by Ellen Sims
In the preface of today’s parable, Jesus may seem uncharacteristically unsympathetic about a possible injustice. Or he may seem unable or unwilling to determine where justice lies in that situation. Jesus refuses to judge a family matter when a man asks him to make his brother share the family inheritance with him. Without requesting more details, Jesus dodges that particular ethical dilemma entirely and pivots to a very different and broader topic: not how money should be divided in a particular family, but how money should be regarded and used in general.
Before we explore the parable of the rich/foolish man who was “not rich towards God,” let me comment on the way Luke sets up the parable. I’m comforted that even Jesus set boundaries around what he could/couldn’t or would/wouldn’t arbitrate. Parents have to do that. Pastors have to do that. Everyone has to do that. You get to decide whether or not to express an opinion about your friend’s new girlfriend, the one everyone else is talking about. You don’t have to advise a Facebook friend on Facebook how to raise their child. Some seeming injustices are just not yours to resolve or evaluate. Besides, most advice–even the rare solicited advice—-is not well received. So good on Jesus for picking his battles. If Jesus has the humility to ask, essentially, “Who am I to judge you?”, you and I should be very cautious about weighing in on someone else’s situation. When Jesus asks, “Who am I to tell you what to do?” we’re thinking, “Well, you’re JESUS. That’s your job.” HIS reluctance to judge should make us especially wary of judging others.
But Jesus DID feel authorized to speak to the entire crowd about a more pervasive problem: greed. We know as soon as he begins the story that he’s going to excoriate the rich/foolish man for being greedy, selfish, money-obsessed. The story is simply this: A rich/foolish man had far, far more than he needed. In fact, he had so many crops, he had to build more barns to store all the crops. He did not even sell or plant his grain; he just stored food in a state that would eventually spoil—so foolish was the rich man. Now try to imagine what the peasants following Jesus must have thought about that kind of foolishness: to have vast resources and let them rot when people were begging on the streets for a bit of bread. And think of the waste of labor and resources when the rich man tore down his barns to build bigger and bigger ones for crops that continually exceeded all expectations.
The foolish man was not, however, without a soul, although he may have seemed soul-less. He even spoke to that “soul.” Indeed, he addressed his “soul” but did not LISTEN to it. “Soul, you’ve got all the goods you’ll ever need,” he said inwardly. “Eat, drink, and be merry!” As if the soul of a person needed food. What a foolish man. And on that very night his life was demanded of him. The rich man never made use of his vast riches, never applied them for any beneficial purpose, never shared them or directed them toward a good aim. Jesus concluded the parable as if reading the man’s epitaph: “He was rich, but not rich towards God.”
The sin of greed is devouring our country. Our culture admires the wealthy and attributes to them a wisdom they’ve not earned. We live with such limited insight into what we need. We ignore what is important and disregard the plight of others we might help. We tell ourselves half-truths about how we are using our financial resources—hiding our idolatry of money from our own “souls.”
Many Americans are at a loss to explain the appeal our unvirtuous and unwise president has for half of our citizens. Leading up to the 2016 election, many political analysts recognized that “without the enormous wealth, Trump would have zero credibility.” (https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-is-appealing-because-hes-rich-2016-6). The hatred he has incited against minorities and the policies his administration has instated to separate families at our southern border are unconscionable.
How is it possible he gained so many supporters? I believe he has successfully appealed to our Fear of Other (gay people, black people, brown people, female people . . .) and our Love of Money.
Remember the theme song of his television series “The Apprentice”? “Money, money, money, money . . . money!”
Of course, many who voted for him point to his wealth as a sign of God’s blessing and evidence of his brilliance. That’s the “prosperity gospel” preached at some churches who pay their pastors six-figures to present a false gospel that says money is a sign of God’s favor—when in fact it’s often a sign of a successful huckster. We are prone to admire the braggarts and forget that Jesus taught us to love him by caring “for the least of these.”
Thank God there are Christians in this country who do care for “the least of these.” I know of one family that lives a life of service to others and in faithfulness to God’s way. You know them, too.
They open their home to others,
volunteer tirelessly in the community,
help immigrant children in our public schools adjust to a very different life in a new country,
run a tutoring program so that children learn to speak English and have help with homework,
bring food and clothing to immigrants recently released from detention centers as they pass through our city on a Greyhound bus,
translate for Spanish-speaking families new to Mobile,
create fundraisers to send money to the poor in Venezuela where hyperinflation and a corrupt government are destroying the economy,
speak at rallies and vigils to educate others about these injustices.
Our friends Juan and Yohana Torres are teaching their own children how to lead as servants to others and how to trust that God will provide. This family is RICH, but not rich in things. This family is rich in God. THEY will hear God say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servants.” Their lives are living sermons more eloquent than I’ll ever preach.
Today’s parable is not about how wealth should be divided in a family but how all resources should be distributed among the human family and used to support all of creation.
It’s also a story about what is wealth. People are truly rich when they live with gratitude for the things that really matter. Parables get us thinking by defying our expectations and prompting some outside-the-box visions of what God’s Kin*dom might look like.
Jesus told many parables to upset our prejudices and transform our hearts and get us engaged in ushering in the now and coming Kin*dom of God. Today’s parable of the rich man who died without ever using his money for God’s kin*dom, for God’s values, for God’s people is a cautionary tale.
PRAYER: Thank you, God, for the sermons that are lived out in front of us.