July 31, 2016 — 11th Sunday of Pentecost
Text: Luke 12:13-21
I want to be honest, today’s gospel lesson is not one of the easy ones. This is not a happy parable with an explanation written out a few verses later. This is not an uplifting passage. The next few weeks in the lectionary are not going to be showing the sweet smiling Jesus. This is angry Jesus.
The passage we have today starts off a sequence known as “The Sayings of Jesus” and it is written in the form of a giant rant. Matthew’s gospel has the Sermon on the Mount. John’s gospel is known for the multi-chapter prayer on Maundy Thursday. Luke contains a couple of large sequences and this is one of them. It is a rant of, if you will forgive the pun, biblical proportions. Today’s lesson is the beginning of a series of sayings that remind us of Jesus whipping the money lenders in the temple.
We begin with an incorrect expectation. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Settle this dispute like the judges and prophets did in the days of old. Use your authority as a man of God to bring about a judgment in my favour. Jesus looks at the man. “Friend,” he says, “who set me as a judge or arbitrator over you?” Who gave me a position of bureaucratic importance? Who invested me with the responsibility of dealing with each and every tiny dispute that comes up when people live together?
In Exodus 18 we see Moses getting smacked upside the head by his father-in-law Jethro. The Israelites were bringing all of their petty disputes and issues to Moses and he, in turn, was spending all day and into the night dealing with these issues. Jethro took one look at what was going on and told him to knock it off and appoint men to settle these small problems and only bring the forward the big ones, the complicated ones. Moses took his advice.
“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus, act as one of the trusted men who deal with the issues and problems I’m having with my brother. Jesus says no. He is not one of these judges. He is not here to tell this guy that he is being put upon by his brother, especially when we don’t even know if the brother is being unreasonable. This guy could simply be yelling out to Jesus asking him to tell his brother off because he won’t share the sixty million dollar lotto max jackpot.
It would be nice if we could end there, end with Jesus acting as another Moses. Instead we are given the beginning of this rant. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” This is the theme for the next few pages in the Bible: possessions are the problem. The prophets used to rant about how worshipping God was more than just throwing a carcass on a fire. We read a few weeks ago in Hosea ” For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” We read Psalm 51 “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” Jesus, however, has looked around at his society and decided that there is a new primary problem.
He then tells the parable. It is another rich landowner. Jesus really does not like rich landowners. In the gospel of Luke it is really only one rich person, Zacchaeus (the short guy who climbed the tree), who comes out with Jesus’ blessing and favour. It is a difficult parable because it is hard to see what the land owner has done that is wrong. Your crops are growing so well you have no more room? Build bigger barns. Makes sense to me. Storing up goods so that you can relax, eat, drink, and be merry for many years to come? Sounds good to me. The company automatically throws a chunk of money into my pension every paycheque. Jesus however returns to the original question thrown at 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 toward God.”
This is not an optimistic gospel lesson. Why are you worrying about the future when you could be dead? Keep in mind, however, a couple of facts. One, Jesus was speaking to an occupied land. Jerusalem was destroyed and Isreal sent into exile not more than forty years later. This was not a spur of the moment decision. Tensions were building. Jesus was executed as a terrorist. This teaching is consistent with what his followers believed for a long time. The return of Jesus was right around the corner. Paul even writes in the epistles not to worry about those who die before Jesus returns. The theology of imminency is prevalent even today. There are those who truly believe that we are in the last of the last days.
Christians have spent the better part of fifteen to seventeen hundred years stuck in a weird state of trying to live our lives with the knowledge that we have to get up in the morning and feed ourselves while at the same time preparing our souls for idea that we will not be getting up in the morning. Over a millennia and a half since Christians moved away from a theology based on martyrdom we still struggle with this dichotomy.
So what do we do? The best we can do is follow in the words of Paul “be in the world but not part of the world.” Don’t make possessions the point of your life. Realize that for some a life of poverty is not a choice, especially in this current era where entry level jobs require a large accumulation of debt and minimum wage is not the minimum to live but the minimum that needs to be paid.