2016-07-31 Sermon on the Parable of the Rich Fool
You can’t take it with you. Isn’t that the old saying? That’s kind of what Jesus seems to be saying here – “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you” That’s death by the way. “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” You spend your life building your fortune, and then you die. The Lord giveth and taketh away, and there’s not much good news about that, is there? Now, considering this is a parable, what do we usually do when we hear one? We always try to figure out which character we are. Why? Because we figure Jesus is trying to use a story to tell us what to do. Who do we associate with here? The rich guy, right? Well, the only people in the story are God and the rich guy, and I’ve never met anyone who associated with God. So, what do you think the message is going to be? Things can’t save you? Stuff weighs you down? Be generous? That’s all good, but it sounds just like common sense, so I don’t know that we need the Bible for that. Maybe Jesus is up to something else here…..
Let me ask you a question – do any of you think you’re rich? Can you imagine having so much wealth that you need to build bigger storehouses than the ones you’ve already got? He’s already rich. And getting richer. And he’s not stingy – he’s a hoarder. He’s on such an epic scale it’s absurd. So he’s hard to relate to. But I bet he still reminds you of some people you hear about in the news, right? No name naming. Anyway, the point is that you can hear this parable in a couple ways. Maybe we’re the rich guy, maybe we’re not. That makes a LOT of difference in what you hear Jesus saying.
Let me break down the scene. This is Galilee and Jesus is talking to a huge crowd. Thousands. Not in a city, but somewhere out among the little villages and farms. So most of these are country folk. Farmers. What are their lives like? Hard. It’s not like modern farming with technology and pesticides. This is hard work, and risky. One bad harvest can ruin you. At the same time, this region is a part of the Roman Empire, and that means power and wealth and conquering other nations to get more. And taxes. Heavy taxes. So heavy that they drive a lot of these people into this kind of poverty where the only way out is to sell yourself into slavery. So, you get the picture, right? Power and powerlessness, and the canyon in between just keeps on getting wider. Sound familiar? Now, in the cities there are actually a few rich guys getting richer. How? They buy up all these little struggling farms. They’re cheap. And who cares about one bad field, because you’ve got lots of others. It works. So if you’re the farmer, and one of these land barons comes and offers to take that farm off your hands, what do you say? YES! They’ve got security and you don’t. But it’s not a good deal. Think payday lenders that charge interest up the arm. They get your farm, take your harvest, and give you a pittance. There’s a name for that. Sharecropping. You’re keep farming this land you don’t own anymore, because it’s just slightly better than before. You’re stuck. Can you relate to that?
What’s the point? There are a LOT of these people in the crowd. That’s why Jesus doesn’t talk money. He talks crops. Who do they think the rich man is? The money-grubbing landowner. So listen to Jesus again – “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Doesn’t that sound different now? The rich guy has it all, doesn’t he? Let’s be honest, he’s not struggling like we are. Deep down, don’t we kind of want to be him? But you also know that this isn’t right. These aren’t really his own crops – they’re what he takes off the backs of everyone he exploits. And when you hear Jesus talking about bigger storehouses and more of them, that means Jesus knows this is an epidemic. He knows what we’re going through. He knows things aren’t right, but he also knows that a part of us still wants to be the rich guy anyway.
So, Jesus brings in the final judgment, but not how you’d expect. Yes, God says “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” The rich guy spends his life getting ahead, maybe a little exploitation, but he fails. He still dies. But that’s not the worst part. What does he leave behind? Not money. Grain. It matters. What happens when you hoard it? It spoils. It rots. The sad reality is that his obsession and his hoarding didn’t just deprive everyone around him of what could do them good while he was alive, but when he’s dead too. What that means is no legacy. In other words, if he never existed at all, it wouldn’t make a difference. But he wouldn’t have understood that anyway – what did he spend his life saying? “I will do this. I will pull down my barns. I will store all my grain. I will say to my soul.” I I I In his wealth, he’s poor, because he can’t see anyone around him anymore. His self-reliance had killed him even while he was still alive, and that’s God’s real judgment here.
The problem is that we’ve actually got the same problem, and it’s not stuff. The world constantly convinces us that we can only rely upon ourselves. We do it with retirement planning, we do it in our jobs, we do it whenever we think we’re making responsible decisions, because when we see other people struggling, we have this nasty habit of blaming their problems on their own bad decisions. Even when we do share our gifts with them, we figure they should know better. They should be like us. But what’s so great about us, when we feel like everyone’s got an angle? We can’t trust anyone else anymore, not even God, because we don’t trust the future either. Disaster is always on the horizon, and worse, it actually happens even if you make all the right decisions. Even God’s saints die.
But brothers and sisters, the good news is that this is where it all comes to an end. The rich man died, but we know someone else who died. Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, who died on a cross made from our sin. All our sin that he took upon himself, and it did not destroy him. And he died, but death couldn’t hold him. After three days, he was risen to new life by the power of the Spirit, the same Spirit who works through you and through me. This Spirit is raising us to new life right now, just like him. How does the Spirit do this? By giving us faith, now and every day, and by renewing that faith within our hearts, in defiance of our mistrust and our worry. Death can no longer hold us either. We hear Jesus’ words of complete and utter forgiveness, and we know that he means exactly what he says.
By faith, we no longer see death. We see life and we see it abundantly because we suddenly realize that it’s not our own power that keeps us alive. It’s God, who fills us with the power to live. This God sustains us in every moment, for one reason. This God loves us. And we’re risky. We make horrible decisions all the time. That’s what humans do. But this God has preserved us in spite of everything. And do you think God has brought us this far just to abandon us? No. We may lose our lives, but what we see and know by the power of faith is the hope of eternal life with God. That’s power. Not even death can separate us from the love of God. We say that a lot because we need to hear it a lot, and we especially need to hear it from each other. Because the truth is that we do live in the midst of uncertainty, but we don’t do it alone, and this is everything. This is how God is preserving us, by bringing us into life-giving community, so that we can hear God’s promises over and over again.
But that’s not all. The Spirit activates gifts within us. Gifts of compassion, mercy, thankfulness, and knowledge. But God never gives all these gifts to any one person, and there’s a reason why. It’s only in community that we finally have every gift that we need, so that we can serve each other and the world. That’s what Jesus meant at the beginning of the story. A voice in the crowd says to him – “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But Jesus says I’m not having any part of that. Because that’s not the inheritance that Jesus is interested in. He’s interested in the inheritance from God that we all share. And we’re already getting it. It can’t be divided. It can only be shared. And it has no end. That’s what it means to be rich toward God. He means us. We already are.
That’s why we see the truth of injustice and need constantly surrounding us, and so the Spirit gives us another gift – the gift of restlessness. It drives us to see how we can use the resources we have to benefit others. This actually gives us joy, because we realize that this is the kingdom of God breaking into the world through us. But it’s not about trying to be good people. It’s that we need the reality of the kingdom, because the world’s trying to kill us. But it will fail. Because in God’s kingdom, all will be nourished. Justice will roll down like a mighty stream for everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity or sexuality or anything that has ever separated us. God will overcome it all. And not just for followers of Christ. For everyone, because we all belong to God. It’s right there in our creed – God, the creator of heaven and earth. What’s more, it’s not just about sharing resources. We can’t help but share ourselves. Our time, our presence, our compassion, that no one will feel alone. That’s what destroyed the rich man, but not us. And when we’re the ones in need, and we will be, when we feel like we have nothing left, God doesn’t just bring our brothers and sisters to care for us, but even perfect strangers, unexpectedly. After all, who can bound the power of the Spirit? Therefore, children of God, know that you are indeed rich, and growing richer, by the love of God. Amen.