By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
Luke 12:13–21 (ESV)
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear 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, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
I have a small confession to make this week. I love the gospel, I love the stories that Jesus told, and I love imagining what it would have been like to see and hear the teachings and healing in first person. I love the gospel, but I really do not like this parable. I do not know if it is good for a pastor to say that he dislikes a portion of scripture, but it is true. I do not like this parable, because it cuts a little too deep.
In case you were not aware, Jesus spoke a great deal about financial issues. In polite conversations you are encouraged not to speak about religion, politics, and money. Well, Jesus pretty much blew polite conversation out of the water because he spoke a great deal about money and religion, and although he was not very political he was not a much of a fan of how those in power treated those who did not have the influence. I think this is part of the reason I largely dislike this passage, because Jesus is basically forcing us to take a look at the things of our lives and consider where we stand. But we need to set the scene a bit before we go too far.
Jesus at this point is in Judea. He had spent some time with his friends in Bethany, where Martha was annoyed at her sister Mary because Mary was not helping in the kitchen. Then they went out into the community and Jesus healed a man who was considered demon possessed and mute. This healing is important because, from my understanding, ancient exorcisms required the exorcist to converse with the evil spirit and since this man was mute they were powerless against it. Jesus healed the man and everyone was amazed. A man who everyone in the community knew was mute and frankly scary to be around, was now in his right mind and having a conversation with them.
The religious leaders were worried. They did not know what to do or how to respond. Someone has just done something that they do not do. They did something in a manner that they do not do things. And that person is attracting attention that they themselves want. So they respond like any rational human being, they rant and rave that Jesus is the devil himself, Beelzebub. This rant goes on for a while, until Jesus puts a stop to it by telling them that their argument was pretty ridiculous because why would the devil work against himself?
Jesus made the powerful look like fools, which cause many in the crowds to get excited. One lady got so excited that she yelled out at the top of her lungs, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” If you do not think that the bible is filled with humor, you have not been reading it closely enough. Yes, this woman is honoring Jesus’s mother, but she is also challenging those powerful men Jesus just made to look like a fool. It is like a first century, “Your mamma Joke.”
Imagine if someone yelled this out at you. Seriously, I doubt you could keep a straight face. Yet, Jesus knowing that the tension was high shifted the direction of the conversation to something a bit more productive. “Blessed rather are those that hear God’s word, and keep it.” He then went into a critic of the religious customs and traditions.
Jesus was very critical of the practice of religion during his ministry. He was not critical of worship, but the accepted traditions that were formulated on human interpretations. These interpretations were not necessarily wrong, but they were often misguided. Taking laws meant for one specialized group and applying them to everyone, or even making definitions to the meanings to leverage control over others. This can be seen in the law of resting on the Sabbath. They had determined the farthest distance a person could walk without effort. This then required that synagogues would need to be built within that walking distance, and if you happened to live beyond you would need to help fund the building of a new place of worship. This is not exactly wrong. It was providing and encouraging people to stay focused on their worship, but what happens if you happen to live in an area that did not have a great population density? You were required to maintain a place of worship to a minimum standard.
Which is why Jesus spoke critically of religion. There was pressure on the people to provide it became a duty instead of a blessing. And those that could provide more of the finances began to wield greater power within the communities. Faith which was started as communion between God and humanity became a wrestling match to determine who was the most righteous. This went to the extent that anything of value even the herbs used to season food was up for inspection. Joseph gave a tithe on the lamb he sold, but Abraham gave a tithe on the lamb and his basil. Who gave more? Who should we pay the most attention to? Faith was no longer worship, but a contest. And this competition infected every aspect of their lives.
This is where we meet Jesus today. He had just pointed out the venom of the religious competition through the various woes he proclaimed about the pharisees and the lawyers. And someone though hey now would be a great time to have this teacher shame my brother into giving me more of the family wealth. When we read this first section, the part that prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the rich fool, we often think that Jesus is condemning wealth. That is not the complete truth, like many things there is more to the story. If the righteous were so concerned with giving a tithe on every potential source of wealth, then that same mentality was used for the issues of family inheritance. This story does speak about finances but it also speaks to the condition of our hearts where finances become the very reason we exist.
There was someone in the crowd that yells, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” At first glance we might take up the banner for this man. He feels as if he was treated unjustly and a righteous person would take up that cause. But Jesus does not organize a protest. He does not form a political action committee to speak to the needs of the younger brothers. Instead Jesus treat this man in a similar manner as he was treating the rich and powerful just a few verses prior.
He said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” You can almost hear the annoyance in Jesus’s voice. He has been teaching the crowds that the pharisees and the lawyers were so focused on their own power and influence over people that they had developed a civil system around them that was so intricate that they would bring even a tenth of the mint to include in the tithe. Do you know what mint is? Yes mint has value I love mint, I cannot make it through a day without using some product containing mint. Mint has value, but a little mint goes a long ways. I say this for a couple of reasons, the first is mint is pretty strong, and the second is mint spread rapidly. In some areas mint is considered a weed. A nice smelling weed but still a weed. Imagine a system of life where we were so concerned with righteousness that we were making sure we included the value of the weeds in our yard. Did you claim the value of the dandelions in your yard on your taxes? They have value too you know. You can eat the leaves, you can use them in a tea to medicinal purposes, and they are a very important source of pollen for the early production of honey. Did you make sure the appraiser added that to your property value?
“Who made me the arbitrator over you?” Jesus asks. He says this because this family is more concerned with the financial values of their inheritance than the relationship they have with one another. This man wants his fair share, and he will not be happy until every possible thing of value has been counted. This is probably the worst aspect of humanity. I hate the value we place on things. Often I have sat in homes of the recently deceased and listened to members of that family arguing about who should get what. I sat once listening to remarks said against one branch while everyone was sitting on furniture bearing labels with the names of the branch making the arguments. I do not like listening to those conversations, and I have told my relatives that I will not argue, and if there is something that they think I should have then offer it to me. Oddly enough the things that were most meaningful to me have been unanimously offered, and I cherish the books I have received from my ancestors. And I have used my great-grandfathers bible study books often in my ministry. What is more important the furniture or the relationship?
Jesus continues, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” I want us to consider this for a moment. The word translated as covetousness is also greediness, but not just in terms of financial gains or material possessions. It can also refer to the desires of increasing power and influence over others. It is the idea of placing yourself before others, or fulfilling your desires before you are concerned with that of others. The concept of possessions likewise can include more than assets. Basically Jesus is telling everyone present and listening to those words that they need to examine their lives. Why exactly are you wanting God to intervene?
Jesus then tells us a parable:
“The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear 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, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
I want us to consider this in the context, because so often we look at this parable detached from the words around it. Even our bibles will often give this exchange the heading “The parable of the rich fool.” The parable is indeed about a rich fool but the conversation that prompted the parable was most likely to the younger brother. When we consider this aspect the parable is less about capitalism or socialism as it is often used, instead it speaks about what is most important in life.
The fool of the parable is completely self-centered, to such a degree that the only conversation he has is with himself. “I will say to my soul, ‘soul…” This gives the impression that when this man prays he is not praying to God, but to himself. He is his own god. And I mention prayer because this parable comes within the same batch of teaching as Luke’s account of the Lord’s prayer. It is amazing how Jesus in a simple story can incorporate and tie his teachings together.
Jesus’s teaching prior to this story could be highlighted by the phrase, “Blessed rather are those that hear God’s word, and keep it.” As he punctuates what that blessing means he teaches about prayer, he speaks about letting our light shine and not to hide it. He teaches about how we can become focused on the interpretations of men instead of listening to the voice of God in prayer, and this entire series of lesson began because of the fear that some leaders were losing influence. They were fearful because their god was not God, their god was their own desires. They may go to the temple to pray, but their prayers were focused on themselves, they were conversing with their soul not the Spirit of God.
The man came to Jesus pleading that he would be his advocate, “tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” And Jesus answers with a story about my crops, my barn, my new barn, my grain and goods, my life, my soul, my enjoyment. He then concludes the story with God’s answer to the self devoted man. “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Whose will they be? That is an interesting and at times a frightening question. If we are no longer here to control things how might our possessions be used? If I cannot dictate how can I be sure that things will be done properly? If you notice those fears have a foundation on one word, I. There will be a point in time where I am no longer and everything I work for will be passed down to others.
Several days ago I made a comment on Facebook that I hoped would prompt thinking in this area. And the responses I received were interesting to me. The comment I made was, “Why don’t we start thinking about how we will leave the Meeting house for the next church to succeed…what if we were to stop looking at the budget as how we can survive and start thinking this money we have is God’s, the building we have is God’s, and what can we do today to help God’s ministry tomorrow.” By in large people my age and younger had positive response to this statement. And those older than me questioned why I would make such a statement. The reality is that statement comes from the very same source this young fool in today’s passage comes from. I, like, many others think in terms of my and we struggle with letting go. I struggle with control. I struggle with the ideas of dictating how things should be done. But maybe we need to view things from the other side of the coin. Have I invested all I have into those around me, to the point that when I am no longer here they will take what is given to them and continue to move forward?
We have much. Each one of us has gifts that God has given us for the sake of His kingdom. I am often amazed at how much our small Meeting can do, because we trust in God. I go to Yearly Meeting and people across seven states are excited about the opportunities God has given us. But do we see God in our midst? Do we trust that God will provide if we generously give of what He has blessed us with? Do we release those among us to do the ministry that God has called them to do? Do we trust our Meeting to discern the Spirit’s leading?
The single truth in all of this is that everything we have is a gift from God. Where we live is a gift. Our family is a gift. Our career is a gift. Our assets are all gifts entrusted to us by the blessings of God. We work yes, we toil yes, we strive to increase the return on the investment God has made in us, but even the air we breath is a gift from God, without him we have nothing but an empty shell and a withered soul. But God loves us so much that he sent his son, not to condemn us but to save us. He sent his son to teach us and show us what life with God truly is. He gave us a new life and new lifestyle. A lifestyle where we love God, embrace the Holy Spirit and live the love of Christ with others. A lifestyle where we come together in worship to praise God for his blessings, and encourage one another to seek him more deeply. We embrace the Spirit when we spend time in prayer and meditating on scripture, letting the words soak deep into our souls filling them with life and hope as it encourages us to grow. And we live the love of Christ when we respond to the Spirit’s leading and put our faith and prayers into action by serving those around us according to the gifts God has given us.
I look around our Meetinghouse today and I like I often do say God is good. I consider where we have been and where we are and I say God is faithful. And when I consider what God could do with us I have hope. Not because of me, or even us, I have hope because I know Christ and want to know him more. I have hope because Christ came and he lived with mankind, he suffered and he died. I have hope because he rose again to life and for two thousand years his influence remains on earth as it is in heaven. I have hope because He changed my life and I know he can breath life into others as well.
As we enter this time of open worship consider again the parable Jesus spoke today. Consider where all things came from and where they will go. And as we consider this, ask God what he would have you do.