A Sermon for July 31 on Luke 12:13-21
“Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’” Now you might imagine that this was an odd request to bring to Jesus, but this man wasn’t entirely off the mark. Jesus had a growing reputation as a teacher, and he was a Jew whose life had been shaped by the torah, by the law. Things like inheritance and property are very much in view in the torah—there are laws set out to govern the way such things should be handled, and so this man is bringing his grievance, and asking Jesus—who of course has no official role as a priest or a scribe—to add a little weight to his case.
“But Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’” It is not my jurisdiction, he seems to be saying. Maybe you do need a judge to sort this out with your brother. He doesn’t stop there, though, but instead turns to the crowd and says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” In other words, he actually hasn’t dismissed the man’s request out of hand—none of my business, not my jurisdiction; full stop. No, he’s actually responding to it by going deeper. Luke doesn’t say whether or not the man was still in the crowd to hear this teaching. Maybe his nose was out of joint, and he was already headed off to find himself a proper rabbi who would give him the support he wanted. I hope not. I hope he stayed to hear the parable.
“The land of a rich man produced abundantly,” Jesus begins. So abundantly that his barns were too small to store the harvest. The solution? Tear down the old barns and build bigger ones to “store all my grain and my goods.” And once I have done that “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” I’ll be set for life, and a comfortable life at that. And then comes the parable’s punch line, when God says to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Whose will they be?, to which Jesus adds, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”
This story is commonly called the Parable of the Rich Fool, and I think it is important to recognize that it is not the man’s wealth that is the problem, but rather his folly. Again, this story is being told in a Jewish context, and the Hebrew scriptures recognize that some will be wealthy, and others will be poor. That’s why the torah is so very interested in things like the forgiveness of debt, the prohibition against collecting interest, and even the way land is to be farmed and harvested. The book of Leviticus, for instance, provides this instruction: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.” And why is that? “You shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 23:22) If you are counted among the “haves,” you have a fundamental responsibility to your neighbors who are counted among the “have nots.” That’s more than just a call for the successful landowner to be a little more charitable, to lend a hand, or in our context to make the occasional donation to Agape Table or Siloam Mission. No, there’s a recognition in the torah, in the writings of the prophets, and so very clearly in this parable, that a right orientation—being “rich toward God”, as the Jesus puts it—is the thing our souls need. The man’s folly in this parable is that he’s feeding his soul a lie, in service of a kind of god that can never give him what he needs.
Twenty years ago I hosted a lecture by Robert Farrar Capon at St John’s College, where I was chaplain. There were about 130 people there, mostly students from around the University of Manitoba, and as he opened his lecture Capon said that while many claim that ours is a secular society, an increasingly post-religious society, he was going to make the case that humans are irredeemably religious, whether or not they can see it. But before I do that, he said, I want to give you my favorite recipe for pork chops. Take two good-sized chops, and don’t trim off the fat. Sear them in a good quality cast iron pan, chop an onion in half and put the halves face down on top of the chops. Turn the heat down to low, season with bit of salt and freshly ground pepper, pour in a cup of 18% percent cream—at this point, the audience let out a collective gasp, and he said “see, I told you that you were religious”—and cover with a tight fitting lid. Let it cook on low for an hour, and voila, melt in your mouth pork chops with a rich cream gravy. But most of you will never try it, he said, because you subscribe to the religion of diet. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying these chops a couple of times a year, but you won’t let yourself because you are busily appeasing the gods of fitness, nutrition, and so-called healthy living.
Capon talked about how we can turn almost anything into a religion; diet and fitness, money, success, sex, a career, or just plain old consumerism. Each religion in this sense comes complete with its temples, its scriptures, its offering and sacrifices. For diet and fitness the temples are the gym and the health food store, the scriptures are the latest books and magazines on the newest diet, the best workout, getting that beach body and firm abs. The offerings and sacrifices? Well, among other things, the refusal to let yourself savor those delicious pork chops or even add cream to your coffee. And how about the five weekly sessions at the gym, pounding at your body, at the same time possibly depriving your partner or your kids of those precious hours. And none of it finally works. We all age, we will all die, no matter how faithfully we try to appease those gods. Same for money; the bank or the stock exchange is the temple, all those books on succeeding in business, making your first million, securing an early and very comfortable retirement; those are the scriptures. The offerings to be made? Probably working too hard, fixating on the bottom line, neglecting people and relationships for the sake of profit. And no matter how much money is made, it is never quite enough. Or the career alone doesn’t even begin to satisfy a deeper need for meaning. Or, or, or…
In 1961 the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox published an article in the journal Christianity and Crisis. The piece was called “Playboy’s Doctrine of Male.” At the time Playboy magazine was less than a decade old, and had achieved some notoriety for its nude “playmates.” By today’s internet standards, the pictures were very tame, and besides “I only read it for the articles.” But Cox was concerned, not narrowly by the nudity, but by what the magazine was selling to its readers.
[Playboy’s] skilled consumer is cool and unruffled. He savors sports cars, liquor, high fidelity and book club selections with a casual, unhurried aplomb. Though he must certainly have and use the latest consumption item, he must not permit himself to get too attached to it. The style will change and he must always be ready to adjust.
Sex becomes one of the items of leisure activity that the knowledgeable consumer of leisure handles with his characteristic skill and detachment. The girl becomes a desirable, indeed an indispensable “Playboy accessory.”
Everything a consumable accessory, including the girl, the bunny, the playmate. This, Cox argued, unveiled a deep, deep problem.
[I]f Christians bear the name of One who was truly man because he was totally for the other, and if it is in him that we know who God is and what human life is for, then we must see in Playboy the latest and slickest episode in humanity’s continuing refusal to be fully human.
It is, Robert Capon would argue, yet another religion based in trying to appease a god that in the end not merely fails us, but actually consumes us… and often those around us.
It is what Jesus is critiquing with his parable of the rich fool. All of that grain, the plans for bigger barns, the “ample goods laid up for many years” allowing the rich man to think only of a life in which he will finally be able to “relax, eat, drink, be merry”—it is nothing. Worse than nothing, it has been his religion of success and riches, and it has diminished his life as a son of the torah. It is the folly that has landed him nowhere.
And then listen again to Jesus’ closing teaching, that “so it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.” What that means is being open to what God calls us to be, which also means being open to the community that surrounds us, radically open to relationships in an enriching way, and rich inside in a way that no money can buy. In his lecture that day, part of what Robert Capon was trying to say was that every religion—the “official” ones, but also the ones we create—will always fall short because we can never live up to them. Jesus was not about coming to establish another religion. In fact, his life, death, and resurrection marked the end of religion, because it introduced radical grace. It is not a “religion” in that sense that we are held captive to it, rather it is a way—the Way. And we’re called out on it.