By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 12:13-21
Sometimes after church on Sunday, I go home, grab lunch and plunk down in front of the TV. I’m not a sports fan and I don’t want to get held captive by a plot that is going to glue me to my recliner for the next two hours, so I flip on CNN. As is the current nature of our world, most of the news is focused on wars, terror, erratic governments, and natural disasters; a parade of refugees and victims of our world’s suffering. Yet, in between those sad stories, I am peppered – might I even say, accosted – with commercials about investing my money so as to “secure” my future. In a matter of just a couple seconds I am transitioned from the face of a child, alone, dirty, hungry, and frightened to a well-dressed, distinguished-looking investment representative reminding me of the importance of planning for a secure, “risk-free” retirement. We are advised; we can never have too much squirreled away – just ask the little Voya squirrel – as the investment professionals proclaim their version of the gospel that the more we stash away, the more we have insured ourselves against that which threatens to do us harm. While a young child stands impotent at a border, hungry and desperate, I am urged to secure my future by investing wisely so I can live in ease in my retirement. It is a distorted, yet all too common, version of the American dream… and it sounds remarkably like the character in this morning’s parable from the gospel of Luke.
This morning we continue our fall sermon series: Building, Growing, Connecting: Living God’s Vision for Trinity. This morning, like last Sunday, we focus on growth and the generosity that is needed for growth to occur. Growth requires the generous giving of our resources: time, money and talents. The opposite of generosity is greed and Jesus cautions us: “Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life is not composed of the abundance of one’s possessions.”
The parable Jesus tells comes as response to a man who is attempting to drag Jesus into a family squabble, an inheritance dispute. Rare is the family untouched by such squabbles. And the circumstances behind the man’s request illuminate the danger that results from such an unhealthy obsession with stuff. Greed jeopardizes our relationships. Greed jeopardizes our relationships and it jeopardizes our eternal soul. This man is at odds with his brother. What should have been a loyal and intimate relationship is now strained; clearly damaged by greed.
But the parable reveals that our attachment to wealth, our desire for abundance, threatens to destroy a wider, more-encompassing social fabric. Allow me to explain…
Two important factors in interpreting this parable require a better understanding of ancient Palestinian culture: 1) patron/benefaction and 2) the concept of limited good.
First, patron benefaction: In Jesus’ culture, there were no governmental services; so-called “entitlement programs.” The poor were cared for through patron/benefaction. Those who were wealthy were expected to provide for the poor. There were only a very few rich; most of the population were peasants. So, they relied on the generosity of the wealthy. Those who had wealth and did not share it were considered dishonorable, shameful. The respect that a wealthy patron received was based on their degree of benefaction or generosity. Now today, generous giving to charities can provide the giver with a nice tax write off. But in Jesus’ time giving to the needy provided the giver with honor… a social currency of far greater value than a tax write off. Such wealthy patrons were held in high esteem within their community because of their generosity; because the lives of the poor in their community were, quite literally, at their mercy.
So, at the start of Jesus’ parable, a Palestinian peasant in the audience might assume that this man whose lands have produced so abundantly will behave in an honorable way and many of his community’s more vulnerable citizens will be blessed by his windfall. Surely this man will be generous with his “ample goods” so that the poor and needy in his community can be blessed by his abundance. His unwillingness to share, his selfish hoarding, makes him a disgraceful social anomaly.
In addition, ancient Palestinian culture believed in limited good; that is, they viewed all resources as inherently limited. In America today, it’s hard for us to think of things in this way. We rail against limits. When something runs out, we go to the store and get more. But, in Jesus’ time, everyone understood limits. Resources were limited; they just were. And, if this landowner had excess, his greed meant that someone else didn’t have enough. If he was hoarding, someone was doing without. Even the land was subject to this kind of thinking. The people assumed that, if land produced a larger than average harvest one year, that would eventually be balanced out by a smaller harvest. Remember the story of Joseph in Egypt? It provides a perfect illustration. The Pharaoh has a dream and Joseph interprets it. The dream’s meaning is that there will be 7 years of bountiful harvest followed by 7 years of bad harvest. And so the Pharaoh, as benefactor for his kingdom, does what is expected of him. He puts Joseph in charge and the surplus is stored up in a responsible fashion, so that – when famine arrives – his people can go to Pharaoh to get food. Joseph and the Pharaoh act in an honorable way, a way that is fitting one who has been blessed with abundance.
But not so for the wealthy land owner of Jesus’ parable; he does not share his abundance, he selfishly and foolishly hoards it thereby jeopardizing the well-being of others and the stability of his community.
This man is an island unto himself; who thinks only of himself. I love the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases the last verse of this story in The Message. Peterson writes: “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”[i] Perhaps he has succumbed to the fear so prevalent in our 21st century culture: the fear of outliving one’s money. What could be a worse fate? Well, the good news is, this land owner won’t outlive his money. And the bad news is this land owner won’t outlive his money. That very night, he will die and what will happen to all that excess stuff? Well, exactly what should have happened to it in the first place: it will be passed on to those who need it because “you can’t take it with you.”
Friends, the vast majority of us are – by global standards – wealthy. If we have a reliable roof over our heads and a bed to sleep in and more than one change of clothing, if we own even an old economy car, we surpass many of the world’s citizens. And yet, we are tempted on a daily basis to buy into our culture’s message that squirreling away our assets can somehow insure, can guarantee, our well-being; that it can insulate us from disaster. Now, don’t misunderstand me, even Jesus in other parables encourages financial shrewdness. If everyone went out and gave away everything they had, it wouldn’t amount to a very logical solution. But, I’m not worried about that possibility because most of us will never consider that option. But what we should consider is this: do we have more than what we need? Are we holding on to abundance; storing up, warehousing, excess? Or, can we let go of that stuff so that our lives and the resources God has blessed us with can bring blessing into the lives of others? Fear and greed are like ugly monsters that must be continually fed. They will never get enough to be satisfied. When we hoard abundance, it reveals a lack of trust in God. When we hold on to more than we need, we are placing our faith in stuff, not God. Greed is idolatry as we succumb to the lie that something other than God can secure us and provide for our future. When we hoard abundance we jeopardize our own souls; and we jeopardize the well-being of others who need those resources we are squirreling away; and we jeopardize our relationships… and it is those relationships – with God and with others – that actually do secure our well-being in this life and the life to come.
Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story entitled “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” about a Russian peasant named Pahom.[ii] Early in the story the devil overhears Pahom remark that, if only he had sufficient land, he would not even fear the devil. That’s “game on” for the devil who decides to put Pahom to the test. He is a tenant farmer and when the old woman who owns the commune’s land decides to sell, the peasants want to buy it for themselves. Initially attempting to buy it jointly, they cannot come to an agreement, so the land gets divided up into small individual parcels. Initially, Pahom delights in this land that is his. But neighbors sometimes tromp through his pastures or let their cows stray and graze in his meadow. He takes some to court… which makes life in the village anything but pleasant. A traveler tells him of a commune in a more remote area. Land parcels are so much larger for there is abundance space. Pahom travels to check it out and discovers it is true. So he sells all that he has, uproots his family and settles in this distant region. But there, as well, he soon determines that the space is insufficient; he just doesn’t have the room he needs. Eventually, another traveler engages with Pahom and tells him of an even more distant land inhabited by a primitive and simple-minded indigenous tribal people. Their land is virgin soil and they will sell it at a ridiculously cheap price. One can offer these tribal people, the Bashkirs, gifts like tea and wine and blankets in return for which one can gain the title to as much land as can be walked from sunup to sundown. It is hundreds of miles away but Pahom is giddy with the thought of it. He sets out on the trip, leaving his wife to mind the homestead and land. When he arrives, he finds it all as the traveler had said.
So early the next morning, the tribal chiefs gather at a location Pahom selects to stake the ground. Pahom is to walk throughout the day, digging a small hole to stake each corner of his new property. He must return to his point of origin, marked by a cap laid on the ground, before the sun sets or he will gain nothing. He must walk the full circuit from sunup to sundown. Pahom walks quickly and covers a vast area before he makes his first turn and so it continues throughout the day. But he becomes anxious when the sun begins to drop and he recognizes that the tribesmen are miles away. He fears he has become too ambitious. So he walks more quickly and then begins to run, fearful the sun will drop and he will have nothing to show for his efforts. He is out of breath and feeling ill but still he runs and runs, desperate to reach his point of origin. He sees the chief and other tribal leaders laughing. He races toward them, heart pounding. And at this point, I quote Tolstoy:
[Pahom] uttered a cry: his legs gave way beneath him,
he fell forward and reached the cap with his hands.
“Ah, that’s a fine fellow,” exclaimed the chief. “He has gained much land.”
Pahom’s servant came running up and tried to raise him, but he saw
that blood was flowing from his mouth. Pahom was dead!
The Bashkirs clicked their tongues to show their pity.
Pahom’s servant picked up the spade and dug a grave
long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it.
Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”[iii]
[i] The Message by Eugene Peterson; NavPress; 2002; p. 1883.
[ii] Taken from Walk in the Light and Twenty-Three Tales by Leo Tolstoy; Plough Publishing House; 1998.
[iii] Ibid, p. 282.
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