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The 8th Sunday after Pentecost; Luke 12:13–21

Supposedly true story; not mine, but supposedly true nevertheless. Father is reading age-appropriate Bible stories to young Andrew, about five years old. One story is about faith. “Do you have faith, Andrew?” father asks. Andrew thinks for quite a while, then answers, “No, I have toys!”

It’s faintly funny from a child, until you think about it, so let me be more blunt. Some years ago a bumper sticker was in fashion (you may remember it) that sarcastically captures what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel, the Parable of the Rich Fool:

Whoever has the most toys when they die – wins!

The setting is a crowd gathered to hear Jesus teach . Jesus, a rabbi – a teacher – with a growing reputation, is asked to intervene in a family dispute. Rabbis are assumed to know the law, and to judge fairly in the trickier questions of life. Disputes about inheritances, back then as now, could tie up property for months, even years. So one of the crowd decides to short-circuit such a dispute with a definite opinion from Jesus. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

The size of the property in question is not known, but probably was of modest size, a small farm or vineyard perhaps, and some money saved for bad years. According to Jewish law the elder son in a family with two heirs receives two thirds of the father’s possessions, the younger the rest. But real estate, farms, vineyards, are not easily divided while remaining profitable. The elder son will try to keep the land holdings intact. However if he gives up the money, he will not survive a drought or other natural disaster; if he divides the land, he will reduce future profitability and viability. The younger son on the other hand, unless he becomes a labourer, needs capital. His older brother’s often repeated excuse, “I’m working on it!” is no longer satisfactory. By this time probably family relationships have broken down, there is acrimony and even open hostility. Hence his asking Jesus to intervene in the dispute.

Jesus is simply not willing to become involved. He won’t judge between the two brothers, who if truth be told, are both guilty of at least covetousness if not greed. Instead Jesus teaches how attachment to wealth as security is a threat to both parties in the dispute, and all the others. Perhaps the younger brother’s case is just, and the older brother is unjust, but the ministry of Jesus is not about the incidental patching up of injustices. Rather, his ministry is the bearing of the ultimate injustice, death by crucifixion, and raising up an entirely new creation. The establishment of God’s rule will leave questions of this sort simply moot. Matters which involve much more than an injustice over an inheritance are about to be resolved on the cross. The Parable of the Rich Fool illustrates the silliness of securing our future with material rather than spiritual means.

Few of us would see having more than we know what to do with a problem! The landowner in the story very quickly knows what to do with an unexpected bumper crop. In a good agricultural year, putting excess grain on the market simply depresses prices. Storing it for future years, when the demand would be higher, ensures more income, and is good retirement policy. In effect the barn construction project is the 1st century equivalent of a well-planned and well-managed Retirement Savings Plan. We might do the same with an unexpectedly large yearly income; carefully invest, rather than spend, and look forward to a more comfortable retirement than we had expected.

There is no suggestion that the landowner is wicked, or that he would profiteer, or delight in the misery of the poor. He has simply been fortunate, and decides to invest his fortune in a secure future. Most of us are likely to ask, “What’s wrong with that?”

Simply, nothing! There is nothing wrong with carefully managing one’s resources during one’s lifetime, for one’s own needs. What is ultimately wrong is to assume that such a management plan has survival value for eternity. It is wrong to provide for material security only, and to ignore spiritual security. In eternity, it is being “rich toward God” that has survival value.

The billionaire J. Paul Getty was once asked how much is enough? He replied, “Enough is always a little more than what I’ve already got.”

The sense of security from material wealth is without equal in its ability to claim the focus of our lives. The one who is wealthy needs to be committed to managing money, or risk losing it. To one who does not have wealth, but craves it, the lure of money can be as dominant as the possession of it. And, paradoxically, to someone who has a moral aversion to wealth, the distain for it can be as obsessive and controlling as the desire for it. Our relationship to wealth is vital to our spiritual health.

No wonder Jesus talked so much about a person’s relationship to money. Sixteen of his 38 parables are concerned with how to handle money and possessions. One out of every 10 verses in the Gospels deals directly with the subject of earthly treasure. The entire Bible contains about 500 verses on prayer, less than that on faith, and more than 2000 on money and possessions. The biblical message is that the power of wealth and its capacity to usurp the primacy of God in our lives is hazardous to our spiritual health. Jesus said more about money than he did about heaven and hell combined. Money, wealth, has the power, more than any other earthly thing, to direct our attention away from what truly matters, entrusting our ultimate wealth and security to God.

I am not preaching against wealth or money as such. Remember it is not money that is the root of all evil, it is the love of money. Ultimately it is a matter of what we worship, God or idols. It is a matter of what is the object of our faith, God or toys! Rabbi Harold Kushner writes,

In the Bible, idol-worship is not a matter of praying to stones and statues. Idol-worship is the celebration of the [human-created] {man-made (sic)} as the highest achievement in the world. What is wrong with idol-worship, with worshipping human achievements as if they were ultimate achievements, is not just that it is disloyal or offensive to God. The sin of idol-worship is that it is futile. Because it is an indirect way of worshipping ourselves, it can never help us to grow, as the worship of God beyond us can help us to grow. As a result, we find life flat and uninspiring, and don’t realize why.1

A small excursus, a detour, returning to J. Paul Getty and his “always a little more”. The results of that most visible today are The Getty Trust, operating both the Getty Museum and Getty Villa in Los Angeles, the first specializing in European and American art, the latter in Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. The Trust also funds research in all these areas, often resulting in public programmes and specialized exhibitions of great significance. Admission to the museums and their programs are free, although one has to pay for parking. Through these Mr. Getty has greatly enriched the lives of artists, archivists, researchers, curators, conservators, and the general public.

However, the only certain thing we can say about Mr. Getty and his life is, he has been dead since 1976!

Jesus in the Parable of the Rich Fool confronts the conventional wisdom of his time, and ours, which claims that personal peace issues directly from prosperity, and thus the accumulation of possessions, toys(!), is the goal of the “good life”. The rich landowner of the parable lived by this wisdom, and in the end found that it provided no security at all.

The Gospel provides an answer. Riches toward God is the foremost concern of those who follow Jesus Christ. With this wealth comes a kind of detachment, which neither disdains the good things of the world, nor covets them. Martin Luther said that “God divided the hands into fingers so that money could slip through”. Those who are rich toward God hold possessions lightly, so they can slip through. They hold what they possess generously, as gifts from God to be delighted in, to be enjoyed as needed personally, and to be shared and used for the well-being of others.
Let me leave the last words to St. Paul. To the Philippians he wrote,

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.(Phil. 4:11b–13a)

Or from today’s Epistle to the Colossians,

… seek the things that are above, where Christ is, … not on things that are on earth, … put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly …(Col. 3:1b, 2b, 5a)

     1  Harold Kushner, Who Needs God (New York, Summit Books, 1989) p.54

Copyright ©2022 by Gerry Mueller