Commentary on Luke 12:13-21
Stewardship season, already?
Perhaps not if you operate by the programmatic calendar typical of many mainline congregations in North America. But if you are following the lectionary’s ordering of Jesus’ teaching, then it is absolutely time for a stewardship sermon – not to raise money for the mortgage or heating, but rather to prepare for life as a Christian in this world and the one to come.
So preachers should be warned: if you dare preach this passage, you will need first to deal with your own discomfort in talking about money, as our culture has foolishly declared conversations about money taboo. If you can get over your insecurities, however, you may offer a sermon of greater-than-average interest and import to your hearers. For the fact of the matter is, no one is untouched by concerns about money – do we have enough, too much, how does it relate to our faith, how do we teach our children values about wealth – and our culture offers woefully inadequate advice to address our concerns. Gauging from Luke’s portrayal of this episode from the life of our Lord, perhaps it has always been so.
The Rich Fool
Jesus is in the middle of encouraging his disciples to confess even when they are under duress, when he is interrupted by one of the crowd who wants Jesus to settle a financial dispute between siblings. Jesus, however, refuses to enter into the family squabble and instead uses the situation as an opportunity to teach about the seduction of wealth.
In interpreting this parable, it will be critical to assess carefully what the farmer’s error is. He is not portrayed as wicked – that is, he has not gained his wealth illegally or by taking advantage of others. Further, he is not portrayed as particularly greedy. Indeed, he seems to be somewhat surprised by his good fortune as he makes what appears to be reasonable plans to reap the abundance of the harvest. What is wrong, we might therefore ask, about building larger barns to store away some of today’s bounty for a potentially leaner tomorrow? Nothing, we might answer, except…
Except for two things. First, notice the farmer’s consistent focus throughout the conversation he has with 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….”
The relentless use of the first person pronouns “I” and “my” betray a preoccupation with self. There is no thought to using the abundance to help others, no expression of gratitude for his good fortune, no recognition of God at all. The farmer has fallen prey to worshiping the most popular of gods: the Unholy Trinity of “me, myself, and I.” This leads to, and is most likely caused by, a second mistake. He is not foolish because he makes provision for the future; he is foolish because he believes that by his wealth he can secure his future: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
Whatever our technological advances over the millennia, whatever our intellectual prowess or cultural achievement, each of us and the human race as a whole remain contingent, vulnerable, fragile beings. Human life for this reason is fraught with uncertainty and insecurity, and perhaps for this very reason we are tempted to strive for a measure of security and control over the vagaries of life through our own efforts or accomplishments. The farmer is called “fool” because of neither his wealth nor ambition but rather because he accords finite things infinite value. He has tried to insulate himself from fate and fortune through productive farming and adequate finances, and he has come up empty. He has all he believes he wants and more, yet at the end – which comes that very night! – it proves inadequate.
Faith & Money
Most of us have experienced both of the poles Jesus names, particularly during the recent years of recession. We have swung from the pernicious belief that if we can just earn, make, or buy a little more we will be okay to the crushing disappointment when the new car, or laptop, or sneakers failed to transform our circumstances. Nevertheless, the false promise that we can meet our deepest needs materially has been embedded so deeply in our culture that all too often our response to disappointment with material goods is to shop some more. Here we might be instructed by sisters and brothers in the “two-thirds world.” Rarely have I spoken with North American Christians who went on a “mission trip” to a materially poorer part of the world and not heard testimony to the humbling generosity of their native hosts. Perhaps because those who are poor are less insulated from death, they have fewer illusions about the efficacy of material goods to save or transform us.
This may be why the carefully crafted sermon on wealth is usually so well received. Money is often the cultural elephant in the room. We know material abundance is not enough, we struggle to overcome the seduction of possessions despite cultural messages to the contrary, and we covet the support of our congregation in wrestling with these issues. It will not serve, of course, to scold, cajole, or moralize. That is, the question to put to our hearers (and also ourselves) is not, “Is material abundance bad?” but rather, “Is our material abundance sufficient to meet the weight of meaning, significance, and joy that we seek?” Can our wealth secure a relative degree of comfort? Certainly. Can it grant to us confidence that we are worthy of love and honor and in right relationship with God and neighbor? Certainly not. Only as we recognize that the gifts of ultimate worth, dignity, meaning, and relationship are just that – gifts offered freely by God – can we hope to place our relative wealth in perspective and be generous with it toward others.
This will not be the last time we have an opportunity to speak about the relationship between faith and money. Luke, more than any of the other evangelists, is concerned with issues of wealth. From his naming of a patron in the opening to his Gospel (1:3-4), perhaps we can hazard to guess that Luke and his community had first hand knowledge of the seduction of wealth, the temptation to believe that material abundance equates spiritual and existential joy. But if you want to connect with your hearers and their immediate concerns and needs, this week’s gospel reading – and, indeed, all the readings appointed for this day – is not a bad place to start.
For addition resources on preaching about money, see