BIBLE READINGS: Colossians 3:1-11 Luke 12:13-21
Imagine his funeral.
A large send-off I am sure, because I have noticed through my ministry that people who build big barns usually get a big "send-off". As Nicky Gumble says “where there’s a will there are relatives!”
What was his eulogy about? Success and big barns, I suppose. Afterwards, outside the church would the mourners swap stories about his big barns? Would they say to his widow: "He’ll be greatly missed. He set a standard in big barns that this district will always remember". And the epitaph: "One who built the biggest barns. Sorely missed by all."
I wonder how his children felt? Had he been a good father or was he so busy that he gave them scant attention? Did they really know him? Maybe he gave them lavish pocket money, but how much love?
And what about his wife? Did she feature in his allocation of time and energy? Was her advice ever sought? How does a marriage go when one partner is enthralled with building bigger barns?
I even wonder whether his eldest son was lumbered with the expectation of having his late father’s plans for bigger barns brought to fruition.
Those who have great wealth aren’t that happy when they achieve it. In 1978, O.J.Simpson said, "I sit in my house in Buffalo and sometimes I get so lonely it's unbelievable. Life has been so good to me. I've got a great wife, good kids, money, my own health - and I'm lonely and bored.... I often wondered why so many rich people commit suicide. Money sure isn't a cure-all!"
But we keep on trying, desiring more. A little girl accompanied her mother to the country store where, after the mother had made a purchase, the clerk invited the child to help herself to a handful of candy. The youngster held back. "What's the matter? Don't you like candy?" asked the clerk. The child nodded, and the clerk smilingly put his hand into the jar and dropped a generous portion into the little girl's handbag. Afterward the mother asked her daughter why she had not taken the candy when the clerk first offered some to her. "Because his hand was bigger than mine," replied the little girl.
It’s easy to poke fun at greed, and see the folly of the rich - but what motivates people to gain wealth? Security, a life of ease, pleasure? When all is said and done - don’t we all need to eat and drink, to have shelter, to educate our children - after all we live in a material world. Whether we want to or not, we all have to live and survive in a world which requires some level of material wealth to make ends meet.
Jesus had a lot to say not about material possessions, but rather our attachment to them. An old Hasidic Jewish story describes this attachment like this: A man was carrying a heavy load of rocks up a steep hill on a hot day, sweating and stumbling under the weight. A bystander asked if he might add still another stone to the load, and the burdened man blurted an angry refusal. Later, another man was carrying an equally heavy sack of diamonds up the same steep hill, but he bore it happily, whistling a tune. A bystander asked if he might add still another diamond to the precious cargo, and the man welcomed it with a smile. "A pleasure indeed, go right ahead."
Let’s look at this passage…
"Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." The man's mind was so full of his inheritance that he broke rudely upon a message to the crowd. The crowd could wait! Here was One who seemed to be taken for a teacher; he would "use" Him. Some word from Him might fulfil his grasping ambition where other means had failed. But Jesus refused to be a judge. "Who made me a judge over you?" Then turning to the crowd: "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." And He told them a parable…
The "certain rich man" appears to have come by his wealth honestly. His farm yielded heavy crops. He did not "add field to field" by oppression, or "devour widows' houses" by fraud, or cheat his workers of their wages. Nor was he a miser; he said to himself with a certain pleasure, "Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." He was foresighted and practical; he had all the marks of a good business man. When his harvests grew too large for his barns he built bigger barns. He was a mover and shaker - he thought financially in big terms and moved with confidence. He had definitely arrived. I am sure he was seen as successful not only by himself but also by his neighbours. Today he would have been seen as a mover and shaker, powerful; but Jesus called him a fool. He failed to keep a clear space between himself and his possessions!
We need to keep possessions at a distance. We must be in the material world, but not of it. We must say to our possessions: "You are not my life. There is more to my life than possessions" But the rich man persistently thought about his "goods" so much so that the distinction between him and his was erased. His life was lost in his drive to expand his wealth. He was absorbed into his ownings. He was swallowed by the world of possessions. Things are a jealous god; they demand complete devotion.
The rich man was an egotist. His soliloquy as translated in the NIV occupies sixty-two words. "I" occurs six times as does "my". He had no thought for God. "My crops," he called them; "my grain." But in what sense were they his? Could he command the fertility in the soil? Were sunrise and sunset under his control? If it had not rained, where would have been his wealth? "The ground … produced a good crop"; all the man did was reap what nature provided.
Who reaped the grain, who ploughed his fields? Who built his barns? The man sees neither the abundance of nature or the social structures that surround him. He asks the question - “What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops?” What does he mean by that? Couldn’t he see the world around him? Wasn’t there any sickness to heal, any hungry to feed? Deliberately this man proposed to spend the rest of his days on the pleasure of his body: "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." He was unaware of those around him, of the environment, even of God.
The tragedy of the rich man was that the sudden death of his body brought realisation of a life that was dead. His humanity had been stolen from him by his property. He was in reality poverty-stricken. His poverty did not consist in the loss of his physical life; there was a far more tragic loss. Jesus sacrificed his physical life when he was a young man. He invited death because he was obedient to God the Father where others invite death by their slavery to things. He taught his disciples that death was a small event: "Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more” (Luke 12:4)
Ultimately we have a decision to make about what we consider wealth. What is wealth? A conscience at peace, a prayer-filled life, compassion, knowing Jesus and following him, friends and family to love - this wealth beyond all price! But it was this wealth which a "certain rich man" exchanged for barns. He dissolved the line between life and livelihood, between the soul and things. He failed to keep his possessions at a distance. But the line which he wiped out death replaced! "This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" The line between self and possessions now became a gulf. The man travelled one way; his property travelled another way, beyond his control.
The fact that his death came suddenly in the midst of his material prosperity adds dramatic force to the truth of the story, but the truth would have remained had he died of old age. He was dead while he lived! So Jesus ends the story by saying "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."
This is revolutionary teaching. We don’t believe it, except in certain moments loneliness. If we did believe it, it is doubtful if we would have courage to obey; for it goes against everything we are taught in our materialistic world. Our standards of success are possessions. And we are not yet ready to abandon them. We pay Jesus the doubtful compliment of lip-service, but by our actions we say: "What will will I do - I will acquire more things?"
Materialism has reached the proportions of an overwhelming and sinister monster. “Size does matter” as the blurb for Godzilla claims. We live in a world where our children cry out for more, more than they could ever possibly use, where shareholders desire more profit at the expense of communities, where gambling is our greatest addiction - a quick fix for the desire to have a new car, a new home, a new life…
Can we afford to hear what Jesus is saying? Can we hear him saying "You fool!"? Can we we afford not to hear him, for the sake of our children, our society, our world - for our very lives?
Russian author Leo Tolstoy tells the story of a rich man who was never satisfied. He always wanted more and more. He heard of a wonderful chance to get more land. For a thousand rubles he could have all that he could walk around in a day. But he had to make it back to the starting point by sundown or he would lose it all.
He arose early and set out. He walked on and on, thinking that he could get just a little more land if he kept going on. But he went so far that he realised he must walk very fast if he was to get back in time to claim the land. As the sun got lower in the sky, he quickened his pace. He began to run. As he came within sight of the starting place, he exerted his last energies, plunged over the finish line, fell to the ground, and collapsed. A stream of blood poured out of his mouth and he lay dead. His servant took a spade and dug a grave. He made it just long enough and just wide enough and buried him. The title of Tolstoy's story is "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" He concludes by saying, "Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed."
What we need is to follow Jesus, to obey his commands about wealth. To see wealth as a tool to care for others, to bring joy to people’s lives. When we have begun to understand that we are a conduit by which God blesses others, then we will begin to know true satisfaction and our lives will be full of joy and peace.