Powerful truth, Pentecost 10, Proper 13 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Hosea 11:1-11 or Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 107:1-9, 43 or 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Jesus had just said, “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say.” Then suddenly, out of the blue, someone in the crowd shouted to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
Someone had not been paying attention. Someone’s mind had been somewhere else. Someone in the crowd was very worried – worried about money.

Jesus’ story of the rich and foolish farmer is framed by the commandment “Do not worry.” Just before the story of the farmer, Jesus told his listeners not to worry about what they would say when they were brought to trial for his sake. Just after the story, he said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” And in between, he told a story about one of the things we worry about most: money.

We can empathize with Jesus’ anonymous listener. We live in a prosperous country and the economy is robust, but we probably worry about money at least some of the time. Some time ago public television broadcast a program entitled “Affluenza.” The point of the program was simple: the more money we make, the more we want, and the more we spend. Our wants always outpace our income.

So when Jesus’ listener asked him to command his brother to divide the inheritance, Jesus responded, “Take care! be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Human beings are greedy. Older translations use the word “covetous” instead of greedy. The two things are different: greed is wanting more than we need; covetousness is looking at what someone else has and wishing that we had what they have. There’s nothing wrong with wanting and having a nice car or house or clothes, but there is something very wrong when we feel incomplete if we don’t have all the things that we would like to have. Yet, our economy is largely based on creating in us the desire for things we don’t want. Advertisers base their appeals on our insecurities. Drink this kind of soft drink! Use this deodorant! Buy this car! It will make you happy, attractive, fulfilled.

In 1931, Alabama’s bishop, William George McDowell, said that the cause of the Great Depression was “the general extravagance in the recent era of so-called prosperity. This is an economic term for presuming on God’s providence. The vicious circle is something like this: our desires are inflamed by clever advertising till we feel we must indulge them for the things we want. We delude ourselves into thinking we must have the things we crave and that we can afford them.” They were prophetic words, as applicable now as then.

Many years ago, renegade Baptist minister and all-round troublemaker, Clarence Jordan, rendered the gospels into the idiom of the modern South. Here’s his translation of today’s gospel from his book The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts:

“A certain rich fellow’s farm produced well. And he held a meeting with himself and he said, ‘What shall I do? I don’t have room enough to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my old barns and build some bigger ones in which I’ll store all my wheat and produce. And I will say to myself, ‘Self, you’ve got enough stuff stashed away to do you a long time. Recline, dine, wine, and shine!’ But God said to him, ‘You nitwit, at this very moment your goods are putting the screws on your soul. All these things you’ve grubbed for, to whom shall they really belong?’ That’s the way it is with a man who piles up stuff for himself without giving God a thought.”
One reason that I like Clarence Jordan’s translation of the story of the rich but foolish farmer is that, alone among all the translations of the New Testament in my library, Jordan translates the story correctly. The New Revised Standard Version reads, “This very night your life is being demanded of you.” But that is not what the Greek text says. Rather, it says, “They have demanded your life.” Who were the “they” who demanded the life of the farmer? His things, of course. He no longer owned his possessions; they owned him. Or in Jordan’s words, “Your goods are putting the screws on your soul.”

Somewhere deep inside, we all know that Jesus was stating a powerful truth. Everything we own also owns a little bit of us. If we own a house or a car, then we are under an obligation to earn money to pay for the house or car; we have to take time to see to it that our house or car is cared for. We are no longer quite as free as we were before.

The rich farmer made the mistake of believing that he really possessed his great wealth, although Jesus said that the reality was that it possessed him. Movie magnate Sam Goldwyn, on being told that he couldn’t take it with him, replied, “Well then, I just won’t go.” But that is not an option. We can’t take it with us, nor can we refuse to go when it is our time. And neither can we really possess, only hold in trust. Today’s possessions become tomorrow’s garage sale treasures.

So, Jesus concluded his parable of the rich farmer by saying, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” He had stored his wealth in earthly barns, even though he had had the opportunity to store it in heaven.

I want to reiterate this: Wealth is not wrong or sinful, but it is problematic. The spiritual problem of wealth is that it anchors our hearts too firmly in this world, rather than in God’s kingdom.

The rich and foolish farmer tore down his barn and built bigger barns. He opened more bank accounts and invested his money in high-tech start-ups. Nothing wrong with any of that. But God invites us to invest our money and ourselves in the kingdom of heaven.

The story is told that at the funeral of the fabulously wealthy Aristotle Onassis, one of the mourners turned to another and said, “How much did he leave?” And his friend replied, “Everything. He left everything.”

Written by the Rev. Dr. J. Barry Vaughn
The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D., has led congregations in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. He has preached at Harvard, Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution, and more than fifty of his sermons have been published. He is a member of the history faculty at the University of Alabama.

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