“You Can’t Take it With You”
July 31, 2016
Rev. William C. Bills
One’s life is not to be measured by an abundance of wealth or possessions. That is Luke 12.15. Jesus said that, not me.
That might go right over the heads of people living in a culture driven by materialism. Our success often is measured by our possessions. Could Jesus get away with this today? His time and place were so different from ours. In the Roman Empire of the first century up to ninety percent of the population lived under crushing poverty.
Jesus preached good news to the poor. Sometimes that sounded like bad news to the rich. Systemic poverty was simply assumed in the Roman Empire. Money and possessions were for the privileged few. Hearing that life is not to be measured by money and possessions would have been well received by the poor. This kind of good news may account for the fact that one third of the parables have to do with money.
But wealthy people also have worry and problems. People who have a lot stuff can have a lot of stress. It is just a different kind of stress.
You might have heard something familiar in the reading. Verses nineteen and twenty are the origin of that old saying, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
I saw something one day at my local gym that really stuck with me. Someone put a note on the bulletin board that said, “Nobody on their death-bed ever said, I wish I had more money.” Something I have never seen also sticks with me. I have done hundreds of funerals but I have never seen a hearse with a luggage rack.
Jesus is preaching away when a brother, unhappy with his brother, tells Jesus to tell his brother what to do. “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!” Jesus won’t be drawn into the family dispute, though. Back in the day, the oldest brother inherited a double share of the father’s estate. This was to keep the money and property in the family line. It was the older brother’s responsibility to take twice as much as the younger brother. But we might agree with the younger brother today. That just doesn’t seem fair. Why should he get twice as much just because he is older?
Greed rears its ugly head as the younger brother interrupts the sermon. Money is coming between two brothers. Jesus won’t arbitrate but he will use the interruption as an opportunity to teach that life doesn’t depend on wealth or possessions. The greed of the younger brother becomes an opportunity for a parable.
The NRSV labels this section “The Parable of the Rich Fool.” That isn’t a part of the Greek text in any manuscript. That is an editorial insertion from 1989. In the parable, as Jesus tells it, God does call this rich farmer a fool. But not all rich people are fools, of course.
In the ancient world, a fool was someone we might liken to an atheist today. More likely, though, the fool was one who did accept the existence of God but failed to acknowledge God as the source of blessing. The fool was someone who took credit for what God did.
This particular farmer was blessed with an abundant harvest. The harvest was so good that he began to plan how he would tear down his barns to build more, bigger barns. He is reveling in his success, planning for retirement and ease and leisure when the God he fails to acknowledge interrupts his reveling and calls him a fool.
As he revels in his self-made success, God says to him, “Tonight you are coming with me! But don’t bother to pack for the trip because there isn’t a luggage rack on your hearse.”
In the ancient world, common sense and religious wisdom cautioned against trusting in wealth. From a common sense stand point today we know that life is about more than making money and owning things. But we do like having money and things make us happy.
Common sense would say this farmer was a smart man. He had a good business plan. Business is booming, the crops are good, the barns are old, and it’s time to grow the farm. Tear down the old barns. Put up newer, bigger, better barns. Hire more help. Plan for a good future and a secure, worry free retirement. Who wouldn’t do that?
Nothing here says he disregarded the poor. He does disregard God. He takes all the credit for his success. But in the ancient world, wealth was considered a blessing from God. So Jesus takes us into the rich fool’s inner monologue, and it is a monologue.
He isn’t talking to anyone but himself: “Look at how fortunate I am. Look at what I have done. Look at how much I have. I can even get more. I am going to live the good life.” He even says, “Soul, you have ample goods for many years. Eat, drink and be merry!” Does the soul need stuff?
In the parable, Jesus said, “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” The land did this. The soil did this. The sun did this. The rain did this. The hired hands working for a dollar a day did this. The things which God created did this. How much work did the rich fool actually do himself? He gives himself all the credit. The fool gives God no credit for any of his blessings.
We should all plan for the future. We should all invest for the future. We should invest in the church’s future, too. If you haven’t, you might consider the church in your estate planning. You might tithe on your estate or investment accounts or life insurance. You can take care of your church the same way you plan to take care of your family after you are gone. Give to other good causes, too. Acknowledge God’s blessings as you plan ahead. If you can’t take it with you, leave some at church!
Jesus takes us into the fool’s heart and mind. As he does, he wants us to look at our own hearts and minds. There might be a little bit of that farmer in all of us. Do any of us really know how much is enough? Everybody can get a little greedy sometime.
We work hard and accomplish a lot and we should be properly rewarded for our work. Should we take all the credit? Do we properly acknowledge God? Are we rich toward God and rich toward others or are we only rich toward ourselves? Do we give credit where credit is due or is it really all about me? If we have been blessed with abundance, do we bless others in return?
God blessed this man beyond his wildest dreams. Being rich wasn’t his problem. Taking all the credit for God’s blessings was his problem. Failing to acknowledge God was his problem. Failing to bless others was his problem. Taking care of only himself was his problem.
Someone once said, “It is better to be a poor farmer than a rich fool.” But that probably isn’t a choice we want to make.
“Parable” literally means placing two things side by side and thereby, seeing them in a new way. The purpose of a parable is to open the imagination so that we can see the old world in a new way. A parable is supposed to stir the imagination.
I wonder if Jesus was hoped that we might imagine a world where greed and self-centeredness don’t exist. He probably hoped people would imagine a world where life isn’t just about making money and buying things. Maybe he wanted us to imagine a world where everybody just shares. What would the world look like if everyone was rich toward God?
When a parable opens us up to a new way of seeing we might be in for a shock. In the ancient world, to be wealthy was to be blessed by God. It would have been shocking for people to hear this man they considered blessed called a fool by God.
Is it shocking to think that maybe God doesn’t think the way we think; maybe God doesn’t value what we value?
Jesus is often blunt. We are so used to hearing him that we might stop listening. He reminds us that we are all finite, contingent and temporary beings. Our future is as much in God’s hands as it is in our own hands. Someday we will die. When we do what will become of all our stuff? We won’t be taking it with us. When that day comes we will have to acknowledge our complete and total dependence on God. It can’t hurt anything to start doing that now.
Please remember that money and possessions are not really the issue here. Scripture never says wealth is inherently bad. It becomes an issue when it comes between us and God. It becomes the issue when it comes between us and other people. It becomes an issue when we fail to acknowledge wealth as blessing from God. It becomes an issue when we are rich toward ourselves but not rich toward God.
The real issues for Jesus are greed, self-centeredness and taking credit for the things that God has done for you. Instead of doing something foolish like that, give credit where it is due and use your blessings to be a blessing to others.