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.” Luke 12: 13-21
Do you rent a storage unit for your “stuff”? Have you ever had a POD deposited in your driveway to protect your things? Even if you don’t need one for an extended period of time storage facilities can be helpful in times of transition. It is estimated that there are between 45,000 and 52,000 storage units for rent in the U.S, providing more than 2 billion square feet of space! Americans will spend more than $37 billion this year on storage. In addition to the rental fee you can pay $4.99 per month to insure up to $2,000 worth of contents or $18.99 per month for $10,000 worth of treasures. These small spaces have been used by some as shelters which works better than under a bridge—until the owner of the storage facility finds out. Then you’re apt to be “evicted” from your temporary housing. For those who default on their storage unit rent, there are organizations that auction off the abandoned contents. At a website: storagetreasures.com, you can see where there are such sales which are sometimes set up almost as a grab bag: bid on a particular storage unit without knowing the contents. The winner takes whatever is there. Sometimes it’s a goldmine—other times it’s someone else’s junk.
I don’t remember storage unit companies growing up. We have increased our love for stuff over the years. We have exported production to far-off places that make our goods more cheaply and we stock up! We buy bigger homes with larger closets, We fill up our attics with stuff that seldom gets used or sorted out until we move—or die! We exclaim with glee when we find a place where we can store our stuff until we’re ready for it. I keep waiting for a Christmas carol to be written that paints a Thomas Kinkaid-type image of a family traveling to their storage shed to pick up their Christmas decorations, drinking eggnog and jingling all the way! We need places to store our treasure.
I talked with a father of two young children many years ago. His wife was divorcing him. She was moving on joyfully, relieved of whatever pressures she had felt in the marriage. She had a boyfriend. The custody ruling was probably going in her favor even though her infidelity had blown up the marriage. As their home was sold and contents cleared out, this father told me he was hauling his stuff to a storage facility, unsure of his next move. He had a small apartment lined up and furnished with just the basics for him and his children. But much had to be given or salted away. As he unloaded the last trailer full of memories into the shed he had a panic attack. He collapsed and found himself lying on the floor of this inhospitable space, unable to move. He finally called his mother-in-law who had recognized her daughter’s waywardness in the dissolution of the marriage. She came and helped him to get up and move into this unwanted chapter of his life. He would give up all his stuff if it would restore to him the real treasure—a loving home for his two children where they woke up in the same place as he did each morning.
This passage from Luke’s gospel asks us a question: What does it mean to be rich in God? Jesus faces this question because of an unsolicited encounter. A man who must have appreciated Jesus’ wisdom asks him to arbitrate between himself and his brother. He was due a portion of their father’s inheritance but the older brother wasn’t doling it out fairly. How many of you would want to step into that kind of a situation? Not me! Jesus does not get involved but instead uses it as a launching point for a sermon about greed and human anxiety over money. A concern in Jesus’ day, monetary concerns still rob us of sleep and destroy marriages 2000 years later. Patricia Lull writes, “The family feud, set before Jesus for him to resolve…, can be found in almost any parish. Beyond matters of inheritance, money serves as a kind of thermostat for issues of anxiety and control in the congregation itself….Money is always about more than money.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3 by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors. Westminster John Knox Press 2010, pg. 312)
“Money is always about more than money.” Can I get an “Amen”?!
The younger brother’s question prompts Jesus to teach. He tells a story of wrong priorities. Greater assets lead to a heightened concern with riches rather than caring about God’s Realm. When we focus on ourselves, like the rich man in the parable, we are not rich in God or human relationships. This man is a landowner who must have controlled a sizable estate. He experienced a bumper crop—something that would have been viewed as a tremendous blessing. But there is no gratitude expressed to God even though God gave the growth. Notice how much we hear I-Me-My in the rich man’s pondering. His barns are already overflowing so the bumper crop presents a problem. He clearly has no intention of selling or sharing the wealth. So is the problem inadequate storage for great possessions or is it a poverty of heart? He invests all of his time managing his estate while ignoring the issue of his looming mortality. The rich fool becomes a negative example to those who would follow Jesus and live with gratitude for the Realm of God.
The question looms at the end of Jesus’ parable: What does it mean to be rich in God?
What were the values you were taught about money when you were growing up? If I asked how many of us worry about money, I suspect most of us would have to raise our hand. If we are rich in God does does money provide the means for deep and abiding joy? Do we see it as a way to help others out of a love for God? This parable asks us to examine our relationship toward money and image. How important is it to us to appear to be able to afford a certain kind of lifestyle? Do we use our cars, homes, clothes, gifts to others as a means of measuring our lives in our own eyes and the eyes of others? Does the media direct our spending or does our faith? Does a younger generation fixate on the Kardashian household, vying to emulate their opulence? Or do they sacrifice to raise money for a mission trip where their eyes are opened to what it means to be rich in God? How do we combat a culture that likes to supersize everything?
As a congregation it’s important that we evaluate our own attitude toward money. What brings in the greater offering: an appeal for the building or an invitation to give toward a Habitat for Humanity build? Are our mission commitments the first to go when there’s a budget crunch or do we move forward in faith in the moments when the bottom line looks insufficient? We have a wonderful history in our congregation that has shaped our attitude toward money today. Our forebears sacrificed in the 1870’s to build a lovely sanctuary. In old newsletters we read about the joy of our earliest members as they contributed toward worthy charitable causes of their generation. They were cautious in their spending, paying for each addition or improvement to the building while giving money away to those in need. Our membership took on the building project of our Christian Education Wing in the thick of a national recession. 2008 seemed like the most foolish time to embark on a capital fund drive so we tested the water with some potential donors before taking it to the whole congregation. At best, I felt uncertain that it would go forward. But one week after the meeting the secretary brought to me the first wave of pledges: $75,000 was waiting for us should we decide to go ahead with the project. That’s all we needed to know. God had a plan for us to expand our classroom facilities in spite of the dismal fiscal climate of our country. Not only did we have the nearly half million-dollar building paid for before we dedicated the wing in 2012. We kept up with our missions giving in that three-year time period. Our congregation continues to prioritize giving 10% of all plate and pledged monies away. We have certainly been worried at times about being able to honor that biblical mandate. But, because of our deep desire to show our love for God by helping others, we have been able to tithe of our income for many years now. When we live in a way that celebrates that we are rich in God, we are able to meet the needs of others as well as our own.
Our church also knows what it is to save. Our endowment fund has grown in the past 26 years from an initial donation of $35,000 to a market value now of over $300,000! Quarterly dividends enhance the ministry of three of our boards: Missions, Trustees and Christian Education. When we have a bumper crop of giving, our congregation has been raised to know that a portion needs to be saved and a tithe needs to be given away. I am convicted that following this Biblical formula for our finances has established the firm financial footing for our ministry today.
What does it mean to be rich in God?
Remember the conflict between two sisters when Jesus visited their home? Martha slaved over an impromptu meal served on the best china in a super clean house. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, in the company of all those men, worshiping Him by soaking in His teaching. Like the brother asking for his cut of the father’s inheritance, Martha felt shortchanged when Mary abandoned the household chore list. She asked Jesus to arbitrate but He told poor Martha, as she wiped her hands on her pink gingham apron, that Mary had made the right choice. In her multitasking Martha had lost her perspective. When we can’t imagine having people over because our home is perfectly appointed, we are bowing to the gods of Pinterest and Martha Stewart rather than praising God by offering warm hospitality. Are our obsessions hindering the moments God places before us to enjoy life? David Schlaffer writes, “Distractions occlude clear discernment and lead to choices and commitments that are often tragically foolish…If we have an inveterate predisposition to distraction…, it is hard to put things in perspective. Frames of reference are not easily dislodged. The parable’s shock therapy of sharp warning is an intervention of last resort.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3 by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors. Westminster John Knox Press 2010, pg. 315)
To be rich in God doesn’t mean we have enough stuff to fill a house and bleed over into a large storage unit besides. To be rich in God means our conversation with God nourishes us continually. To be rich in God means we find guidance in the scriptures that directs our daily lives. To be rich in God is evidenced by the deep ties of love to God and other human beings that nourish our souls. In the summer we particularly enjoy the moments when we are off the grid with loved ones surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation. In those moments when we lie on our backs looking at the stars or appreciating a sunset with our children, our hearts are filled with gratitude as we realize that we are rich in God. Amen.