Jesus is asked to intervene in an inheritance dispute, and responds by telling a parable about greed. Obviously, Jesus has decided that greed is the underlying motivation of the person who asks for their share of the inheritance … and that this is a good time for a lesson about greed in general.
Quite simple, really. Hardly much point in preaching about it, since it’s just so obvious, eh?
There is more here than is initially apparent, however. To find it we have to delve a little deeper into the text. And my job is to do that without turning this sermon into a geek fest of language and theological study that leaves you groping for the exit door in a bored stupor. We’ll see how I do.
There are many patterns in Luke, but one in particular is how Jesus answers questions. Rarely does Jesus give direct answers to direct questions. Jesus generally answers a question with either another question or a parable, and many times with both… and it strikes me that Jesus does this so people can learn to discern their own answers.
Jesus’ initial response is quite impersonal. Rather than “friend” as we hear in the NRSV, it would be better understood as “Sir”. “Sir, who made me judge and arbiter over you?”
After that question, expecting no answer, Jesus then turns to everyone and warns them to be on the lookout for greed. Or so it seems. In Greek, this is a very complicated sentence – and some of the subtlety of its meaning is lost in the English translation we have in front of us today.
In English we hear, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” In this interpretation, we get the impression that abundance is bad – yet another instance of a rich person not being able to get into heaven.
While awkward, a more accurate translation would be, “Observe! And abstain from all covetousness, because one’s life does not increase in abundance from the things that one possesses.” It alludes to the idea that life is actually meant to increase in abundance, but that increase will come from something other than possessions. Then Jesus tells a story to illustrate this point, and hopefully to allow the questioner and the listeners to consider its significance.
I’m going to translate the parable a little more literally – a little closer to the patterns of Greek grammar.
The ground of a certain rich person produced good crops.
Because the verse before talks about abundance, the translators of the NRSV linked this verse to it by saying that “the land produced abundantly”. When we read this, however, it tends to bring all the attention to the repeated concept “abundance” as the main topic. But, it isn’t. In the Greek, abundance is not repeated – this verse simply says that the ground of a rich person produced good crops – nothing more, nothing less.
And then the grower reasoned, saying, “What may I do, because I have nowhere to gather my harvest?” “I will do this! I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will gather all my grain and all my useful things.”
The NRSV says, “and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” That makes it sound like the things being stored are all produce. But this person gathered together not just the grain, which is what was produced, but also all the useful things – all their possessions. All of the grower’s worldly possessions were gathered together, put in a safe place and stored with the grain. This was a person who was afraid of losing what they had.
The story then continues: And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have laid up many useful things (possessions) for many years. Relax! Eat! Drink! Be merry!’”
In the English reading, we get the impression that this is a present and future action. We think that the person has just stored up many goods for many years to come. In reality, this has a past and future meaning. There has been an ongoing and continuing effort to gather up possessions that will provide security for many years. That is now finished and the grower can just sit back, relax, eat, drink and be merry.
Just in case we think that relaxing, eating, drinking and being merry is the sinful behavior being described, let’s remind ourselves of what came just before this reading, and what comes immediately after. Before this are the readings on the sparrows, and trusting in the Holy Spirit. It is a lesson about relaxing – not worrying – because of our faith in God.
And what follows, but a lesson on not worrying about the source of our food, drink, clothing.
22 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.
24 Consider the ravens …
27 Consider the lilies …
29 …do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying.
We are told that by God’s hand there are enough of these things to satisfy all need. So the overarching message of this entire chapter tells us that relaxing, eating, drinking and even being merry are not bad things. They are actually faithful things.
Okay – so now it’s God’s turn in the story. The English reads, “Fool. This very night your life is being demanded of you.”
SHOW OF HANDS. How many people think that the passage says that God punishes the rich person – punishes greed with death? Come on – we can be honest. On my first few readings, I did. Listen now to a translation that keeps the flow of the Greek grammar:
But God said, “Foolish one! This night they will demand your soul of you in return.”
Three important distinctions: First, the word “they” – they will demand – not passive “will be demanded” – who is “they”? “They” are the possessions.
Second, it is not the person’s “life” that the possessions will demand, but the soul. The same word is used here as when the grower says, “Soul, you have laid up many useful things…” For some reason, the translators chose to translate this one instance, however, as “life”, giving the further impression that God killed the rich person.
Third, the missing phrase “in return.” The word used, apaitousin, means “demand in return”, very much like a debt repayment or the price of a transaction.
The grower has made a transaction, and the price of having excessive possessions and security is their soul – not their death. God didn’t kill this person – but covetousness, greed, control, and accumulation of possessions came at a price – a soul was sold for wealth. And what good is that wealth?
God continues, “But what you have made ready, whose will they be?” So it is for the one who stores things up as treasure for self, but is not one who is rich concerning God.”
Just like the Psalm said, “When you’re gone, you won’t be taking it with you.”
This is a story about covetousness – greed – alright, but more importantly it is about idolatry. The rich person in this passage covets what is rightfully God’s, and has established idols – other lesser gods – to take God’s place.
Then the grower talks to their soul, blasphemy has been committed. In Jewish thought, the soul is the sole property of God – God speaks to the soul, the soul listens and functions as the still small voice of God in a person’s psyche. When the rich person finds soul comfort in things possessed, God has been replaced with self-importance and material things.
This person established self and worldly possessions as new gods, and violated the first commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.” It is also quite obvious that the second of Jesus’ commandments was violated. Neighbor was not loved as self. The rich grower hoarded, rather than shared.
This is a parable about abundance and scarcity, trust and control, security and risk. This rich person who had such an abundance operated from a theology of scarcity. The land that produced the good crop was the land that was created by God. The product of that land, however, accrued solely to the benefit of the grower – it was theirs to hoard, to use and to worship.
This person’s very essence or soul was based in material abundance. There was no trust in the abundance of God’s provision – in fact, it is apparent there was a belief operating that God’s grace was a scarce commodity. God had graced the grower with good crops, but this person was the only one who deserved them – the only one to have needs met. There was fear of scarcity, and no hope in the loving-kindness of God the Creator.
This could now branch off in myriad directions. This is fodder for several sermons, several attempts to answer life’s questions. But none of us would be happy if I did that. I mean, I could. We could break for lunch and then come back. No, I didn’t think so.
So, taking our cue from Jesus, let us wrestle out the meaning of this morning’s lesson in our lives – our own communities – our own churches.
I will leave you with a bit more of my own thought.
A theology of scarcity – of the inadequacy of God’s abundant grace and loving kindness – leaves us afraid, and desperately seeking prosperity and control, and paying a dear price for possessions and security.
A theology of abundance – of the endless supply of God’s grace – leaves us unattached to the things we may have accumulated. It leaves us trusting in God, and being willing to let go and share freely – even to take risks and let go of more than we rationally might think we can. It leaves us – and our church – and our community – being rich in God, and willing to risk being generous with all God’s children. And it leaves us more generous with ourselves – with our time and with our love.
What’s your theology? What do you believe about God and God’s loving kindness?