A sermon from Luke 12:13-21 (preached on July 31, 2016).
Jesus’ teaching here comes amidst a sequence of events that begins at least in chapter 11 of Luke. I will start with 11:37. Jesus dines with some Pharisees and Law-of-Moses “experts,” taking opportunity to point out their hypocrisies, and even calling them “fools” (Lk 11:37-52). Jesus certainly knew how to be a house guest. Later outside, Jesus warns his disciples about the subtle influence of some religious well-knowns and religious know-it-alls (11:53-12:3). And much like the risk he has just taken, Jesus lets his disciples know that they, too, may have to proclaim God’s truth in uncomfortable settings, losing friends and influencing people. They may be worth more than sparrows, but that doesn’t mean they won’t lose their lives (12:4-12). After all, humans are much more violent toward their own species than sparrow species are with their own, even when humans mask their violence as devotion to God and to purifying God’s world. This is not the only time in this setting when Jesus will compare humans and birds.
In a way that strikes me as rather abrupt, a man from the crowd publicly asks Jesus to sit as judge in family court, to settle an inheritance dispute. Maybe the man sees Jesus as a prophet who challenges Jewish people to greater justice, including justice in the family. Jesus indeed cares about justice, but he also smells a rat: the man seems to be motivated, not by justice, but by greed. He is so close to more stuff that he can taste it, and he wants to use someone with clout and authority to eliminate what stands in his way. Instead, he encounters another barrier, a conscience barrier. Sitting as judge after all, Jesus judges that the man (and crowd) need warning, and also need their worldview challenged: “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (12:15).—Yes, I know that, Jesus, but my brother is being unfair.—You’re right, Jesus, but I control my possessions; they don’t control me.—I could give my possessions away at moment’s notice and my life would be just fine.—Could you? Would it be?
The beauty of a parable is that it invites listeners to leave one story—their usual life story, with all its excuses and self-justifying rationales—to enter another story and see the world through it. A rich man runs out of places to put his crops. There’s an interesting subtlety in the way Jesus tells the story, though: “The land of a certain rich man produced abundantly” (12:16, emphasis added). The emphasis is not on the man’s work as a farmer—or rather his slaves’ work as farmers—but on the land. The land produced, not the man. No doubt, this rich man fails to see the difference. He helps nature do a better job at growing things. He could congratulate his hard work and wise choices, perhaps bewildered that other farmers aren’t having the same problem. Maybe they don’t work as hard. Maybe they make foolish choices. Maybe God is blessing him more.
These are, of course, my own imaginings as I inhabit this story. As Jesus tells it, the man tears down barns and builds bigger barns. Then, in what could sound like pious obedience to conclusions in Ecclesiastes, the man tells himself to “relax, eat, drink, be merry” (12:19; Eccl 8:15; 2:24; 3:12-13; 5:18; 9:7). After all, wasn’t this the wisdom that Ecclesiastes conveys? Who could fault the man for obeying the Bible? for being a biblical literalist? for being clever enough to find in the Bible reasons to believe what he wanted to believe anyway?
As the story continues, it’s almost as if God says to the man, You like Ecclesiastes, do you? So do I! . . . Because the wisdom of Ecclesiastes includes not only eating, drinking, and being merry, but also understanding that “all my toil . . . I must leave . . . to those who come after me—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?” (Eccl 2:18-19). So also in Jesus’ story, God responds to the barn-builder, “ ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ ” (Lk 12:20). Does God plan to strike the man dead that night, or does God just foresee the man’s upcoming natural death—a perspective that, if the man had it, would change his view of his barns, his crops, his success, his life? Or would such a perspective change him? Maybe he’s too entrenched. We don’t know, because Jesus simply ends the story without telling us how the man feels or responds.
“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (12:21). Jesus’ conclusion could sound escapist and irrelevant, like a call to sell everything, go off to sit by oneself, and meditate on God forever. Is that what Jesus wants the inquiring man to do? Does being “rich toward God” mean living in chosen poverty and going to the temple and synagogue more, praying more, reading Scripture more? In a matter of verses, Jesus will tell his listeners “sell your possessions, and give alms” (12:33). Giving real money to real people in need is what demonstrates “treasure in heaven” (12:33). Being “rich toward God” means sharing one’s crops when the land produces abundantly, not just building bigger barns to keep the produce for oneself. It’s about social consciousness. It’s about seeing the land as God’s land and seeing our use of it as stewardship of something that’s not ours to begin with. Being “rich toward God” means that one gets this truth and shares the land’s produce accordingly.
This perspective is evident because, between Jesus’ teaching to be “rich toward God” (12:13-21) and to seek “treasure in heaven” (12:32-34), Jesus talks about (among other things) ravens. “Do not worry . . . . Consider the ravens . . .” (12:22-24). Jesus observes about ravens that “they have neither storehouse nor barn” (12:24, emphasis added)—in contrast to the rich man of Jesus’ parable, who convinced himself to build bigger barns. Call this sequence of events “A Tale of Two Barns”–the barn that was two small, and the barn that never needed to be built. Arguably, there are several problems with the man’s barns: he might be anxious that the land might stop producing; he might see other farmers whose failed harvests have landed them in slavery; and yet, he is rich before this abundant harvest even comes in, and thus seems incapable of getting enough; and, finally, his stores which will feed him months down the road do nothing to help his neighbor who might be hungry today.
Is the man dumber than ravens? Are there things about land, produce, life, and even God, that the ravens get, while the man doesn’t? Jesus affirms to his disciples that they are more valuable than birds (ravens here, sparrows earlier), but are they, and the crowd, and the inquiring man, smarter than birds? Is it possible that humans have voluntarily, unnecessarily complicated the land and their lives to the extent that they find themselves incapable of living in God’s world the same way the ravens do? Have humans taken too far the command to “subdue” and “have dominion” over God’s creation (Gen 1:28)? Has their mastery of the world disabled them from living in simple, grateful, and disciplined consumption of the land’s produce? from seeing how artificial their ownership of land is? from seeing their barns for what they are?
When are we dumber than ravens? When do we see the land with anxiety, and when do we see it with daily simplicity—“Give us this day our daily bread”? When are our barns really efforts to keep for ourselves and to keep from others? When are we fools who fail to keep “our” possessions in perspective? How often does the overflow of our barns direct our gaze to others, to love our neighbors as ourselves? How often do we use the abundant provisions of the land—and not of our sheer efforts—to share with others, to be “rich toward God”? Being “rich toward God” is believing that God has provided enough for us and for others, too, and acting accordingly. May God give us the faith so to believe and so to act. Amen.