The heading in many of our Bibles for this morning’s Gospel reading is “The Parable of the Rich Fool.” Now, the thing about the parables of Jesus is they’re like Trojan horses–they sound like quaint little folk stories–you know, something to entertain folks before there was television,– but what they actually do is get inside you and keep working on you long after they’re done. They might even creep up on you on a Tuesday afternoon, long after you’ve heard the parable on a Sunday morning. So, there should be a warning issued before we read these things. In fact, in this morning’s reading, Jesus does just that. He says, “Watch out! Be on guard! Be very certain….”
The other ruse about this particular parable is that the title makes it seem like it’s not about us. I’m not rich, and I’d rather not think of myself as a fool, so I can listen to the parable with a certain amount of distance and objectivity…until on Tuesday afternoon it occurs to me that that story that I heard on Sunday morning may actually have been about me. What was it about storing stuff away in my barn, or basement, or attic, or garage that Jesus was talking about?
So, a landowner’s farm had a bumper crop, a very good year, not necessarily because he did anything in particular to make it grow, but because the weather happened to cooperate–not too much rain, just enough heat and sun. But it produced more than he could use and even more than he could store. So he has this little conversation with himself, as Peterson translates it–
“‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, ‘Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’”
But in the only one of Jesus’ parables where God speaks directly, “God showed up, and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods–who gets it?’” (The Message)
The landowner isn’t evil. This isn’t ill-gotten gain. He’s just all wrapped up in himself. There’s not a single other being who he takes into consideration. He even talks to himself, answers his own questions. Until God breaks into the conversation with the ultimate reality test–”Tonight you will die.”–and makes his little building project seem rather short-sighted. “And your barnful of goods–who gets it?”
Here’s how this little Trojan horse of a parable has been working on me this week since I re-read it Tuesday morning. One of the things I did over vacation was re-do our back room– stripped the wallpaper, painted it, took out the loveseat that our cats had trashed, and moved in some bookshelves and a loveseat that we had taken out of Bruce’s parents house in getting it ready for sale. But, alas, there’s plenty more where that came from. We’re not building bigger barns, we’re just stuffing more things into our current barn, and garage, and basement. For all sorts of reasons,–the least of which is, I don’t know what we’ll do with her stuff– I’m hoping my mom lives many more years. And when I’m tempted to buy one more thing–that we’re not going to eat or use up in the next week–this harmless little story bubbles up and says, “Really?”
And that’s not even touching the challenge of being responsible–and faithful–about the stuff that I will leave behind, if I die tonight or in 40 years. Do I want to burden my children with disposing of all my stuff, or do I want to pass on to them a blessing?
Here’s an alternative version of this parable, suggested by Rev. John Jewell, which I think faithful to the spirit of the one told by Jesus–
Once there was a man who was richly blessed by God… After receiving word that he had received yet another windfall, he said to himself ‘What in the world am I going to do with all this money?! ‘ He thought long and hard about what he should do and he finally came up with how to invest his money in a way that would bring even more to his richly blessed life. He summoned his accountants and managers and said to them, ‘I have been blessed above most people I know, [and certainly most people in the world,] and now I have more money than I even dreamed of. I’ve decided how I want to invest this money to make even more. I want to put everything I own–except for enough to live on in a simple way–into a charitable foundation. Each year half the money is to be given to organizations that feed the hungry and the other half to assist prisoners who desire to transition to a life free from crime.’ Then the rich man who became poor to become rich said to himself, ‘I have been blessed beyond anything I ever imagined and now I am blessed even more.” And God said to him, ‘My child, you have many good things stored up, come now and rest in the joy of your God.’” (JP Jewell, “Lectionary Tales,” 8/4/13)
Now most of us don’t consider ourselves rich, with more money than we know what to do with. Some of us struggle every month to pay our bills and to provide for our families. An unexpected windfall, or winning the lottery, or finding out we’ve been named in a rich uncle’s will sounds like an answer to prayer. The thing is, unless you’re on the extreme end of survival, where receiving more money would be a matter of life and death, more money has been shown not to essentially change people’s level of happiness and well-being. There are more than enough nightmare stories from people who have won the lottery. For many, it’s ruined their lives. If you were miserable before you received an influx of money, chances are after a brief spike, you’ll be miserable again.
I’d like my life to be a version of this revised parable of abundance and letting go to become a blessing to others. I know that I have been blessed above many people, certainly above the majority of people in the world, and so I need to keep asking myself, “What am I storing up in my barn?” What am I teaching my children and others to store up?
One woman who, like most of us, was accustomed to buying Christmas gifts for her 3 children and several grandchildren, decided one year, after participating in her church’s mission festival, to give each of the families $200 and asked them to decide, with the children, how they’d like to spend the money–on people who really needed it. The kids in one family noticed that some of the kids at school couldn’t go out for recess because they didn’t have warm coats. They went to the Goodwill Store and bought several coats in perfect condition to take to school. Another family bought food for the homeless shelter. What if, instead of saying, “I’d like one of those,” our children said, “I wonder who could use one of those?” (Jewell, op cit.)
This parable asks, “What is the ‘good life’?” What makes us truly happy? What is the ultimate currency in your life? Would you rather have a million bucks or a close, loving relationship? What would it mean to be “rich toward God”? Is blessing or abundance to be hoarded and stored up or shared with the community? Not only would the rich man have had the additional blessing of experiencing the joy of seeing others in his community have enough to eat or have adequate housing or education or health care–while he was alive–; he also wouldn’t have spent his last day alive on a building project that was ultimately doomed to failure. Who needs a barn or silo full of rotting grain? We need to share what we have now–as well as think about how we can share after we’re gone. As one sage put it, “You can’t take it with you, but, my friends, you can send it on ahead!” (Jewell, op cit.) Do you have a will? Are the people and causes important to you included in it?
And there’s that other sage, Miss Piggy, who said, “Many people think money is something to be set aside for a rainy day. But honestly, how much money do you really need for a dozen or so hours of inclement weather?” (Cited by Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds, 8/4/13)
Jesus was not afraid to talk about money. In fact, he talked about that and what we do with our resources more than any other single topic. So does the rest of the Bible. So we too might begin a conversation with each other; after all, we’re all in this together. What do our checkbooks and credit card statements say about our lives and what we value? How much do we need to live “the good life”? We might practice counting our blessings, which are many, and supporting one another in our struggles to “be on guard,” as Jesus said, “against all kinds of greed.”
Sharing the one loaf and one cup is a good place to start, reminding us that sometimes just a morsel and a sip are all you need, especially when it connects to the endless, abundant Source of Love and Life. So, take and eat. Take and drink. Let us keep the feast. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark