Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 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.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 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. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 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?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Luke 12:13-21, NRSV
I’m usually excited to preach on passages like this that look like yet another instance of Jesus criticizing the wealthy, as he often does. I mean, this story is known as “The Rich Fool;” kind of on the nose. But the reality of the text is a little more nuanced, and a lot more uncomfortable, because Jesus is not so much criticizing fat-cat, rich fools out there who are nothing like us, but hitting a little closer to home at us average fools.
Jesus is teaching a crowd of thousands, and one person speaks up and says, “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance.” It’s a perfectly understandable request, because he is not being treated fairly. According to the law, the older brother got twice as much of an inheritance as the younger (female children, by the way, got nothing). This guy, hearing Jesus’ many teachings about upending the status quo, criticizing the powerful, lifting up the poor and outcast, thinks maybe Jesus will upend this teaching, too, this teaching that condemns second sons to permanent second class status through no fault of their own, based solely on birth order. So he drags his brother along, hoping that Jesus will tell him off in front of thousands of people. Every younger sibling’s dream, right? And you can bet that there are numerous other second sons also in the crowd, and third sons and fourth–all economically disaffected young men, looking to this new teacher for hope.
Although the First Century economic system was different from ours, this young man and everyone else in the crowd that shares his circumstance represent essentially the middle class. He’s got some inheritance, most likely land, to be able to produce a moderate income with, it’s just not as much as he thinks he deserves. So he’s showing up with this crowd like it’s a Bernie Sanders rally saying, “Jesus, the system is rigged, do something about it!” And honestly, I would do the same thing. I would totally say, “Jesus, Son of God, I know you command even the winds and water and they obey you, but really, what are you going to do about my student loans?” But Jesus, faced with this crowd hungry for answers, refuses to tell them what they want to hear, and basically insults this poor guy, comparing him to a greedy rich man who is so hapless that on his death bed, God himself calls him a fool. How disappointing and demoralizing, to be so convinced about what you deserve, only to get shot down by the very person you thought was going to help you out.
But Jesus’ goal is not to make the guy feel bad for asking the question. He actually wants to save this guy’s life, his future, by waking him up to the fact that he’s been focusing his energy in the wrong place. On works and possessions and toil, all vanities, as the author of Ecclesiastes (King Solomon, by tradition), discovered. Our young man is here in a crowd of thousands with this great spiritual teacher, whom some are calling the Messiah, the savior of the world, and all he can come up with is to ask a question about his finances. How typically bourgeois. Talk about a wasted opportunity. So Jesus redirects him to what’s important. Earlier in Luke , Jesus has laid out his ministry saying he has come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to prisoners, sight to the blind, to free the oppressed. Jesus does not say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to create a slightly more equitable distribution of wealth.” No, Jesus is concerned with those who have nothing, who are in dire situations. Those are the people Jesus focuses on helping, and this guy who’s so concerned with not inheriting as much as he wanted could probably help those people too. He might use his small inheritance to help others even less well-off. Because when you stop focusing on your own needs and start seeing how much you have to offer others, you suddenly start to feel very rich.
Something subtle in the parable is that when it says the rich man’s crops produce abundantly and he isn’t able to store it all, that means he’s gotten a much bigger yield than the land was expected to give, more than what the neighbors have gotten. That doesn’t happen all the time, and it’s a blessing from God to be celebrated. Jesus’ listeners, used to having to deal with drought and plagues that more often than not bring about low yields would’ve understood that. But instead of thinking about how to share this windfall, the landowner wants it all for himself. He says to himself, “eat drink and be merry,” instead of inviting all his neighbors over and having a big party to celebrate and share his abundance, and so he dies alone instead of surrounded by friends, dies being mocked by God–harsh, Dude!–instead of being able to see the joy and happiness he created by sharing with others.
The young man, instead of saying, “Wow, I have an inheritance, when plenty of people,” (women for example, as we’ve noted), “get nothing. Let’s see the good I can do with what I have.” Instead he looks at his inheritance and says it’s not good enough. It’s not as good as what his brother got. He has a scarcity mindset, so Jesus offers him a choice: you can continue to be laser-focused on the unfairness of your financial situation and stew about it, maybe even find a judge somewhere who will award you more of the estate that you want and when you die that will be all you have, just like the rich fool in the parable. Or you can turn your attention towards serving God and God’s people, towards what you have to offer.
The poor, whom Jesus loved and served, are the ones who get this philosophy of sharing what you have rather than storing it up much more than the wealthy. Recent research published by UC Berkley shows that the wealthiest Americans give about 1% of their income, while the poorest give over 3%, which is more significant than it sounds because the poor are not able to take it as a tax deduction as the rich are. So the poor are giving more even though they have less to give. I remember one of my seminary classmates speaking movingly about having been on a mission trip to Haiti, and how at every house they went to, the people whom they were there to serve who had nothing went out of their ways to provide a gift from the very best they could offer–a wonderfully cooked meal, clothing and crafts they’d made, etc–to their North American guests, who had everything. And I’ve heard other missionaries and students tell similar experiences from all over the world. Generosity does not spring from having extra to give away; generosity springs from understanding our interdependence on each other and understanding that everything we think we own actually belongs to God. News flash: We don’t get to take all that stuff with us when we go. As Jesus puts it, “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
We hear and will continue to hear from politicians through November a lot about what they are going to do for us. How they are going to benefit our pocketbooks and bank accounts. And that’s great, they should do all that for us. We deserve it. We are lovely people, after all. But that kind of thinking about what we can get for ourselves is temporal, earthly, secular thinking, and we can’t afford to let that kind of thinking control our spiritual lives–unless we want to risk being mocked by God on our death beds. Jesus does offer us spiritual promises of salvation and heavenly rewards, but contrary to what proponents of the prosperity Gospel say, he doesn’t promise us earthly blessings. Instead, he encourages us and sometimes flat out tells us to do things for each other, to look at what we’ve been given and find ways to share that with our brothers and sisters, so that we don’t have to eat drink and be merry alone but together with our beloved community.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus wants to wake us up and save our lives and our futures and question where we are focusing our energy, because if you cling to what you have because you don’t think it’s enough, you will be poor indeed. But if you share what you have, however small it may seem, you will have unlocked the secret of Solomon: that growing our wealth and possessions is vanity, but true wealth lies in growing our souls and our community.
Based on sermon preached July 31, 2016, Church of the Angels, Pasadena