Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday August 1, 2010 10th after Pentecost, Proper 13
Text: Luke 12: 13-21 The Rich Fool
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Title: Jesus’ Investment Advice
There is an old story of the two brothers sons of a wealthy bank president. His two sons were the reverse of the Prodigal Son and his brother. The older brother was a hard-partying, playboy-type while the younger son was the responsible-straight-arrow-early-to-bed-early-to-rise type who liked to follow the rules. When their father died, the two brothers found themselves in the funeral parlor with their father’s corpse. The older brother said to the younger, “You know that money meant more to dad than anything else in the world. So I think the most fitting tribute to him would be if each of us placed $1,000 dollars in each of his hands so that he can be buried with money in his fists.”
The younger dutiful son responded, “Of course, I guess that would be a fitting tribute.” The younger son then went to the bank and withdrew 10 crisp $100 bills. He returned to funeral home and placed them in his father’s hand. Later that night the older brother returned to the funeral home when no one else was around, took the $1000, wrote a check for $2,000 and slipped it into his father’s hand.
The point is that if you had and older brother like this you too would be looking for someone like Jesus with enough moral authority to help you settle a family dispute. We are not told much but in ancient family systems the eldest inherited and held the responsibility of dividing the wealth among the siblings. Typically the courts of those days did not deal with these family disputes and neither, evidently, did Jesus. He chooses not to get sucked into this family conflict delivering a thought provoking line, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
At first Jesus’ response seems harsh and without compassion but his wisdom saying that follows points to his challenging line of thinking. Jesus is expert at recognizing idolatry. Again and again he exposes the underlying issues behind people’s urgent needs. The truth is that Jesus had more to say about the first commandment of the ten best ways than all the other nine combined. “I am the Lord your God..; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20: 2-3). Jesus was uncanny is his ability to recognize our human tendency to elevate something that is not God into a godlike status.
Our own country is in the midst of coming to grips with a kind of idolatry that led to the near collapse of our own economic system. The lust for more economic growth, more capital, more wealth led Wall Street elites to gamble with the lives and futures of millions of Americans. Michael Lewis, in his excellent book The Big Short chronicles the financial meltdown and concludes that the financial crisis was the work of people on Wall Street and mortgage brokers who acted in their self-interest without fear of either legal or economic reprisal. Lewis an economist who once praised the rapidly expanding market for derivatives has reconsidered many things especially the idolatrous impulse of human greed and the will to profit at the expense of others. He notes in his book that the top 25 hedge fund managers made a cool 25.3 billion dollars, yes billion, in the midst of the economic collapse by betting against bad mortgages. They were not heroes but rather intelligent opportunistic humans looking for profit as their ultimate prize. Interestingly as middle-class and poor Americans struggle to make ends meet the wealthiest 400 families have seen their taxes fall by 50% even as their income has increased 5-fold over the past decade.
Idolatry is quite simply to look for ultimate meaning, satisfaction or reward where ultimacy does not exist. To seek meaning where real meaning cannot be found is the path to idolatry. Jesus seems to offer this difficult “beware of all kinds of greed for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” in order to protect the brother from becoming destructively focused on his inheritance.
Now I’m not trying portray Jesus as overly simplistic about the material realm. Jesus did not condemn possessions nor did he take a vow of poverty. He was fully alive to the world and enjoyed it even to the point of being labeled a wine-bibber and a glutton. Jesus knew how to party but he also understood the deeper needs of the human soul. He understood the need for balance and sanity in life. A balance that came from understanding one’s possessions as gifts from God to be used for God’s purposes in the world. Jesus had a knack for recognizing when someone was expecting too much from given reality, when things were out of balance. In the case of the young brother upset about his inheritance, Jesus reminds him that what a person has does not define what a person is. Biblical personhood is not about possessions, it is rather about knowing you are loved by God and growing into a person marked by character, love, compassion, and generosity.
As if to illustrate this brief interaction with the young man Jesus tells the parable of the Rich Fool. In this story a prosperous farmer enjoys a fantastic harvest year. He reflects on his abundance, so abundant was his crop that he did not even have barns big enough to hold it. He decides to tear down his existing barns and build larger ones. Proud of his plan he congratulates himself saying, “Soul, you have ample good laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But in answer to his boast, God answers him, “You fool! This very night you 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.”
It is hard to admit but this parable is a bit troubling to many of us. And of course that is what parables are meant to do, to pick at us, to irritate and agitate us to the point of teasing us into active thought. Parables always have a twist or an unexpected turn in them. This one of course is troubling because the scenario is one that we would often label success. He’s had a great year. He’s made it. His barns are full and now after all that hard work he can relax kick back and enjoy his wealth and ease.
What is the trouble with that? Why does Jesus call this kind of person a fool?
I’m sure you can think of reasons on your own. One might be that life is uncertain, fragile, and complex. No amount of wealth can insulate you from the pain of human existence. To be painfully honest, things can only do so much for you. There are human hungers and needs that no amount of wealth can satisfy. One might thing of those well-known theologians the Beatles “Money can’t buy you love, can’t buy you love, love, money can’t buy you love.”
Another reason for seeing this man as a fool could be simply that he missed the genuine delight of being deeply grateful, of realizing how much he had been blessed and how utterly beyond his control it really was. I was listening to a farmer speak on NPR recently and he pointed out that only about 5% of farming is something that one can control while the overwhelming majority of farming is a grace and a great mystery called life. Perhaps what this wealthy farmer needed the most was to understand the simple wonder of the grace that is behind and in and underneath and through all things and then instead of congratulating himself he could have found himself into a place of wonder, awe and worship.
One last and compelling reason to call this man a fool is evident in his absence of generosity. Generosity is at the very center of life. If we consider our defining story of creation, the biblical narrative suggests that God is so thrilled with creation, so fascinated with life and being that the only appropriate response was something like this, “Wow this is really terrific stuff this life thing has to be shared, I can’t just keep it to myself what would be the fun of that.” Creation is at its very core an act of God’s wild generosity, his sharing of life with others rather than keeping it private. Life itself is God sharing who he is and what he has with others. This is why the wealthy farmer, so out of touch with the shape of reality, is called a fool. He looks at his good fortune, his abundance and says the opposite of what God said in the beginning. The rich farmer proposes to keep it all to himself and in so doing misses the point and source of life’s deepest meaning.
There is deep pleasure and delight in discovering the depths of grace, the many gifts and abundances we have done nothing to deserve and did not make ourselves. However there is a corollary pleasure that pushes beyond gratitude toward others – the deep joy and satisfaction of seeing your own generosity bless and encourage and energize others. Giving in ways that enhance and bring life to others, discovering how to use what you have been given to truly make life better for others is close to the heart of who we are made to be as children of a generous God.
The Rich Fool is judged a fool by God not out of anger or scorn but out of a deep sadness. The Rich Fool missed what it means to be a human being. He lost the opportunity to be generous toward others just as God had been generous to him. He had mistaken what one has for what one is.
In the end, this parable of Jesus is the best investment advice available. Invest what you have in ways that make treasure in heaven, in ways that help others see God and grow into God’s likeness. Use what you have to reveal the wild presence of the kingdom of God here on earth and in doing so you will discover who you really are meant to be. Jesus challenges the hedge fund managers on Wall Street and you and I to find life through generosity not through greed. Jesus knows how hard it is at times to be generous especially in a culture that is constantly telling you to grab all you can and ignore the needs of others. In the midst of the clamor and noise of our world “Get yours that’s all the matters.” Jesus offers this ancient yet contemporary wisdom, “Be generous and you will be rich toward God.”
I wish to acknowledge my debt to Robert Farrar Capon and John Claypool for their excellent exegesis on this parable which helped to shape this sermon. The story of the two brothers was told by The Rev. John Claypool who lives in New Orleans.