Luke 12vv13-21: Control
Pentecost 8, 4th August 2019.
Our new church call today’s gospel reading the Parable of the Rich Fool. It is one of those passages on wealth that tends to leave us feeling uneasy.
If I asked you what was the New Testament’s approach to wealth, what would you say. The most memorable passages generally seems to be that you should give it away. When Jesus was approached by the rich young ruler, he told him, Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. (Lk 18v22). In other places, the rich are criticised, as in the parable of the rich man (later given the name Dives in Scottish ballad) and Lazarus (Lk 16vv19-31). And Jesus said to his disciples, 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. (Lk 18v24).
But how does this work? Are we all supposed to go and given everything away? Or is this an instruction to a particular individual? The early church in Jerusalem in Acts held everything in common, but does not seem to have been the pattern in other places. And there were wealthy women who followed Jesus in his ministry and provided for him. In 1 Corinthians 1v26 Paul talks of how not many of the Christians were noble, rich, influential, but clearly a few of them were.
If we are trying to be close to God, we want to take scripture seriously. We do not want to just explain away teaching on money. I think Christians generally do find letting God into their finances difficult (I certainly do); you can always feel you could/should do more. So I treat talking on today’s passage with trepidation.
How can you provide for your family if you give everything away? Should we save? How do you not become a burden on others if you do not save. I am approaching retirement; should I be putting money away for a pension? How much should we trust in God to provide?
Listen to Jesus’ words here: Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
So, a few thoughts…
Jesus lived in a largely agricultural society, where people would not have had much. I am not exactly sure what a typical household would have been like in Israel at this time, but I do know what it is like in Nepal, which is an economy only slowly emerging from a pre-industrial history. This is a photo of a house I stayed in when learning language in Nepal (a few years ago now, as you can see). This was a comparatively well-off family, with some earning wages in the nearby town, Tansen, with a good-sized house.  But inside, there was very little.
Even wealthy people would almost certainly have had much less than we do now. C. S. Lewis, in one of his science fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength, has Merlin brought to life from ancient times into the modern day. Merlin comments to the people he stays with, ‘You have no servants, but you live like kings.’ Heated houses, carpets, running hot and cold water, electric lights, cookers, washing machines, fridges, phones, cars… All these do tasks that would have required an army of servants. Now we also have dishwashers, televisions, mobiles, computers, tablets…
You may not feel wealthy, but our society has a level of material well-being that could hardly have been dreamt of by most people in Jesus’ time. Only those with exceptional wealth would have come anywhere near the comfort we enjoy. Most of us have possessions far in excess of what the people Jesus was talking to had.
One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Does this mean we are all Rich Fools?
There is an element of truth there. I am sure I do get distracted away from God and his work by possessions. But it is not possessions themselves that Jesus is criticising. Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
The Rich Fool believed he was in control of his life. His wealth meant he could do what he wanted. He already had barns – he was already rich – but his harvest was so good that he could afford to pull them down, build new ones. He was going far beyond what he needed, into excess. What he was seeking was leisure, pleasure. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry. No thought for God, or others, just himself. The picture on the screen is by Rembrant, and an interesting study in his character.
It is this aspect of possessions that Jesus is warning us against. The selfishness that guards what you have, ignores others, concentrates only on what you want. Mark preached last week on the Lord’s Prayer, and I was struck by what he said about Give us this day our daily bread. In the original this is closer to give us tomorrow’s bread, just what we need, not extra.
Our money and possessions are to provide what we need. That is the way our society works – we do not have our harvest stored in barns. But we should also use them to be, as Jesus says, rich towards God. Which means generosity, sharing what we have, compassion towards those in need. I do not think we are all called to give everything away. We cannot solve poverty by giving all we have away, the need is too big, our resources are too small. Even Bill Gates cannot solve the problems of the poor with his vast wealth. For you always have the poor with you( Matt. 26v11). But we can, as Bill Gates does, do something.
Jesus brings home the point of his parable brutally: 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?” You are not in control of your life. This night there may be misfortune, trouble, illness, death.
I have found the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, 20th July 1969, fascinating, and a real hopeful challenge to the imagination. There is one picture from that mission, taken by Mike Collins in Columbia, the command module that remained in orbit around the moon, which Armstrong and Aldrin set off in Eagle, the Lunar Excursion Module, to land. Collins said that every single human being in the universe was in that picture, except him. Apollo 11 was a great achievement, but it reinforced how small even the earth is, how tiny each of us is. We are not ultimately in control.
What is in control of your life? The warning in this parable is not easy. The focus of our possessions should not be our comfort, our power, our ease, but a source of generosity. Be rich towards God.
St. John & St. Stephen
Image Credit. Rembrandt. The Parable of the Rich Fool
The Parable of the Rich Fool
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ 14 But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ 15 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.’ 16 Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18 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. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20 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?” 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’