May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each heart be pleasing to you, O God, my strength and my Redeemer. +
In today’s Gospel reading according to Luke, we heard about a crowd of people who were following Jesus and listening to his teachings when someone came forth and interrupted everything in order to ask Jesus to mediate between him and his brother so that the brother would divide an inheritance into equal shares.
But Jesus turned to the crowd and said to them, (15) “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
We also heard Jesus tell the parable of the “land of the rich man” which “produced abundantly”. So abundantly, in fact, that the rich man had nowhere to store his abundance of crops, so he decided he would tear down his barns, build bigger ones, store his grain and his goods, and then relax, eat, drink and be merry for many years to come.
(NRSV, v.20) But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you’…”
If you have gone to church much at all in your life, chances are you have heard these passages and this parable before. Perhaps many times before. That’s okay. Please hang with me anyway. Because you know how it is when you re-read a favorite, treasured book and something new pops out at you? How you see a little different nuance because of what is happening in your own life or the world at the time? I pray that will happen for some of us today as we look again at these passages of Scripture.
But first a few background notes.
“According to Judaic inheritance practices, an older brother would receive two-thirds of an estate while the younger would receive one-third.” (FOW, pg. 311) Therefore, the Gospel reading appears to be a younger brother asking Jesus to make his brother divide the inheritance 50-50.
As for the parable, notice that it is about “the land of a rich man.” This is no small farmer, but one who controls much of the agricultural produce over an entire region or district. Therefore, there would be communal implications to his abundance. In times of future scarcity of others, he will become richer as others are dependent on him and the prices he sets for food.
His focus seems to solely be within. There is not gratitude towards God for this abundance. No mention or hint of sharing.
As for verse 20, “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you’…”
I have always heard this verse to mean that the rich man will die.
It brings to mind Matthew 19:24 (NRSV), which says, “Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
These verses seem to contradict many stories in both the old and new testaments that speak of God blessing his children with riches and abundance.
I have to ask…would God bless us just to condemn or kill?
I don’t think so.
That is contradictory to a loving, life-giving God.
In the literal Greek, verse 20 reads: “Fool! In this night, your soul they demand from you.”
… In this night, your soul they demand from you…
In the literal Greek, the word ‘they’, could also mean his grain and possessions. Therefore, the warning of the parable would be that the possessions now own the man, that his abundance now owns his soul and claims his life. These earthly treasures, stored up for himself, become a distraction. A distraction in much the same way that Martha was distracted by her many tasks 2 weeks ago.
The younger brother of today’s reading is distracted by the thought that his brother will receive twice as much.
The rich man is distracted by the dilemma of all this grain and no place to store it.
Distractions that kept Martha, and the brother, and the rich man from being as verse 21 says “…rich toward God”.
Rich toward God.
What does that mean?
This past Friday, I attended the funeral of Allene Joyce Stovall, 88 years old of Panhandle, Texas. Her family owned and farmed 5 sections of land in Carson County. In addition, Dr. Stovall was a professor at West Texas State University in Canyon when I was a student there in early 80’s. In the 1960’s, she was instrumental in bringing women’s athletics to WT. In 1982, she was named the Carson County Farmer of the Year. The only woman to receive that award.
Dr. Stovall, in contrast to our rich farmer in the Gospel today, knew abundance, but was not distracted by abundance. She used her abundance to be “rich toward God”. At her memorial on Friday there was story after story after story about how she gave and helped to others in need. Coaching the women of WTSU without pay. Her parents buying the uniforms. Traveling to games in her station wagon because there was no means for a bus. Stranded travelers on Highway 60 that she took back to the farm when they ran out of gas. Meals bought at the local restaurant. Groceries or money for families in need. A couple of nights lodging at her own home for the Buddhist monk passing through. Dr. Stovall was committed to community service: Multiple Sclerosis Society, American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the March of Dimes, the Carson County Square House Museum.
I too was a recipient of Dr. Stovall’s generosity. I had one final semester at WT in order to receive my degree and I was flat out of money.
With her riches, Dr. Stovall had created the Allene Stovall Scholarship Fund, and in 1983, I was the recipient of that scholarship, enabling me to complete my degree.
You see the rich farmer in our Gospel saw the abundance as his to keep and possess. Dr. Stovall saw the abundance as a gift from God to share with others, as a way to be rich toward God, being rich toward others.
But what about those of us who don’t own 5 sections of land to farm? I know that as a kid growing up, I was glad if and when I had socks without holes and underwear that didn’t have the elastic band falling off.
What about those who don’t have abundance?
Those who have just enough?
Or maybe not even that?
How can any of us be rich toward God, when, like the younger brother, we can be so easily distracted by lack and want? Or like Martha when we have so many tasks? Or there is so much that needs to be done that it is overwhelming?
Do you have health enough to open a door for one who is weak?
Do you have a richness of family and friends, and therefore can welcome one who is lonely?
I ate at Waffle House the other morning and an elderly waitress there was rich in smiles and compliments and “honey-sugar-babies”. You know what I mean…Honey, can I get you some more coffee? Sugar, are you going to have those scrambled eggs again today? Baby, where you been? I missed you!
Rich toward God, rich toward others, with what she had to offer.
You see, in my journey of faith, what I think I believe today, is that salvation is not an individual deal. No, salvation is communal.
I don’t believe the rich are going to hell or cannot go to heaven. Because God has given all of us an abundance of our own unique gifting. For some it is an abundant harvest or 5 sections of land in Carson County. For others it is health or smiles or compliments or listening ears. There is more abundance from God than can be named.
I believe the parable of the rich farmer teaches us that when we share our abundance, when we are rich towards others, then we are “rich toward God”.
When we as individuals and as the church, the true body of Christ, give out of our unique richness, that is when we will have salvation.
That is when the Lord’s prayer will be answered…Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.
Two weeks ago, Martha was distracted by all she had to do.
Today, the younger brother was distracted by the unequal inheritance. The rich man was distracted by what he considered to be his abundance.
Today, let us lay aside our distractions. Whatever they may be.
Let us each and collectively go forth today, remembering to take care! To be on guard against all kinds of greed and distractions.
Let us instead thank God for all of our gifts and all of our abundances, and let us be “rich toward God”, by being rich toward all of our neighbors.
[There is no recording available for this sermon.]