This sermon is based on Luke 12:13-21
(Luke 12: 15) Take care! Be on your guard again all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
This morning’s Gospel reading is often called ‘the Parable of the Rich fool.’ But don’t be fooled by the title; because the parable is not so much a parable against wealth as it is a parable against greed. And, I think, hand-in-hand with greed, we are also being taught some lessons about the sin of self-centredness, the sin of making our own lives and our own welfare the be-all and end-all of our focus.
This reading from Luke 12 speaks right to the heart of our society and our personal lives. Because greed and self-centeredness are not just modern problems. Sinful human nature has ordered ‘worldly’ values around greed since ancient times. The underlying problem is that the world does not always recognise greed as being a bad thing. In fact, worldly society often orders itself around the assumption that greed is either good or amoral.
Before we even begin to look at Jesus’ parable, let’s consider the interaction between Jesus and the man who came asking him to settle an inheritance dispute. This problem is hardly unique to the ancient world.
I’ll bet that if I opened up the floor right now, each of us could tell a story about wills and inheritance. Maybe a story like today’s story: where one child or beneficiary is worried that he or she isn’t getting their fair share of the inheritance and they take other beneficiaries to court. Or maybe you’ve heard a story of bitter parents, convinced (rightly or wrongly) that their children were only looking after them because they were worried about getting the inheritance.
This is a story with which we are intimately familiar in our everyday lives. Furthermore, in Jesus’ time as in our own time, there were clear procedures for deciding fairly who gets what. These laws were interpreted and applied by rabbis and that was the capacity in which Jesus was being asked to act. He was being asked to interpret the law – presumably in the man’s favour – so that the man’s interests would be looked after.
But Jesus refuses to do so. He doesn’t want to play the part of the rabbi-judge in this instance. Some of us may wonder why?
Doesn’t God care about fairness and justice? Doesn’t God care about the law? The law that the man wants Jesus to uphold is the law written in the Torah; why would God be indifferent to his own laws? How can God be a God of truth and justice if Jesus is refusing to rule in this man’s favour?
I think that the answer to these questions lies in Jesus’ statement ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’
I suspect that if this man had come to Jesus saying that he’d got more inheritance than his brother and he wanted Jesus to command his brother to take his fair share as the law required, that Jesus would have willingly played the part of a Rabbi-judge.
I think that Jesus declined to play judge in this situation because he knew that the man was motivated by greed and self-interest. Although the man appeared to be invoking justice, the man was not actually motivated by fairness, he was motivated by self-interest.
But in this particular story Jesus doesn’t confront the man with a direct judgement of his sin. Instead of admonishing him directly, Jesus provides both him (and us) with the opportunity to change our ways.
The parable that Jesus tells is also quite applicable to the 21st century.
Here is a farmer who has been suddenly blessed with an excellent crop. God has sent a harvest that is far more than he himself can use.
So what does the farmer say to himself? Does he say ‘God has sent me a harvest that far exceeds my needs. Let me see who is hungry and who can use my excess.’? No, he doesn’t.
Rather, he congratulates himself on his talents and ability as a farmer. The harvest is no longer a wonderful blessing with which to bless others. It’s become a storage problem – which, of course, it is if the farmer intends to keep it all to himself.
But, as the saying goes, you can’t take it with you. The man’s life is required of him unexpectedly. Not only was the farmer not able to benefit from God’s blessing, he also missed the opportunity to shower blessings on others.
One can only hope that his heirs did not act like the man who asked Jesus to judge between him and his brother!
Challenges: for Christians and Society
I think that there are challenges for individual Christians in this parable as well as challenges for society in general.
At the individual level, it could be too easy for a preacher to sound like he or she is saying that everyone here needs to give more money, time or talents to church. I’m not saying that and I hope it won’t be understood that way.
But here are some pointers to where individual challenges or invitations may lie:
God might be inviting some of us to become increasingly concerned about the rights, interests or welfare of other people around us.
God might be challenging someone else to deepen their awareness that everything – absolutely everything – we have is from God, including our very lives.
God might be inviting some people to be more free with their time or money and to give it away more cheerfully.
God will challenge each of us differently, and I don’t know where he is challenging you.
But I think that greed and self-interest are not just individual issues; they are social issues as well. Of course, these are a lot harder to change!
Here are some thoughts about how this parable applies to our society; you may or may not agree with me.
First, as a society do we question the idea that corporate profits must grow every year? If the population stays roughly the same, where do extra profits come from? Often they profits must come from exploiting the poor, the vulnerable, the gullible or encouraging us to consume things we don’t need.
This parable suggests that perhaps a Godly society would share its profits with those in need.
A second observation. Our whole system of national and international government is still based on the idea that each country looks after its own economic and political interests. This may strike many of us as the safest and most realistic way to govern in a hostile world, but it’s hardly in line with the Great Commandment. This is not the way the Kingdom of God is to be governed.
If we are hoping and praying for the Kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven, then we need to understand that obeying God is not just a matter of individual morality. We need to understand that God wants us to do more than say ‘I’m only responsible for what I do, I can’t have an influence on the rest of society.’
Equally, we are not free to say that sin is mainly a social problem that has nothing to do with individuals changing their hearts and behaviour patterns. God calls the world and its people to repentance and conversion at both an individual level and a social level.
The Good News
So where is the good news in this stew of human greed and self-interest which has not improved at all since Jesus told his parable?
(1) Well, for a start, the good news is that God is not a human being! The good news is that God is not greedy or self-interested in the human sense of the concept. All of God’s actions toward his creation are generous and life-giving and are concerned with the well-being of his creation. When we use our free will to sin against God, against other people or against God’s creation, God works to restore and repair what our sin has destroyed.
(2) The good news is that God blesses us every day with many blessings. We know as a fact that God blesses us daily and we also grow in our ability to become conscious of these blessings on a daily basis as we come to know the Lord better.
(3) The good news is that God has created each one of us to be agents and messengers of his blessings in this world we inhabit. The Greek word for ‘angels’ means ‘messengers’; so, in a very real sense, we are called to be angels to other people. The more expansive and generous our spirits become and the more we give God’s gifts away, the more we become the people that God created us to be and the more we grow in holiness.
(4) And finally, the good news is that God’s table is always laid for us. His door is always open for us; the door is never shut and it’s never locked. Repentance is always possible, conversion is always possible, forgiveness is always possible. We are always invited to the table of the Lord and God wants us to invite as many guests as we can.
As we come to the Lord’s Table in a few minutes, may our hearts expand to embrace all the love that God wants to give us and may we find freedom and joy as we learn to give that love away to others. Amen