Rev. Blake Wamester, an ordained Lutheran pastor for almost 40 years, and friend, remarked once to me that in all of the funeral services that he has officiated at and attended in all those years there was not one where a hearse, on it’s way to the cemetery, had a U-Haul attached to it. Similarly I’ve heard it said, “There are no pockets in a shroud.” In other words, you can’t take it with you.
I guess the rich man in our gospel parable today didn’t know about Blake’s ‘unofficial’ survey of the funerary rituals and expectations for the afterlife here in the States. So when God arrives on the scene with the rich man and begins their encounter with “Fool!”, all color variations of red flags should have gone up for the man. It’s never good to ruffle God’s plummage. And that’s exactly what the rich man does in Jesus’ parable.
The Parable of the Rich Fool
Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’
Then he told them a 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. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
But 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?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
It starts out that Jesus had been talking with his disciples and once again a crowd of people gather round. The request by the resentful brother would not have been a usual one for an ordinary rabbi of the day. Ask my brother to divvy up the inheritance so that I can get my share. But he asked the wrong rabbi that day! Or, maybe the right one depending on whose side of the dirt path your on.
Any other rabbi would have been the arbitrator over the dispute but Jesus issues a very stern warning instead. Watch out! Guard yourself, buddy. You’re getting real close to Avarice Avenue where greed has a welcoming home with lots of curb appeal and a welcome mat, you don’t want to go down that avenue. Life, Jesus says, doesn’t come from possessions. You are not what you own.
Well, that seems pretty clear to me. But then Jesus launches off into what he does best – parable telling – this one about the perils of wealth. Having wealth is not the issue for Jesus. What you do, or don’t do with it IS a problem for Jesus. And so he launches off.
There once was a man. He was wealthy. He had land. And that land produced abundantly, beyond his wildest and most creative imagination. So he thought to himself – you’ll notice that for this man there is no thought for anyone beyond himself. There are no thoughts of others, the poor people in town or his hired hands. He thinks, what will I do with all of these crops? He was a virtual cornucopia of the day. He could have probably fed all of Palestine with his agricultural bounty. Wouldn’t you like to know the thinking process of this self-absorbed man? How boring and unfulfilled his life must have been. But I digress.
Wisconsin - photo by S. WagnerSo the light bulb flickers on and he surmises that he must take down his old barns, which I’m sure were sturdy and adequate and build new barns enlisting the adage as we know it, the bigger the better. It’s sort of like “McMansioning”, if you know what I mean, and then renting a storage unit to pile up the things that just don’t fit or work anymore in the new McMansion.
For Jesus wealth isn’t the issue neither is prudent investing. To put a little away for a rainy day, which we know can become torrential at times, is very wise. For Jesus it’s the shear greed in which this man conducted his life. And also, more importantly, that this man’s relationship with God was completely blocked by the big barns that he had built.
Because after the man builds those barns, he thinks to himself, I will say to my soul relax, eat, drink, be merry as can be ‘cause it doesn’t get any better than this! La Dolce Vita (the sweet life). Just then God arrives on this bucolic scene saying, “You fool!” As I said earlier, this cannot be good and indeed it wasn’t because the man died that night leaving his estate to no one and the grains to rot. What a waste of resources in a hungry world and what a waste of a precious life itself. Life, Jesus said, is more than possessions.
The Gospel message this morning reminds us that hoarding and the accumulation of material goods often submits unknowingly to greed. There is a seductive power in possessions that, if left unchecked can pull us in directions that are very far off of the track. We will not be skipping down the path of righteousness that God wants to lead us down. We will be trotting on an insatiable course to self destruction.
Greed can incarcerate us in material silos that we have built for ourselves. But we all know that I bet. And even if we don’t have quite the amount of riches that this man had, materialism still beckons. The trick is how do we become rich towards God and in the gospel message of Jesus Christ in light of the abundance of worldly riches society heaves on us because there is so much more to be had when you are rich towards God.
Being rich towards God is not your every day riches you know, the ones that most people would think…fancy cars, silk curtains, stellar 401k plans, Ipads, pods and phones. Being rich towards God acknowledges that there is something and ‘someone’ much larger out there who cares deeply for us and wants us to enjoy fruitful living in a different way.
Being rich towards God means accumulating and developing extraordinary God-type virtues like love, compassion, and a generous spirit, then living as if our life could be demanded of us at any time, using these virtues for good at all times, not storing them up! Wouldn’t this have been a wonderful legacy that this man could have passed on? Won’t this be a grand legacy for you to pass on?
It also means living fully into what God has given you and I’m simply not talking about material goods. I am talking about you; who you are, what are your passions and the gifts that God has gifted to you by nature, nurture, and by grace? Do not store up your gifts in a warehouse; use them each day. What a waste it would be if Bach wrote music when he got around to it and then just filed in a circular file. What a tragedy it would have been if Monet painted only on the weekends and then stored them in his attic in Giverney. That would be storing your treasures and not using them for the enhancement of the world.
I truly believe that all God wants from us is to develop that which we have been given and then to let it out there in the world. If you build, build. If you cook then cook. If you have executive talents then use them for a fledgling non-profit. Do not store up but distribute what you can, when you can, so that you, in the words and song of Diana Ross, can “make this world a better place if you can”.[i]
When that inevitable day comes and it will, that day we really don’t want to think about, that day when we will no longer be here on earth but there with a grand bird’s eye view of this life, what riches will you leave behind? The material riches that you’ve accumulated all of your life or the God-like riches? What will be the riches that you have nurtured all these years so that life is better and more beautiful for the next generation?
Remember, there are no pockets in a shroud. May your trust in God grow deeper each hour and your life will be blessed with all heavenly things good. These are not your everyday riches but a richness grounded in the love of Jesus Christ for God.