This past weekend, Dave and I cleaned out the garage. We ended up with almost a carload of stuff to take to Goodwill – it always feels good and virtuous to purge stuff out of the house. But you know, we clean out the garage every couple of months, and it seems like every time we have a carload of stuff to take to Goodwill. I try to keep that in mind when praying on this parable of the rich fool. It’s one of those rare parables of Jesus that’s actually pretty darn clear and easy to understand. Stuff bad, God good. Jesus even gives a one sentence summary himself: one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. But you already know this, it’s not even worth a sermon. You wouldn’t be sitting in a church on Sunday morning if you actually did think that life consists of the abundance of possessions. You’d be at the mall instead, right?
That’s why I try to remember cleaning out the garage. We know this, and yet, we don’t always do it. Why am I so foolish and why is the rich farmer so foolish?
The farmer doesn’t seem like such a bad guy. He’s not plotting to hurt anyone, not gloating that he has more than others, just seeking security for himself and his family in a way that seems pretty reasonable, really. And he doesn’t even seem particularly greedy – he’s almost surprised that he got these bumper crops, it’s an unexpected bounty like winning the lotto. And he doesn’t plan to spend or squander the bumper crop, his plan is to save it. What’s wrong with that. Wouldn’t we likely do the same?
The issue here is what’s missing from his decision making process. The things he never mentions or thinks about. There is, for example, no hint of thanksgiving or thankfulness. There is no acknowledgement that what he has is from God’s goodness and God’s creation, that the fruit of the land is a gift from God. And there is no hint of sharing with anyone at all. Not his family and friends, not those in need in his community.
The rich farmer thinks he’s figured out a reasonable, smart, and careful plan. But God calls him a fool, in no uncertain terms. He’s a fool because he’s left out a lot, left out the big picture of life and death and God and other people. We can poke fun at the rich farmer, building bigger and bigger barns – or garages or houses – for all his stuff, but we do this. I know I do this, or I would never have to clean the garage again. What a liberation that would be.
Why do we do this? Why can’t we seem to follow the very simple lesson of this parable? A couple thoughts.
Firstly, just turn on your TV or computer – we’re being bombarded at all times by a culture that conspires to make us want things we don’t need: to think firstly, that we have a problem – bad breath or thinning hair or what have you, usually they manage to pick something we’re already anxious about – and secondly that buying something will solve the problem. We know that is not true, expensive moisturizer will not, unfortunately, make me any younger, but what makes it so tempting is that it’s fast and easy, a quick fix just go to the store or even faster buy it online. Instant gratification.. The things that have a deeper impact on our lives and on the world: building a relationship, building community, building your prayer life and relationship with God, those are slow things that take time and effort and that no money can buy. So often immaterial goods are more valuable and take longer to obtain than material goods.
So the rich farmer is a fool, not because he has lots of stuff or because he wants to save at least some of it, but because he gives emphasis and primary value to things that are not primary. It’s a question of what really is important and lasting. He chooses the material goods over the immaterial goods. What are you going to put your money and trust and faith in, in the long run? What am I going to spend my time on – cleaning out the garage, a fairly useless activity that just needs to be done again next time, or playing with my children, visiting a friend in need, or taking part in what God’s doing in this big interesting world? Life is made up of these small decisions.
Second thought, maybe it’s not just about paring down but about filling up. It’s easy to say, ignore the advertisements, have less stuff, simplify your life, but maybe just emptying out, doing less, having less, is not enough. Perhaps we also need to fill our lives with the things that are important and lasting, love of neighbor, meaningful work that helps others, time for prayer and worship, filling ourselves with God’s love and sharing it with others.
I said these small decisions sometimes make up the fabric of our lives, but they also make up the fabric of our world. This parable calls us to live differently, prioritize differently, not just here in Lexington but in all of God’s creation.
Martin Luther King once preached a sermon on this passage, pointing out how it calls us to think globally about our relationships with all of our neighbors. He said the rich farmer seemed to have a very individualistic outlook. He “talked as though he could plough the fields and build the barn alone. He failed to realize he was the heir to a vast treasury of ideas and labor to which both the living and the dead had contributed.” King went on to draw a parallel between how in the US in his time, the parable of the rich farmer was still literally going on. Millions was spent on storing agricultural surplus, while millions in our nation’s cities went hungry. He pointed out how in a global economy, we are tied to people around the world who produce what we consume, and consume what we produce in an inter–related web that means nothing we do – from deciding which coffee to drink to what to wear to what to eat — is without impact on another person, and what they do has an impact on us and our lives. Not just our lives but our world need transforming. As usual, Jesus is calling us to a radical shift in priorities.
I keep saying we know the truth of this parable, and the most important truth of it is that we know people are more important than things. Jesus is calling us to act like that, too. To act in all parts of our lives as if people not just those we know but our brothers and sisters around the world, in the Burlington McDonald’s and in clothing factories in Bangladesh, are more important than things. Message of Luke’s gospel is that relationships with people and with God – and the two are impossible to separate from one another – is the most important thing. Perhaps that’s what this parable means when it says we need to be rich towards God. Being rich towards God includes using our resources for the benefit of our neighbors near and far and those in need, spending time money and energy in nourishing our relationship with God and all whom God loves.
The rich farmer was foolish not because of what he did but because of what he didn’t do.
We live in a world that tempts us into the same mistake. St. Augustine said, God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin is the confusion of these two things. When we lives as if people are truly more important that stuff, when we live as if God’s love for us and others is the central fact of our lives, then we have a truly rich life, not just empty of stuff but filled to overflowing with the joy of connection, relationship, meaning – things that last.
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