Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – August 4, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
When I read through the parable of Jesus we hear this morning, I couldn’t help but think about the many farmers in our country today who would love to be in the position of the farmer in Jesus’ story. This guy has such abundant crops that he needs to invest in bigger barns! Many farmers in our country today, on the other hand, are in dire straits. Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford recently reported that the median farm income in 2018 was negative $1500. And now this past spring there have been devastating floods across the Midwest, which, among other things, has prevented crops from being planted. As of June, only 60% of the soybean crop was in the ground, with the window for planting closing quickly. Ms. Ford also pointed out that even before these devastating floods, bankruptcies in ag communities have been at their highest rates in a decade.
And so who could blame any of these farmers for wanting to be in the position of the farmer in the parable, who has an abundant crop and ample goods laid up for many years? And is that so wrong?
I would say that it is not wrong – at least it isn’t inherently wrong – and I think the Bible itself supports that conclusion. Consider this: Joseph (the son of Jacob in Genesis, not Jesus’ adoptive father) saved not only the people of Egypt but also his brothers by correctly interpreting the Pharaoh’s dream as predicting seven years of abundance followed by seven years of drought. And what did Joseph do with this vision? He encouraged Pharaoh to build bigger barns! He encouraged Pharaoh to store up grain from the seven years of abundance to see them through the seven years of drought. That’s what Pharaoh did, and Joseph is celebrated as a hero because of it. Building those bigger barns saved people from famine!
The Bible repeatedly points to abundant harvests and growing herds – the wealth of the ancient world – as blessings from God. Whether it is the narrative in Genesis celebrating Abraham’s abundant flocks or the psalms giving thanks to God for the abundance of creation or the prophets describing the coming kingdom as being like a table laden with an abundance of rich foods, there are plenty of places in scripture where wealth and abundance are celebrated as good things.
So what is it about the farmer in Jesus’ parable that has God calling him a fool? It wasn’t that he had an abundant harvest. It wasn’t really even that he wanted to build bigger barns. The problem with this farmer is that he is self-centered. Just look at the language he uses: “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.” There is no mention of the people he will surely need to help him build those barns. There is no mention of who he might share that abundance with. There is no mention of putting at least some of that abundant crop into the empty mouths of the poor. It is all about him. The problem with this particular farmer is greed.
But greed is merely a symptom of an even deeper problem. In our second reading St. Paul writes that greed is a form of idolatry. We see this in the parable as well. As this farmer’s self-centered inner dialog continues he says he will say to his soul – interesting language, don’t you think? – he will say to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink; be merry.” This man thinks that his wealth can buy contentment for his soul! Not only has he conveniently ignored other people, but now he is also ignoring God! And so he has turned that abundant harvest into an idol. He has turned that wealth into his god. He might have a fat bank account, but he is spiritually bankrupt! He is storing up treasures for himself, but is not rich towards God.
I want to share an artist’s interpretation of this parable with you. (I’m indebted to professor Matt Skinner at Luther Seminary for this.) This is the detail of a painting by James Janknegt: CLICK HERE FOR IMAGE.
On the left we have a large house. There are many rooms, each of which is adorned with art. In one room there is an interesting sculpture. It is a human figure, but it is literally heartless! A man sits alone, with death pointing to him across the table.
On the right we see a much smaller house. Only one room is shown, and instead of being decorated with art, the walls are bare. But what it does have is a community. What it does have is love, indicated by the sharing of food. Even the quality of light is different. There is a warm glow in the small house that just isn’t there in the large one.
This painting is called “Rich Fool.” In this painting the artist wants us to see what Jesus is teaching us all through this parable. By rendering this parable in a modern setting he wants us to see what Jesus wants us to see. He wants us to see that greed is isolating. It cuts us off from others. It cuts us off from God. It leads us to spiritual bankruptcy, even to spiritual death. He wants us to see that true life is found in sharing. The truly abundant life is found in communion with God and others. True joy for the soul is found NOT in storing up treasures for yourself, which the man on the left has clearly done, but in being rich towards God.
Jesus prefaces his parable by saying, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” These words can hit people in different ways.
For those who have an abundance of possessions, those who have ample goods laid up for many years, these words are a warning. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a savings account or a comfortable pension, but is easy for those with wealth, which includes many of us here today, to think that the purpose of life is to “eat, drink, and be merry.” These words in the parable are a reference to the ancient Greek philosophy Epicureanism, which teaches that the highest good in life is the pursuit of pleasure. It is a philosophy that is very much alive today. In fact, it is very much alive in the hearts of many Christians. But this is not to be the governing philosophy of followers of Jesus. This is not to be the chief pursuit of those who have been called to carry the cross. And so Jesus warns: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
But these words of our Lord can also be heard as good news. For those who don’t have an abundance of possessions, for those struggling farmers whose farms and/or mortgages are under water – literally or figuratively or both, for those who don’t have ample goods laid up for many years, those who worry about scraping by from week to week, those who lie awake at night worrying about spending their last years on earth in poverty, for those of you here today who are struggling financially, these words of Jesus come as good news. Jesus says that your life consists of something else! Jesus says that no matter what your net worth is, you are valuable to God! The state of your soul is not dependent on how much you have! True joy in life is found elsewhere. It is found in communion with God and others. I did some visiting this week, catching up with some of our members in nursing homes. Most of their possessions from this earthly life are gone now. I don’t want to discount how hard it is for them to be where they are, but there is also a quiet joy they experience which is rooted in fellowship with others and in faith in Jesus Christ. They know what these words mean!
“One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” This can be heard as good news even for those who do have an abundance of possessions. There are many who have plenty but still feel empty inside. There are many who have tried that Epicurean philosophy of doing nothing but pursuing pleasure and have found that it has left you hollow, maybe even spiritually dead. With these words Jesus points us to a better life, a life where wealth is not a harvest to be hoarded, but a blessing to be shared, a life where our souls can find true peace and joy.
“One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Ultimately this is good news for all of us, for with these words Jesus is inviting us all to let go of our selfishness and take hold of the riches of his grace, the riches of his forgiveness, the riches of his love. Jesus invites us to let go of our greed and take hold of the salvation he has purchased for us – not with silver or gold, but with his precious body and blood. Jesus invites us to let go of our idolatry, and take hold of the abundant life only he can give us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church