The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean

Luke 12:13-21

Comedian Jack Benny, from TV’s Golden age, had a well-known skit that illustrated how we place money ahead of everything. He is walking down the street when suddenly he is approached by an armed robber, “Your money or your life!” shouts the bandit. There is a long pause. Jack does nothing. The robber impatiently queries, “Well?” Jack replies, “Don’t rush me, I’m thinking it about it.”

This morning I would like us to think for a few moments about our money and our lives, and about what Jesus had to say about these two subjects. The particular scene and teaching this morning is in Galilee as Jesus speaks to a large crowd.

Earlier, just before where our gospel lesson begins, Jesus had said to them, “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; for the Holy Spirit will teach you . . .what to say.”

Then suddenly, out of the blue, someone in the crowd shouts 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. (It can happen in the best of crowds.)

So Jesus responds to the plea, not by answering as requested, but, instead, by telling a story. The story of the rich landowner. A story framed by the commandment, “Do not worry.” Remember? Just before, Jesus had told his listeners not to worry about what they would say when they were brought to trial for his sake.

And just after this story, he will say, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” But, in between, he tells a story – this story – about one of the things we worry about most (most of us): money.

We can sympathize with this fellow who wants Jesus to arbitrate on his behalf. Why shouldn’t his brother share the family inheritance with him? Why should some get all and some get none? Why do we who live in the one of the most prosperous countries in the world, with an economy that, compared world-wide, is exceedingly robust, where we share so little, personally, give away so little, personally (most of us) while spending so much on ourselves and our own. AND YET, I would venture to say that most of us still probably worry about money at least some of the time.

A young man called out from the crowd and said: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus spoke as one with authority, so the petitioner believes Jesus might be just the one to convince his brother, no doubt the elder brother, who upon the father’s death has become the head of the household and the rightful inheritor of all the family possessions, to listen and do the right thing and reasonably divide the family wealth. (This was sometimes done and sometimes not done. It was up to the oldest male heir to decide whether to share.)

Obviously, the one complaining is a younger son, distraught about the inherent unfairness of it all and yearning for his share of the wealth.

In my experience as a priest, I know that, sadly, nothing will divide family – fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, children and parent – more than dividing up an estate. It seems what was true in Jesus’ day is still true today.

But Jesus refuses to get involved in this petty family squabble. He is concerned, instead, with the larger implications of covetousness and greed and preoccupation with the things of this world.

And so, he says, Beware of greed, for life does not consist of things possessed. The sum total of a person’s life is more than one’s financial portfolio.

Did you know that in the last 10 years in the United States the top seven percent of income earners saw their wealth increase by 28 percent while the remaining 93 percent of income earners saw a decrease in wealth of 4 percent. In America!, today, 16 million children (22 percent) live below poverty level. At any rate, Jesus then illustrates his point (to beware of greed) by telling a story.

There was once a man who had an unbroken run of prosperity. In today’s language, he had successfully played the commodities market. & So prosperous did he become that his barns could not hold all his abundance. “What shall I do?” he asked himself.

Now, It had to have crossed his mind that he had more than he could use, more than he could even store, & that maybe he should give away some of his surplus, share his wealth with those less fortunate, return blessing for blessing. But, instead, his solution was to tear down these barns and build bigger barns, so that he could have more, keep more, possess more, hoard more for himself. “I must have larger barns, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.”

Then, with financial security in hand, he could sit back and, finally, truly enjoy life. Finally, know that he has ample goods. Enough to relax, eat, drink, and be merry. Or maybe even build another barn!

Truth be told, when we hear this story we find ourselves rather envious of this man. A financially successful man, we see him as savvy and wise. Shrewd. Yet, Jesus concludes the story by saying that the man was a fool.

So what is the issue before us? What is the lesson or moral of this story? Why is this man foolish in God’s eyes, and why would we be foolish to model his behavior or envy his position? To answer those questions we must first understand that this is not a parable about money or even about having things / possessions. It is a parable about values and what is important in life.

Some time ago public television broadcast a program entitled “Affluenza.” The point of the program was simple: Generally, the more money we make, the more we want, the more we spend, the more we must have. And the program offered many true-life examples.

For some, a precious few, they have more money than they can ever spend, extravagant as they are, try as they might, their wealth and income is beyond them. They own many barns, so to speak, and have full-time construction crews building new ones every day.

But for most, as wealthy as they may be, as much money as they may make, their wants outpace our income. Young people with six or seven figure incomes, Millionaires 50 times over, and it’s not enough. They pile up debt, go bankrupt or involve themselves in criminal activities to try and make more money for more things. And often it costs them everything, even their lives.

And it’s not just the rich. Statistics show that young couples (both spouses in the 18-25 range) who earn a combined average of under $75,000 a year have spending habits that cause them to spend $3,000-4,000 a year more than they make. Which means that right out of the chute our young people are spending around 5% more than they earn. Now, granted some of that has to do with not paying people a livable wage, but it also has to do with the need for 4K TVs and the latest phones and Friday nights at the bar, and trips to Cancun and designer brand clothing.

When Jesus’ listener asks him to command his brother to divide the inheritance, Jesus responds, “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! Inherently, we are a greedy bunch!

Older translations use the word “covetous” instead of greedy. The two translations 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. Which is usually more than we need.

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. Or being jealous because someone has more. There’s something wrong with having more than you need and never sharing with those who have need. And there’s something wrong with spending more than you have, for things you don’t need (most of the time to impress people you don’t know).

Yet, our economy is largely based on creating in us the desire for things we don’t need or even really want. Advertisers base their appeals on our insecurities. Use this after shave! Wear these jeans! Buy this car! Be like me! It will make you happy, attractive, desired, fulfilled.

And Madison Avenue, or something like it, has been at work for a long time. In 1931, Alabama’s bishop, William George McDowell, said:

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” [or even the things others crave.]

Clarence Jordan, renegade Baptist minister, founder of Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia and author of the Cotton Patch Gospel translates today’s Gospel lesson this way:

“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.”

Jordan’s translation may be truer to the original Greek text than the New Revised Standard Version we heard read as the gospel today. It says, “This very night your life is being demanded of you.” But a closer translation is “They have demanded your life.” And who is “they”? His “things” — his “stuff” — his possessions. 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 truth, and the need to heed Jesus’ warning.

Everything we own also owns a little bit of us. Possessions can possess us (and obsess us), if we let them.

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; nor can we avoid accounting for our lives, and how we lived them, and our possessions and how we used them, when we stand before our God.

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.” The foolish farmer had stored his wealth in earthly barns, even though he had had the opportunity—the gift and blessing— to store up treasures in heaven.

Now, listen to me, because I want to be sure you hear what I’m saying. 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 barns and built bigger barns. He opened more bank accounts and invested everything in himself and his own.

God invites us to generosity. God invites us to invest our money, ourselves and our souls in something much more lasting: the richness of God and 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, “I wonder how much he left?” And his friend replied, “Everything. He left everything.”

Ultimately, the question is what do we want to leave? A store of possessions—barns full of things—or a legacy that what we had—a little or a lot—was used wisely and generously and according to God’s good plan for blessing.

For, in the end, it’s not what we leave but how we leave. Not with things stored on earth but rich toward God and with treasures stored in heaven.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.