Proper 13 C 2019
Seminarian’s Address by Aimee Hill
The Gospel of Luke 12:13-21
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.”
My family will never forget the story of the pink rotary phone. My sister and I received allowance for completing our chores, and she saved up all of her money to buy a heart-shaped pink rotary phone. If you were born in 2000 or later, a rotary phone is like a cell phone, but big and clunky and has a chord that plugs into the wall. And shockingly, it doesn’t leave the house. My parents warned her that it would cost all of her money and she might be sad when she realized that she couldn’t purchase anything else. She insisted she wanted the phone and so my parents relented.
My sister anxiously awaited the package coming in the mail. And then the day finally arrived. She tore open the box, my parents helped her set it up, and then she sat back and felt an immediate wave…of disappointment. It didn’t light up. It wasn’t an activity. Unlike today’s cell phones, it didn’t come with any games. It was just a phone.
She put all her eggs in this one basket, and it came up empty.
I have another friend who I lived with in my early twenties. She would consistently save up her hard-earned money and purchase a Coach bag, a Diane von Furstenberg dress, or something similar. It was always an exciting day when we would go to the store and she would pick out the item she saved for. But then, this friend discovered her love for photography. Instead of saving up for a new purse or dress, she began purchasing the newest lens or camera body. She started a business, and a decade later still shares joy with people through her photography skills. Her love changed, and so did her spending.
With today’s Gospel story I can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of this random man. A few verses prior to what we heard this morning reveal that Jesus is speaking to thousands of people. And he’s speaking about pretty intense subject matter. He’s talking about what the listeners should do when they undergo persecution. It only takes a cursory reading of Roman history to know that the persecution about which Jesus is speaking is intense. This isn’t a “Trader Joe’s ran out of my favorite hummus and I lost my parking spot” sort of discussion.
Some of these people were going to lose their lives. Families were going to be torn apart. It was devastating. And Jesus tells them, in the midst of all of this, to not fear, when some random guy interrupts and tells Jesus that he wants his inheritance. You kind of want to pull the guy aside and tell him to read the room. This was not the time.
Still, while the timing is obviously questionable, it was actually common for people to go to their rabbis, and Jesus was a rabbi, and ask them to settle legal matters, such as issues of inheritance. Sandra L. Richter explains in her book, The Epic of Eden, that Jews living in the 1st century typically lived with up to three generations of their family (2008, p. 26). And the head of the household, the oldest male, was the patriarch. He was in charge. When there was an issue, he settled it. Where there was a need, he figured out how to provide. And when he died his firstborn son would take over (Richter, 2008, p. 29).
Because of this, the oldest son got double the inheritance as all the other children. This is because the oldest son was responsible for the survival of the entire family. He got double the portion but quadruple the responsibility.
This guy asking Jesus for his inheritance couldn’t have been the oldest brother. If he was, he wouldn’t have had to ask, he would have immediately received the inheritance. So, at the surface it appears that the man’s request is reasonable, he wants his portion of the inheritance from his older brother. But somehow Jesus can see that greed is involved. Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor states that the Greek word for “Greed” here includes “the insatiable desire for more.”
There’s a popular book out right now, the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo. I’m not ashamed to admit, I read it and while I wish some of her points would have impacted my organizational skills a little more, it did change how I fold clothes. I now find the process of folding clothes therapeutic, which sounds so weird, but I’m telling you, her method of folding clothes changed my life and lessened by anxiety.
But in her book, Marie tells people that when they’re deciding whether or not to keep an object, they should ask if it sparks joy. If it does, even if it’s a raggedy old doll, you should keep it. If it doesn’t, even if it’s an expensive purse or heart-shaped pink rotary phone, you should let it go. I think the rich fool in the parable Jesus goes on to tell, could have learned a lot from Marie Kondo.
In the parable of the rich fool, a man has more than he knows what to do with and so he builds a bigger barn to be able to hoard it all. In Marie Kondo fashion, I can’t imagine that ALL of his crops sparked joy. The false sense of security that came with those crops did bring him joy, but it was misguided.
For this man to have the massive amount of crops that he had, it would have taken multiple people working on his farm. But he never thinks of them when considering what to do with his abundance.
Further, Israel had very clear guidelines as to how one should take care of the poor such as orphans and widows. Which makes sense after understanding the issue of one’s inheritance. If a person was an orphan or widow, that meant they didn’t have a patriarch, a man taking care of them or a family to live with. They were on their own. This usually meant they lived in poverty and danger. This is why passages such as Isaiah 1:17 say that people should “defend the orphan” and “plead for the widow” (NRSV). Those who had wealth were to share with those who had none.
But this rich man never talks or thinks of anyone else but himself.
And in the end, God calls him a fool. He hoarded his riches, died and lost everything he worked for. He had so much, but none of it brought him lasting joy.
After this parable, Jesus looks at the crowd and tells them to not worry. And after reminding them that worrying doesn’t “add as single hour to” their “span of life” (12:25, NRSV), Jesus tells them to strive for God’s “kingdom, and all these things will be given to you as well” (12:31).
So, why is this rich fool like the younger brother? Why does Jesus tell his followers not to worry when, frankly, after that discussion about persecution, they had a lot to worry about?
Because Jesus was about a different sort of Kingdom.
For those of us who live in America and understand democracy, kingdom can be a vague concept at best. But for those living in the 1st century, they understood that Kingdom meant that Caesar was in charge. The Romans had the power, and you tried to stay out of their way because those in power could step all over those without power, with minimal consequences.
But Jesus comes and announces a new Kingdom, the Kingdom of God. It’s a kingdom that looks out for orphans and widows. A kingdom where the first is last and the last is first. And the currency in this kingdom is self-giving love. When my friend’s love changed from clothes to photography, her spending changed as well. Our loves determine our spending. And when our very currency is love, that will impact how we use our finances.
When I first read this passage, I was not excited to talk about it. We all know that it is not polite to talk about money. And for a moment, if I’m really honest, I kind of wish someone would have mentioned that to Jesus.
But the more I looked into it, the more I realized this passage wasn’t just about money. Not at its core. At its core it was about a new Kingdom. And yes living in that Kingdom changes how we view our finances, but it does so much more than that. It enables us to live without anxiety. To be willing to sacrifice to show people a better way, a way of self-giving love.
To be clear – It’s perfectly fine to save money. A quick read through the book of Proverbs even lets us see that it is wise to save. And it’s also okay to acknowledge that sometimes our possessions do bring us joy, just ask Marie Kondo.
Let’s just not let money and resources become our King. Let’s acknowledge that while finances can bring with them a sense of security, they can’t erase our deepest fears. Only God can do that. Let’s let our money be something we’re thankful for and another tool we have in this new Kingdom of self-giving love. May we realize, as Jesus said to this man worried about his inheritance, “…one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (12:15, NRSV).
Caring for the orphan and widow or aiding the people who worked on the Rich Fool’s farm are acts of kindness that would have followed the foolish man beyond the grave and even given him lasting joy. Who are the modern version of orphans and widows in our lives? Who are those people in our lives who need help? Who can we share the self-giving love of God with? May we not get to the end grasping our possessions, but joyfully holding the hands of those to whom we loved along the way, ever open to the self-giving love of God. Amen.