Proper 13, Hosea 11:1-11, Psalm 107:1-9, 43, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21
Jewish religion was all about the Promised Land, and the possession of the Promised Land, so the laws of property and inheritance were very important. The rule was that the property went to the eldest son, who could keep most of it but had to divvy the rest out among his brothers. In case of a conflict, they could take it to a rabbi.
And a rabbi was not just a teacher but also a lawyer and a judge. He was expert in Biblical law and its manifold interpretations in order to issue opinions and decisions. A rabbi’s decision was binding. So this guy takes it to Jesus.
Jesus answers, "Friend, who set me to be a judge and arbitrator over you," and he means that he’s not been officially ordained as a rabbi, so his opinion would not be binding. He also means this: "Do you know who I am? I don’t issue opinions; I have no opinions. I have only the total Word of God. I don’t decide disputes, but my message demands your decision. And I make no judgments but all of you must judge yourselves by what I say."
And his message is this: "Take care, be on your guard against all kinds of greed: for your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Jesus means both brothers, the older one who has it, and the younger one who wants it. The property in question is an expression of the heart.
Whenever we deal with material possessions, we must always examine our hearts. "What’s up, why do I think I need this, why do I think it will make me happy, what burden does it cause my life, and what about people who have less. Every time. Every single possession, every single material good. No exceptions.
Not because material possessions are not important. They are very important. Not because we should not value them. We are to value material possessions as much as God so loves the world and the earth is the Lord’s. God has made us stewards of our material possessions, God has put the earth in our care and given us gifts to develop it. But the question is their claim on us, and where we get our agendas, and where our hope is, and what we think will make us happy, and give us security.
In the case of the property in dispute between the brothers, it was a matter not only of current income, but also future security, and the security of their own sons. It was a matter of justice. Material possessions are not unimportant, they are matters of justice and love.
Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool. This parable reminds us that you can’t take it with you, and, more, that even in this life you don’t have real control. You think you control your future, but you don’t control the most basic thing about yourself, and that is your own life.
As usual with parables, there is a more subtle point. This parable has a sharp edge. Jesus has God do what he tells us elsewhere we may not do, which is call a person a fool. Of course God may say things we may not say, because God is the perfect judge. But Jesus means to raise our hackles here. He means to make everyone feel uncomfortable, even if we are not rich.
The rich man is prudent. He’s wise in terms of economics. He’s got a long-term business plan. He’s planning his long-term capitalization. He is the kind of guy in whom you might invest. So why is he a fool? What does his behavior have to do with greed?
There’s a connection between security and greed. What we feel as security is functionally greed. We good and decent people don’t feel our greed as greed. We think of rich people as greedy, or nasty people. But how our greed works is in our need for security, both actual and emotional. And our systems of economic security end up as systemic greed. We have to examine as greed our systems of security, both individual and corporate, both personal and national.
The rich man had more abundance than he had planned on. So by building new barns he thought he could secure the unexpected. But of course our future is always unexpected. And why not share his unplanned abundance with all the impoverished peasantry around him?
There was no middle class back then, there were rich landowners and poor share-croppers. By keeping his abundance in his barns, he did not share it with the people who actually worked his land.
The only way he could have gotten so much was by owning lots of land, which meant either buying the land of the poor or holding it in collateral for debt. But according to the law of Moses, every seven years those debts would have been forgiven, and every forty-nine years the land would return, free of charge, to the family of its original inheritance. According to the law of Moses, this man could be comfortable, but he’d never have so much wealth for himself.
The forgiveness of debt and the return of property to the poor expresses a whole different approach to security. Not by storing but by sharing; not by defending but by befriending. In the Promised Land the land belonged to God, and God had lent it out to the families of Israel on long-term leases to see what they would do with it, to see if they would use it for justice and for love. It’s a message for us. The planet Earth belongs to God, and God has lent it out to the nations of humanity to see what we will do with it, and whether we use it for justice and love. We’ll only do so if we trust the providence of God.
In this regard, don’t mistake what St. Paul means in our reading from Colossians. When he says, "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth," it’s not a call to super-spirituality and a disregard for earthly life, the life of the world and things of the world.
When he says the "things that are above," his meaning is dynamic, not static. He means the things that are above which in the future will come down, when Christ comes in his glory, and our own hidden glory will be revealed, and the earth is renewed to what it should be. We pray this every week: "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven."
St. Paul means that we should set our minds on what’s already true in heaven in order to live that way on earth. Set our minds on the policies and patterns and projects of the kingdom of heaven, instead of the policies and patterns and projects of the kingdoms of the earth, which by comparison are prejudices and prohibitions, dividing the slave from the free, Gentiles from Jews, brothers from brothers, and the rich from the poor. A brother is a brother for his brother, the Jew is a Jew for the Gentile, and the rich are rich for the poor. Seek what is above precisely for what is below.
We can’t avoid the world in which we live. We don’t live in villages any more, where people took care of each organically. For better and worse we live in a culture where the market governs everything, even your long-term healthcare. Social security will not protect you. You have to provide for your own security. And yet our prosperity is huge; but as a society we will not pay the price of sharing the bounty for everyone, not if that price is to restrict our individual freedom and initiative.
That’s not going to happen in America, that’s not how we are constituted. Immigrants come here having left their villages in order to seek their own prosperity and security. So if our need for security ends up functionally as greed, then greed is always at issue for Americans.
Is there a remedy? Yes, it’s very simple. Did you get the remarkable image in Hosea? God is the roaring lion whose fearful voice is what chases you back from exile to the Promised Land.
The remedy: Always confess your greed. Everyone, always, no exceptions, even when you can't see it in yourself. It’s always an accurate confession, even when you’re making economic sense, even when it’s for security, it has greed in it. Confess it in the knowledge of God’s hair-raising grace and forgiveness. When you come to accept yourself as God does, with no exceptions or excuses or rationalizations, you can decrease your greed by finding your security in God’s grace, in God’s gracious provision for your life, which is not revealed to you, but hidden with Christ in God. Set your mind there, and the way to set your mind there is through praying it to God. A simple remedy.
Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.