Last week, we heard Jesus giving his disciples instruction on how to pray. We talked about how right prayers, big prayers, prayers worthy of God’s hope for us are met with God’s promises. We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit—everything we need. We talked about how when we pray, “Give us each day our daily bread”, we are reminded of the story from the Hebrew Bible of the Israelites who were given manna from heaven, but hoarded it and found that the manna was infested with worms when the people hoarded instead of giving thanks and trusting that God would give them everything that they need.
Today we hear another parable about hoarding—Jesus tells the man with an inheritance that he should not be like the rich man who builds a bigger barn to store up his crops so that he can relax, eat, drink, be merry.
“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." This story is a reminder, that there is more than one kind of wealth. More than one kind of riches. On one hand we have the riches of humans and on the other we have the riches of God.
Our letter to the Colossians reiterates this theme: Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). The teaching for the Colossians is that just like hoarding money or stuff is contrary to God’s will, so are these earthly passions—desires for things or people or pleasures, these should not be put above love of God.
And then we are given the Hebrew Bible text from the Ecclesiastes calling the desire to leave the fruits of your labors as an inheritance to your children a vanity.
What does it mean that we shouldn’t save for the future (put our treasures in the barn)? I was taught as a child that saving is good. I encourage my boys to put aside some of their first paychecks for savings. My parents saved their whole lives—never taking fancy vacations, or buying new cars. And this idea that leaving an inheritance is vanity? I was taught that leaving something to start your children off in the world was a good thing. Certainly, not all parents can leave money to their children, but leaving an inheritance is one of the ways that parents take care of their families.
Is the parable really saying that it’s bad to save? Let’s look more carefully at the parable. And let’s remember that it is a parable—not an instruction book.
We hear in the story about a wealthy landowner. The landowner is already doing well, and his land produces a bounty of crops. But instead of being thankful, happy and praising God for this bounty—the landowner is anxious, worried, maybe even unhappy because he realizes that his barn is not big enough to hold it all.
Let’s think about that barn. What could the landowner do? He could fill his existing barn and give away the rest of his crops. He could add an extra stall to his barn, expand it a little to make space for more. Maybe he could rent space from another landowner—paying a little to get the space he needs. But instead of these options—he thinks about tearing down the good barns that he has, and starting from scratch to build bigger ones. He thinks to himself—later, then I’ll be happy. He’s not satisfied with what he has, but he thinks that if he has bigger barns and a stockpile of crops then he’ll be happy.
And the landowner isn’t just thinking then I can rest my body, and take care of my hunger, my physical needs. The landowner is so wound up in imagining his hoard, his stockpile— that he addresses his soul. He thinks that the part of him that belongs to God, his soul will be satisfied by this plan. He’s not trying to satisfy his body, he’s trying to satisfy his soul.
But God shows that the man is a fool. His soul will never be satisfied. His soul wasn’t satisfied by his wealth before the harvest. His soul wasn’t satisfied when he got an unusual harvest. His soul wasn’t satisfied when he could fill his barn to the brim. His soul would never be satisfied, no matter how big his barn got.
The man didn’t feel good about what God had given him, instead he was tormented by the idea that he could have more and then, later he would be satisfied.
In this parable, Jesus is instructing the man with the inheritance and saying that God isn’t going to be the judge about who deserves more of the inheritance. God isn’t going to change the law to make it fair to a younger brother who gets half of his father’s estate when the eldest brother gets twice as much. This is not God’s realm. God reminds the man that when his time comes and he dies, the stash of crops will be meaningless. God’s riches are different and these riches are what the man has missed.
What if the wealthy landowner had asked, who can I serve with my land? What if he had planted crops for the purpose of sharing with his workers, or his community? What if when he got a windfall, he had felt that bounty and been truly thankful? What if he had given away to the poor everything he didn’t need?
The riches that God is promising are so different than the riches that humans seek.
Don’t we all know people who have every thing, but they are still miserable. They have a nice dinner, and they complain about the service. They go on vacation to a beautiful place, and they complain that the roads were crowded or the lines were long. They have a nice house, but they feel bad because their kitchen hasn’t been redone in the past 10 years. They have wonderful children who love them, but they complain that their kids don’t come see them often enough. They have friends who care about them, but they complain that they didn’t get invited to a particular party.
People who are miserable today but think that if only they could get a better job, renovate their house, make a bit more money—then they would be happy. The parable reminds us that God’s riches, the riches that will satisfy the soul are here right now.
God’s love for us is available today. God’s grace, God’s healing is available to us right at this moment. There is no later for God. The question to ask is not when will God help me, provide for me, give me what I need. We must shift our focus to what we have been given, and how we may use it to God’s glory. What is it that will satisfy our souls? It is not money or any thing that will satisfy our desires. It is not stuff that gives us pleasure.
The soul satisfying meal—it is not the fanciest dinner at the nicest restaurant. It is the simple picnic with friends or family who love us. It is the meal that comes with generosity and sharing, this is the soul satisfying plenty. It’s not later, it’s right now. It’s not the wine in the wine cellar, stored up for later that satisfies us—it’s the simple bottle of water that comes from a friend when we are thirsty that is the real gift.
I have a short story that I’d like to share that I think illustrates this parable about the riches of God.
I have a lovely memory of the funeral of my friend Doug Adams. Doug was a professor at the Graduate Theological Union and the founder of an institute called the Center for the Arts, Religion and Education. Doug was committed to experiential liturgy. He thought that our ways of worshipping God should be creative and engage our senses—not just our minds. He was very interested in liturgical dance, poetry, visual arts—videography, paintings, sculpture—all towards the glory of God. He loved beautiful things. But he wasn’t selfish about getting beautiful things for himself, he was interested in how beautiful things could be used for the glory of God. He was a performer, writing poetry, telling stories, putting on shows. But he wasn’t a performer because he wanted recognition—performing was his way of giving pleasure to others. He was a whimsical person, someone who was on one hand so playful, always joking around that he might seem irreverent. But in fact he was a deeply faithful person, with a quirky artistic sensibility, but a keenly developed theology.
Doug developed an illness and learned from his doctor that he had only a few weeks to live. He had some money saved, and he left it to the institute that he had created—the Center for Arts, Religion and Education. But in those last few weeks, he did something quite remarkable. He called everyone he had ever known. He called to tell people that he loved them, that he remembered them, that he cared about them. When people learned that he was close to death they felt flattered and special. To each person, Doug said, “I have a dying wish. I would like you to make a contribution to CARE.” And then he followed up his request with a promise—“And I’d like you to speak at my funeral.” Well, no one who got that call could deny him. Everyone gave what they could. CARE gathered enough money to endow a faculty chair, and establish a gallery for religious art. His endowment moved his institute to a whole new level, really making it vibrant project at the GTU. It was an astoundingly successful fundraising campaign. And it was motivated Doug until the very last day of his life. When he had called everyone he knew, he died.
But then it came time for the funeral. A couple of close friends began planning. They wanted to have a video, and a well-known friend of Doug’s was flying in to preside and another to preach. There were banners hung, and poetry written. But people began calling the funeral organizers. Each one who called said proudly, “Doug asked me to speak.” At first the organizers said, “of course, we’ll have time for reflections and it would be lovely to have you.” But as the days passed, it became clear that Doug had asked hundreds of people to speak.
Now we’ll never know exactly what Doug was thinking when he did that—asking everyone to give money and promising them time on the podium. But reading this parable today, I think that Doug may have been very playfully illustrating this Scripture. Some of the people gave because they loved Doug and wanted to contribute to his project. But some gave because they thought that they were going to be recognized at this big event. And Doug left us all in the position of the man with the inheritance. Jesus refused to be arbitrator. It was left to the funeral organizers to try and create a meaningful service. It was human desire, competition, greed, need for recognition that created the funeral conflicts (and some people were really, really upset when they were told they couldn’t speak). What was most important was the real community that Doug had created. The riches from God came in the giving to this project that honored God’s presence in Doug’s life. The satisfaction for Doug’s soul--God’s riches--were the work he did to God’s glory, not the fortune or the recognition that he got (or gave) at that spectacular funeral.
I can hear Doug chuckling at God’s right hand. He was such a trickster. “You fool!” or “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
Let us pray that when we our lives are called for, we will know the riches of God-the love, the grace, the healing, the bounty that God has given us and that we will not be called fools who set our sights on the hoard in a bigger barn or the recognition that would come as a result of our generosity. Amen.