical atheism.”[ii] The rich fool may protest that he has always believed in God, but when it comes to managing his life, dealing with possessions and planning for the future, he lives as though there were no God, as though it were all up to him. How many of us do the very same thing? When we plan for our retirements do we factor into the equation at any point the truth that God is good, and generous, and able to provide for our every need, or do we simply calculate how many dollars we will need to make it to the end of our average life expectancy and worry about how we will accumulate that much money before we retire?
In the very next section of this chapter Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” He goes on to say, “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!”
Now, this may not sound like a retirement plan to you, but it is an important truth: our security is not found in the abundance of our possessions, but in our trust in a good and generous God. That was why the rich man was a fool: he didn’t trust in God, he trusted in himself. And God judged him by saying, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” “So it is,” Jesus says, “with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
I’ve been working on that one in the last few days, wondering what it means to be rich toward God. Just before he tells this parable Jesus warns that a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel a lawyer had asked Jesus how he might have life and Jesus said, “What do you think?” The lawyer said, “I think you should love the Lord with everything in you and love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said, “That’s it. Do that and you will live.” He makes a connection between life and love and suggests that we store up “relational capital” by loving God and others.
I couldn’t help thinking of Billy Burford, our church administrator, who announced his retirement last Sunday. Because he is who he is Billy has certainly calculated whether or not he will have enough money to retire, but he has also done this. Every summer he and his wife Beverley host “Camp Nana,” where they invite their three grandsons from Houston to come and spend a few weeks with them. Billy and Beverley love their grandsons, and Camp Nana is probably the most fun those boys have all year. But Billy and Beverley are also doing this: they are piling up relational capital, and I believe that no matter what happens to them in the days ahead those grandsons will not let them starve.
Here’s what I’m after, and I think it’s what Jesus is after, too: I don’t want you to walk around with a clenched soul all the time. I don’t want you to worry about whether or not you’re going to have enough money to make it to the end of the month or the end of your life. I want you to be able to relax your soul without having to build bigger barns. I want you to trust God’s goodness and generosity so completely that you never have to worry about having enough. But I don’t think that will happen as long as you are depending on yourself; you’re going to have to start depending on God. You’re going to have to become more like the birds of the air, more like the flowers of the field; you’re going to have to appreciate the fact that everything you have has come to you as a gift from God.
I still remember a story I heard when I was in seminary, from an African-American preacher named Manuel Scott. He said, “Do you know what my grandson asked me for the other day? A new pair of basketball shoes. And guess how much they wanted for them? Fifty dollars!” (you have to consider: this was back in the eighties, when fifty dollars would have been a lot for a pair of basketball shoes). Manuel Scott said, “I grew up poor. I was so poor I would cross the street to pick up a penny off the sidewalk on the other side. These days kids won’t even stoop down to pick up a penny. They’d probably walk past a five dollar bill. They don’t know the value of money. But I do. I’ve had to work for every penny I’ve got. And now my grandson wants me to buy him a pair of basketball shoes that cost fifty dollars! (shaking his head in disbelief). Do you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to buy them for him. And do you know why? Because he spends time with me even when he doesn’t want anything.”
Can you hear the voice of God in that? Can you hear him say, “I’m going to take care of my children. I’m going to give them what they need. And you know why? Because they spend time with me even when they don’t want anything.”
Now, I’m not a financial planner. I can’t help you with that. But I think I can tell you how to become rich toward God: spend time with him, learn to love him, learn to trust him, store up relational capital until you feel your soul relax, until you know that no matter how much money you have or don’t have in the bank…
…you don’t have to worry about a thing.
[i] Washington Post, July 29, 2013, ‘How can a Muslim write about Jesus?’ The controversy over Reza Aslan’s ‘Zealot’ by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite.
[ii] Peter Rhea Jones, The Teaching of the Parables (Nashville: Broadman, 1982) 127-41 (cited by R. Alan Culpepper in his commentary on Luke in the New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 257.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.