Thursday, 28 July 2016

Sunday Sermon: Luke 12.13-21 - The Rich Man and his barns.

Someone in the crowd said to him, “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.”


What’s Jesus’ attitude to wealth?

Just when you think Jesus is negative on having wealth, you hear him tell stories praising those that are clever with money and those that are excellent stewards.

Jesus doesn’t say that it’s wrong to have wealth or to be wealthy. He doesn’t say that you can’t be his disciple if you have wealth. He doesn’t propose a target income that is acceptable and then beyond that we’re in trouble. Rather he says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” So…let’s be clear. Jesus doesn’t say it’s wrong to have wealth but he constantly warns that obsession with wealth can become an idol. Jesus is not against wealth as such – he’s against greed and against hoarding what you have as if it were yours. Jesus is reminding us that God is the maker and owner of everything. We’re just managers of God’s things.

Now I know plenty of Christians who think that Jesus is very opposed to wealth. Most of those live by a scarcity approach to life which acknowledges that there are a limited amount of resources in the world. Because of that, they say, a Christian ought not to acquire wealth. The goal, then, is to take only what you need and leave the rest to others. Don’t buy a new car until you’ve run the old one into the ground. Don’t buy new clothes until you look like you’ve been dressed by Man at Oxfam. Don’t live in a house with more rooms than you need. Don’t eat out in posh restaurants. Live a simple life so that others can have some of the world’s limited resources too. I find that a very attractive set of ideals … but not so attractive that I’m prepared to apply it wholesale to myself, but I admire them, nevertheless.

I also know some Christians who think that God has blessed them with wealth because they have somehow been more faithful disciples than others. In a sense, they see wealth as a divine reward for having been good. Just so long as they go to church, keep their nose clean, and give away 10% to the church, then God is pleased to bless them even more. For these people, wealth is a sign of divine favour – regardless how they made it. I’m not so attracted to that view myself.

I also know quite a few Christians that live very compartmentalized lives when it comes to money. They don’t think seriously about God and wealth at the same time. Perhaps it that British thing: like politics and religion, talking about our money is considered a bit of an anathema.  

Well…Jesus doesn’t actually say there are limited resources in the world and he doesn’t say that if you give God 10% the rest is yours as a reward and he most certainly doesn’t say that you can live as if God and money were separated from one another. Rather he says that greed, not wealth, is bad and being consumed with possessions is worse. If we become obsessed with having more and more, our possessions will possess us and we’ll forget that God is the maker and owner of all things including everything we have and all that we are.

So, whilst this isn’t a polemic against wealth, I do believe this passage is challenging us to seriously reflect on how we are using our God-given resources and could even be inviting us to a change of attitude when it comes to dealing with our apparent abundance, particularly in this highly developed but incredibly throw-away nation where we are tempted to live for the moment without consideration for the less fortunate both here and elsewhere.

When I was thinking about this I remembered watching a TV programme called Hoarders. It’s actually quite uncomfortable viewing because, like many fly-on-the-wall documentaries, you wonder whether you are being manipulated into judging people you really know very little about.

Anyway the premise of the programme is that there are people who hold onto a large number of items that most people would consider not useful or valuable: junk mail, old catalogues and newspapers; clothes – clean but more often dirty - that might be worn sometime in the future but probably won’t be; broken things and freebies from various retail promotions. Their homes have become so cluttered that parts of them are inaccessible and can’t be used. There are beds that can’t be slept in and kitchens that can’t be used for cooking or eating with fridges full of rotting food and every surface covered in random junk, take-away containers and dirty crockery. The tables are so overwhelmed that no one could sit at them or eat from them and there are chairs and settees that no one can sit on. There are unsanitary bathrooms with baths, showers and sinks that are unusable because they are full of random stuff that might, just, one day come in handy. And very often these people have also collected a large menagerie of animals they can’t really look after – watch your step!    

It’s a pattern of behaviour characterised by the people concerned’s obsessive acquisition of stuff and an unwillingness or inability to part with any single item while at the same time generally hating themselves and the mess they have got into.

In today’s Gospel passage Jesus is confronted by a man at the rough end of a dispute about a family inheritance: Tell my brother to share the family inheritance with me - quite a common cause of family disputes today with acrimonious squabbles over furniture, valuables, houses and, of course, cash.

Jesus refuses to be drawn in to this dispute. Rather, he warns be on your guard against all kinds of greed. Greed, he seems to imply, is at the root of this family feud.

Well, I may watch Hoarders with a kind of voyeuristic fascination, but I don’t identify with the people, even though I sympathise with them. But what’s enough anyway? How do we know what’s enough? What does enough look like? So you get a pay-rise and treat yourself to a new car or book that holiday you’ve always wanted as rewards for your hard work. Is that greed? After all aren’t greedy people usually further up the financial pecking-order than we are?

There was another programme I watched recently dealing with the work of interior designers for the fabulously wealthy: these people had so much wealth they had lost all sense of the value of money. There were gold bath taps, hand-painted silk wallpapers and the biggest one-off chandeliers you’ve ever seen. And then there was the programme about the travel company who designed tailor-made holidays for those who took just the eight holidays a year and only the best – and I mean the very best, and therefore most expensive, would do. Hoarders of a different sort, but hoarders nevertheless.

Now I know this probably tells you more about my viewing habits than perhaps I’d like, but we sat there mesmerised by these ostentatious displays of wealth and yes, we talked about greed but, at the time at least, without any sense of irony that there are people lower down the financial pecking order than us who would say that what we have is well beyond our needs.

When is enough enough?

You see, I see the rich farmer in this parable as being cut from the same cloth as those who were buying in the services of the interior designers and bespoke holiday creators. Others might see me – or you – as being cut from the same cloth as the rich farmer.

It’s a challenge isn’t it? Are we the hoarders – not to the extent of the obsessive types, but are we hoarders? Doesn’t modern culture encourage us to believe that we measure our status by the abundance of our possessions? How do we deal with our disposable income? How do we know when we are being greedy? How do we know when enough is enough?

The rich farmer appears to be a good businessman whose land has produced an abundance so he plans for the future by building bigger and bigger barns as the possessions that came with his wealth grow. He’s looking forward to a retirement when he can relax, eat, drink and be merry. And why not? We aren’t given the impression that he’s been a bad employer or has come by his wealth through dodgy dealings. Why shouldn’t he enjoy the fruit of his labours?

Yet Jesus calls him a fool.

Why? Because the clock is ticking down to this man’s death: this very night your life is being demanded of you. He was so obsessed with his possessions that he was only concerned about tomorrow rather than the concerns of today – and for him tomorrow would never come.

And what the passage says by its very omission is that the man was selfish: it says nothing of his awareness of those less fortunate or his charitable giving. A learning point here is that even if we can’t identify at all with this rich, obsessed and selfish man, we each need to become much more responsible stewards of what we have been blessed with, and this becomes especially true and personal when we begin to realize that our abundance is not meant to be consumed solely by us, but must be protected, cared for and properly distributed.

There’s a sermon in itself there for another day but maybe it’s sufficient just to say at this point that we all need to ponder the personal challenge involved in that.

Of course I’m guessing very few of us here need to be reminded that even when we think we have it all, we can lose it in a moment: a heart attack or stroke; a car accident – death is indeed a robber who comes unexpectedly and we all go to the grave empty-handed.

I think the point of the parable is that in ignoring the present the man ignored all that the present implies and one aspect of that was his status before God: his wealth and possessions became a form of idolatry and took the place of the proper object of his yearning: God.  

Put that way, a passage which started off sounding like the story of a man being circumspect about his retirement takes on an altogether different meaning: no longer a cautious man but an obsessive hoarder focused on his wealth to the exclusion of all else. As Luke goes on to say later, where your treasure is, there your heart is also.

It isn’t that the material world is unimportant, but Jesus reprioritises what is really important in life. It is possible to have everything but still lead an empty life. So is there an abundance in life that we can still seek? St. Paul tells us in Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is itself infinite beyond our imaginings, but we need to connect with it first. Once we have, we begin to appreciate that we don’t need to worry or be greedy with a hoarder disorder because we begin to recognise that God is the true object of our desires and the one who in return loves us beyond our comprehension. So when we realise that this very night your life is being demanded of you, we can be at peace because we would already have known God and have been known by him in return.

At the same time, when we come to terms with the fact that God's generosity is great, we begin to realize how much more generous we ought to be towards others who are also created in God's image and likeness.  

The rich farmer was right about one thing though: Relax, eat, drink and even be merry, because what follows is a Eucharist, a table of thanksgiving. Taste its abundance and see that the Lord is good.


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