Pentecost 10: 1 August Luke 12:13-21
Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘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 towards God.’
There was always grain in my father's barn. Even at the end of seeding* there was grain left over, so that if the harvest failed, there was some seed we could use to begin again. There was grain kept for the feeding of animals during dry seasons. Yet even as a small child, I could see the difference between my father and some of our neighbours. He did not build barn upon barn. He did not seek to buy more land and expand the enterprise. We did not buy the boats and aeroplanes of our neighbours. His security lay somewhere else.
Life is desperately hard and painful. Most men live lives of quiet desperation, said Thoreau. There were neighbours who coped with the war trauma by suiciding. Others coped with life via alcohol; I suspect there were far more of us who were functioning alcoholics than we ever realised. Alcohol blunts some of the pain. Others took out their frustration on their wives and children. Others built up the farm for the boys to follow on; family was God. Family gave some sense and security of purpose.
Most of us were good people. We tried, and we try, to live well. We try and make sense of it. We long for security in an uncertain world. We try and make a life for ourselves, instead of giving up. Jesus said, Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. He speaks to us. In necessary and appropriate struggle for survival, there is an indistinct boundary between the prudent farming practice of my father, and the building of barns by the rich man.
It is clear that the rich man placed the security of his very self, his soul, in the having of possessions. These would keep his very self safe. "Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” And we see easily the very clear message of Jesus that possessions do not give us security. We all know how to parody and poke fun at advertisements which promise, essentially, some sort of salvation if we will but buy their product. Those of us who preach, will mostly preach this Sunday, to the already converted on this point.
It is easy to scorn people who are 'into possessions', as though we are somehow superior, because we have seen through their shallowness. Yet we too, almost certainly have more than we need. We too, look for a place to find our security. Bill Loader says
There is a deep human anxiety about being worthwhile which reaches to the heart of the self. Many products are designed to sedate that fear. It is nevertheless real. The Christian claim that true contentment comes only in service is probably spurious. It is simply not the case that people without Christ are all very unhappy and vice versa. It is also not the case that we are to make ourselves happy through service. That is secular justification by works and becomes a tyrant for us and those around us - and those whom we ‘serve’. (My emphasis)
How utterly he contradicts the easy answers of my soul! The problem of possessions is almost bottomlessly deep. It goes to the heart of our survival and existence. There is no easy preaching here. Bill continues,
Sometimes it has to be a kind of Christian defiance which says: only in life towards God, a life participating in God’s life is peace. That will be a peace that weeps, knows anguish, sometimes does not know and does not have answers, but keeps believing in the worth God wants us to have and wants us to give and live towards others.
‘Is my life worthwhile?’ is for many a fearful question. It is no answer to moralise and command. Ultimately the answer is an act of healing. People need preaching which identifies the pain very clearly - and gently - and offers healing.
Jesus tells us in the next pericope 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. The fact that he is correct, and the equal fact that if we do not worry about food we will die, indicates the profound depth of the issue of where we make the home base of our soul. To find a place that lets us feel worthwhile enough that we are no longer afraid for the future is a life's journey, a healing as Bill says. To 'moralise and command' on this issue is to show very clearly we do not yet understand how much we, too, live in the thrall of anxiety, and how much we struggle to make sense of life and find any worth in our selves.
Brian Stoffregen quotes Green's commentary on Luke
This farmer has sought to secure himself and his future without reference to God. This is the force of the label given him by God, "fool," used in the LXX to signify a person who rebels against God or whose practices deny God [footnote: See e.g., Prov 14:1; Jer 4:22] -- a usage that coheres with the representation of "greed" (v. 15) as a form of idolatry. He did not consider that his life was on loan from God. Failing to account for the will of God in his stratagems, he likewise failed to account for the peril to life constituted by the abundance of possessions (v. 15) and for the responsibility that attends the possession of wealth.
He did not consider that his life was on loan from God.... This seems the key thing at the back of all we are talking about. Do we own our lives, or are we part of something bigger that we call God? If we decide upon the idloatory that we own our own lives, then let us be warned the issue of possessions goes much deeper than material possessions.
For there was a minister who had lived and studied well. He thought, “I have learned much and have a good book allowance, so I will be relax and be at ease, as I ponder the wonders of creation and study the sublime mysteries.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night the decline into Alzheimers' is beginning. And all the things you have learned, what value will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
Sometimes it will be a weeping and struggling 'Christian defiance which says: only in life towards God, a life participating in God’s life is peace.' It is not my life. I am on loan, with the offer to actively and consciously participate in God's life, or to pretend that I am living my own. That participation is all I have. It goes against all common sense as I see people hungry, or out of work, or being treated unjustly, and know I could be in the same place. But it is all I have to say. It is all the hope I can offer. And many, many days, I cannot grasp hold of it very well.
One of my childhood neigbhours lived his life like a trainwreck in a house with glass walls. I watched with childish innocence from the safety of my parents' house, and must have said something critical about him one day, for my mother said I should remember he was an ordinary hero. What she explained was that for all his struggles and failings, he was making a life. He was doing the best he could. We are all ordinary heros, she said. Stoffregen says "Perhaps like alcoholics and their desire for alcohol, we are never cured of our greediness. We are always in recovery," he says, always in need to look out for and to guard ourselves from this evil power in our lives": this greed which is a lying shortcut to security and safety.
In a moment of sobriety, I will preach Sunday on the need to find a truly secure place for the safety of my soul. But I must preach like I am at AA, for I too, am one of the afflicted.
*Seeding is the Australian term for the season of sowing grain crops
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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