Lectionary readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
Let us pray: Lord, we thank you for this chance to hear your Scripture read. We pray that you would enter it and speak to us, each of us what we need to hear this morning. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
So, I’m finally starting to act more like an adult and look into retirement accounts. So in between everything else this week, I’ve been looking into kinds of retirement accounts and comparing banks and doing calculations.
I mention this because it’s also why our gospel passage for this morning made me so uncomfortable. I couldn’t help but see a lot of parallels between the man in the parable and myself. The man in Jesus’ parable and I are both pretty rich compared to the rest of the world. We’re both taking our wealth and looking at ways to squirrel it away. Does this mean that saving money or preparing for the future or making plans is bad? evil, even? After all, God is pretty explicit: “You fool!” The man will die that night, and everything he’s prepared will be worthless. As they say, you can’t take it with you!
I’d like to spend some more time with the parable before I answer that. We have this story that Jesus tells, of a rich man whose land produces “abundantly.” This was a time when people truly eked a living out of the land; such a spectacular, abundant crop would have been extremely rare, and normally something that was celebrated as a blessing of God. After all, the weather and rainfall and lack of pests were all out of the farmers’ control. Whether it was a good year had little to do with how well they farmed. This amazing crop was basically once in a lifetime, like finding a winning lottery ticket on the ground.
Original listeners also would have known, even if Jesus hadn’t said, that the man was rich because his land produced enough excess that he had to think about building new barns to store it. No one person or family could create so much abundance on their own in a time when most of the labor was done by hand or, if you were lucky, with the help of an ox or a donkey. That is, this man owned a lot of land and received rent from his tenants in the form of part of the crop.
And there’s no mention of the man doing anything with this abundant crop but hoard it and think of ways that it can benefit himself. There’s no talk of giving to the poor, or even of helping his tenants enjoy the riches of the year as well. There’s no talk of a special trip to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving for this bountiful gift of God, or even the expected trip to offer the sacrifice of first fruits. No, the rich man is so determined to keep it all for himself that he plans better storage. He wants to silo himself and his possessions off.
And that is why the rich man is so foolish–not because he prepares for the future, not because he wants to celebrate the good harvest with food and drink, but because he wants to keep it all for himself. God, after all, told Joseph to store grain for seven years to prepare for the years of famine that were coming (Genesis 41). The book of Proverbs loves to tell its listeners to prepare for the future by working hard and saving up now (for instance Proverbs 6:6-11 and 30:25). The issue is not that the rich man wants to prepare for the future. Nor is it that he wants to celebrate: Jesus Himself defends His disciples when they do not fast, for they are celebrating His presence (Mark 2:18-22). He certainly ate a lot of meals with His disciples, including special ones for holy days like Passover. In Isaiah God repeatedly compares the good and beautiful things that God longs to bring for the people to lavish, exuberant feasts full of food and drink and music and celebration of every kind (Isaiah 25:6, 55:1-7). The issue is not that the rich man wants to celebrate his good fortune. No, the issue is that the rich man wants to hoard all his wealth for himself. And what did it get him? Absolutely nothing, for he died rich in grain but poor in love.
So no, this is not telling all of us to stop saving for retirement or paying your mortgages and rents. It’s not saying that we should stop thinking about the future, or celebrating the blessings God gives us in life. It is, however, a reminder: the pursuit of material security, through storing our “crops” or saving for retirement or whatever else, can become an obsession. It can become a distraction from God and the people around us, so that we see only what will help us and benefit us. We don’t see the needs of the people around us; we don’t see the grace of God or hear God’s voice speaking to us. Instead we worry only about ourselves. This distraction comes in many forms, of course, not just money–but we live in a culture obsessed with the mega-rich, with salaries, with dollar signs and accumulating stuff. It’s a danger.
This parable is a reminder that God is and should be the most important part of our lives, our source and our redeemer and the one through whom we draw breath. So, go. Prepare for the future. Celebrate the beautiful parts of your life–but don’t forget to love the people around you. Don’t be distracted from God’s presence in your life. Remember God our savior and our provider.