In God’s reign, the “rich will be sent away empty.” Jesus uses a parable to warn against identifying the worth of one’s life with the value of one’s possessions rather than one’s relationship with God
13Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus,] “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.”
I’m a sucker for a good basket. A nice bin to place somewhere to put my junk in. A little bowl on top of my dresser to collect my lipgloss. A basket for hats, a basket for shoes, a bin for sunscreens, and a bowl for fruit. This makes me feel organized and secure. I don’t have barns but I certainly know my way around a Container Store.
I’ve recently found something that feels better than putting my stuff in baskets. Many neighborhoods and communities have a Buy Nothing Group on Facebook. The purpose of this group is not only to give away your junk and get free junk from others – but to create community and purpose for our over abundance of possessions. Just this week I’ve given away an extra tent we had taking up space to a family about to take their first trip in years, a backpack and a jacket with broken zippers to someone who could replace them easily. I don’t need to keep that stuff, because my neighbor needs it.
Jesus spoke more about wealth and greed and poverty and possessions than anything other set of related topics. “Wealth makes a terrible master, but an excellent servant”, according to PT Barnum. Possessions start to rule our home every so often when there’s too much stuff and not enough bins to corral it, then I have to look closely at the abundance I’ve amassed. And I’m not talking wealth or money, I’m talking abundance talking up space. Not bigger bank accounts, just bigger barns.
The rich man is not a fool because he has saved for the future, or because he has done well for himself – but the man is a fool because he only thinks of himself, saves for himself, and lives for himself. Every pronoun in these texts is singular. I I I, me me me…. In the parable, not even one other human being makes an appearance. Every line that this farmer speaks is spoken to himself, and everything he says refers to himself: my soul, my goods, my barns. He’s talking to himself. About himself. What should I do? I have no place to store my over abundance of crops? I will do this….
Dr. Richard Swanson, professor, preacher and author of Provoking the Gospel, says – Greed comes down to not seeing the people who are doing all the work. His singular focus on what he will do for himself, leaves out a lot of details. Do you think he planted all the fields himself? Did he care for and harvest the fields himself? Did he thresh the grain himself? Do you think he’s going to tear down those barns with his own two hands and build a bigger one by himself? Everything he has done, every choice he has made, has been in isolation – from others and apparently from God. His love for God or his love for neighbor has not entered his decision making process. Only his love for himself – and wanting security for himself.
Although it is not unusual for Jesus to reach for agricultural images in his parables, still it is interesting that the crop this rich man raised and then wanted to store away for himself only was grain. Wheat. The stuff that becomes the staff of life. But by hoarding it, this man was not a life-sharer or life-giver but someone who deprived others of life.
As for that grain in your barns, that work you are good at, those accounts you manage – they are worthless for the purpose of soul-securing. A life based on that stuff is an illusion of security. Amassing grain in particular is not a great strategy. What will happen next year when all that old grain is still sitting there and there’s no room for new grain? He hasn’t sold the grain, or made a profit, by now the grain may be getting moldy, maybe some mice have found it. It’s not being used to make bread or beer, its not feeding people or furthering the economy of the town in anyway. It’s just sitting there wasting away. That’s not God’s intention for our wealth. What does it mean to be rich towards God? The text, and its context suggests that we cannot store up riches and also be rich towards God.
“Essential to understanding poverty is the notion of “limited good.” In modern economies, we make the assumption that goods are, in principle, in unlimited supply. If a shortage exists, we can produce more. If one person gets more of something, it does not automatically mean someone else gets less, it may just mean the factory worked overtime and more became available. But in ancient Palestine, the perception was the opposite: all goods existed in finite, limited supply and were already distributed. This included not only material goods, but honor, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well – literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger, a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else…. [a]n honorable man would thus be interested only in what was rightfully his and would have no desire to gain anything more, that is, to take what was another’s. Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person. To be labeled “rich” was therefore a social and moral statement as much as an economic one. It meant having the power or capacity to take from someone weaker what was rightfully [theirs]. Being rich was synonymous with being greedy. Malina and Rohrbaugh in the section Rich, Poor, and Limited Good, 5:3 of Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.
Are our possessions a way to sustain us and give us some sense of security – or are they a way to serve us and serve our neighbor? Stewardship is aligning our priorities with God’s when it comes to resources. Being a Christian steward of our wealth and possessions means looking at all we have been given under the reign of God and how we can use it for God’s kingdom on earth. Disciples and stewards in God’s kingdom use their resources for others – we just heard the Good Samaritan story the other week. Stewards are not meant keep all the money for themselves, and are not meant to use their resources for their own goals and agenda. All that stuff that we have and the money we make was never intended for that purpose.
In the rule of God, they will not go to waste. Our time, our talents, our possessions – they are just what God needs to answer our neighbor’s prayer for daily bread.