The rich fool

Sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’” Twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, and thankfully never once has someone come to me to deal with a property dispute or an inheritance issue. Sometimes people will air these kinds of grievances with me—how someone in the family is acting like a bit of a jerk over the family cottage or the parents’ will—but they don’t actually expect me to do anything about it. For that they’ll see a lawyer or a mediator… or for the sake of maintaining some sort of uneasy peace in the family system, just swallow hard and not do anything at all.

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In a society that esteems the professional and values the credentialed, we tend to have this sense that lawyers do legal things, doctors attend to matters of the physical body, university professors impart wisdom, and clergy do clergy things… though exactly what those clergy things are is sometimes up for debate. It is often assumed that among other things, pastors do counseling; that somehow our seminary training has credentialed us as counselors and therapists. Lots of my colleagues—across denominations and traditions—have quite readily accepted that mantle, I suspect partly because it is a service that is recognized in our society as useful. We all like the idea of being useful, helpful, and necessary, and so for many clergy the temptation to become sanctified social workers is real.

The English spiritual theologian Martin Thornton once observed that, “One calls in a plumber because he understands plumbing, not because of his wide experience of life,” and then went on to suggest that something of the same should be true of the priest or pastor. “It is because the priest has time for prayer, study and reflection that his guidance of those in the world’s hurly-burly is likely to be worth having.” The priest or pastor, Thornton insists, must “not make himself ridiculous by making an amateurish mess of some other job.”

I have to say that I think Thornton is bang on here, and so when someone approaches me to ask if I do something like marriage counseling, I always respond by saying that I am not a therapist or social worker, but rather a priest. I am quite happy to sit down and have a conversation with you, but I can only do that as a priest­; as a theological conversation partner who will reflect with you and pray for you. As for therapy… well, I know a good counselor or two you might do well to book an appointment with.

Part of that comes from knowing the limits of my own expertise, and part comes from an awareness that sometimes what a pastor has to offer from his or her anchoring point of “prayer, study and reflection” is precisely what people are wanting or needing.

“Rabbi, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,” to which Jesus responds, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Now to be fair, it was not uncommon for people to seek the guidance of a rabbi in such matters, because the torah actually has some things to say about inheritances and the like. Not that a rabbi would have had any official authority—for such a ruling you really did need to approach a religious lawyer—yet having the opinion of a respected teacher did carry a considerable amount of moral weight. Still, Jesus defers and refuses the role of “judge or arbitrator,” opting instead to do something that characterized many of his most significant conversations… including the legal ones. Recall the lawyer who came asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, and who in the end was given the story of the Good Samaritan to chew on as he sorted out the question of “who is my neighbour?”

Looking at the people gathered around, Jesus said, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” This is not at all what the man who’d asked for a property ruling had expected. Even less would he have expected this parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to 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.’” It is not a bad strategy, actually. I know that some of you here come from families with a farming background, and that there were probably years in which the crops were so good that investing in some big, strong, dry storage bins was rather prudent. After all, the agent at the elevator is saying that Canola prices have nowhere to go but up; why not cash in on that?

It is in what follows, though, that Jesus really makes his point: “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” I will say to my soul—in the Greek the word is pyche, which is sometimes translated as “life,” allowing Eugene Peterson to render the phrase as “I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well!” The defining word here is “self,” and once you notice that there is no sign of any other human character in this parable, you realize that “self” is the problem. This man talks to his own self as if he’s the only one who actually matters; as if his accumulation of “all my grain and my goods” is actually of lasting value.

“But God said to him,” Jesus continues, “God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” And then looking at the crowd—and maybe even glancing over at the man with the family property dispute—he adds, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

I like what the fourth century bishop and theologian Ambrose of Milan had to say about this passage: “[T]he things we cannot take away with us are not even ‘ours’. Only virtue is the companion of the dead. Compassion alone follows us.” “The things we cannot take away with us—whether barns full of grain, pots full of money, robust stock portfolios, closets filled with shoes and clothes, or shelves packed with books (my own particular weakness)—these things were never truly “ours.” We have them for a time, but simply can’t hold them with us as we die. “Only virtue is the companion of the dead,” continues Ambrose. “Compassion alone follows us.” Virtue and compassion; when you stop and think about it, surely two of the expressions of what it means to be “rich toward God.”

Notice that Jesus never even begins to suggest that the so-called rich fool in this parable is packed off to judgment and damnation. Instead, as Robert Capon suggests, “[Jesus] sets him up as the paradigm of our whole plausible, reasonable, right-handed, wrongheaded struggle to be masters of an operation that is radically out of our control”; out of control in that nothing he’s accumulated in those big expensive barns means anything eternally. Nothing any of us accumulates can be carried beyond our deaths; “Compassion alone follows us.”

None of us can possibly know when we are going to die—“This very night your life is being demanded of you” are the words the rich fool received… “this very night”—and so I think that one of the pressing questions posed to us here is whether it is tonight, next year, or decades from now that we face our own death, will we come to it with all kinds of regrets, misplaced affections, missed opportunities; a life, in short, lived in such a way that to utter things like, “I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well!” actually makes sense. In the end, what a loneliness that must be.

No, I want Jesus to push me past a life lived primarily for me, and to show me a life lived both for and with others. I need him to keep reminding me of what matters, and to give me the courage and imagination to truly embrace those things. I need him, in short, to save me from my own equivalent of “barns full of grain and goods.” We all do.

Which is why again, this year, this story is told. May it make us just a little uneasy, as we sit in our places and know our comfort. And may it light our imagination with a deeper calling to a richer—in the best sense—a richer life. Amen.

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