“Be on guard against greed,” Jesus says

RCL Year C, Proper 13

What would you do today if God told you would die tonight?

Few of us get that kind of clarity about when we will die. But what if we knew for certain that our time was short? How would we live?

I would guess that most of us wouldn’t go on worrying about what is in our retirement portfolios. We wouldn’t comb the adverts for buy-one-get-one-free deals. We wouldn’t bother buying the next iteration of the smartphone we’ve been eyeing. In fact, we probably wouldn’t spend much time thinking about our money and possessions at all, unless it was to give them away. We’d have much more important things to do with our limited, precious time, like being with loved ones and saying the things we’d put off saying for too long. Or going to places we love one more time, eating something wonderful and really relishing it, doing all those things that mean living life to the fullest. We might even regret all the time we spent doing things that now we realize didn’t really matter.

The parable we just heard is about just that – realizing, perhaps too late, what’s important about life. It’s also about money, yet another story Jesus told that has to do with how we think about our material possessions. Sometimes we gloss over how often Jesus talked about money, because we ourselves don’t like to talk about it so much. We prefer it to be a separate category from what we think of as spiritual concerns. But of course the parable is about more than money. It is not a parable telling us to divest ourselves of our IRAs and fling the money off the cliff, nor is it telling us not to bother with IRAs in the first place. But it is quite clearly telling us to stop worrying about those IRAs, and to renew our emphasis on and priority for what matters more – our love for God, and our responsibility to others.

The rich man in the parable has a problem with money. There are all kinds of clues in the parable as to just what the problem is. For one thing, he is not just your average farmer. Our translation reads, ‘The land of the rich man produced abundantly.’ The word translated ‘land’ could also read ‘country’ or ‘region.’ This man owns a lot of land, not just a little farm. He is the Unilever of his day, CEO and owner of an enormous corporation. And you don’t become that kind of major landowner without pursuing it pretty intently – without greed, to use Jesus’ word. Enough is not enough, because you need more. So this rich man has taken much more than he needs to live. In the words of Isaiah, he has joined field to field until there is room for no one but him, left to live alone in the midst of the land. And now he has a surplus. But rather than consider how to share that, he has a little conversation with himself, which is revealing in its total lack of mention of anyone else. I will build larger barns, and I will have a place to store all this stuff, and I will say to myself, Enjoy! There’s no one else in his world – none of the workers on all of that land, none of his family, certainly no one of the poor in the region, it’s all him. He has more than enough for himself, yet he plans to keep it all for himself. And too late, he gets the word that he will die tonight – unable to enjoy all of the riches he has amassed for himself. You fool, God calls him – you unthinking one. You never thought of anyone but yourself – and now that self will go too.

Nowhere in the man’s understanding of himself is his dependence and reliance on others for all the wealth he has gathered. Others have toiled, others have labored, and he has reaped the profits – but their work means nothing to him. Nowhere in his understanding is the effect of his greed on others, all those who are unable to own land because he owns so much. Nowhere in his understanding is any kind of responsibility for others, or care and concern for them. And nowhere, certainly, is any sense that he owes all this abundance ultimately to God. And so he is a fool.

This rich man isn’t the only rich man who gets lambasted in scripture. Scholars have long noted the puzzling fact that although wealth is seen as a sign of God’s blessing, rich people continually seem to be held up as examples of selfishness and lack of faith. The poor, on the other hand, are often praised as examples of faith, those who rely on God for everything. It is amazing the church has managed to last for so long with this kind of upside-down thinking – it’s not the way the world works, to continually denigrate wealth and riches. It’s particularly ironic when you look at all the periods in history when the church itself was the biggest landowner in the area. And yet, again, the problem, scripture says, is not just the wealth – it is what wealth creates and reveals in a person’s life. A rich man like the one in today’s parable makes a good example of the problem all of us have with material possessions. He’s the extreme, larger than life and so easier to see. But all of us need to be looking.

The parable raises the stewardship question again, the question of remembering just what we have and where it comes from; remembering whose we are and where we come from. It is so easy for us to think we are the ones in the driver’s seat in all things. Our wealth and material success is our own doing. Our lives are our own. It’s our own bootstraps we pulled on to make this all happen. And yet, as God reminds the rich man, death is the ultimate announcement that we’re not in the driver’s seat at all. All the stuff we have, all the provisions we have put in place to protect ourselves, all the plans we’ve made, all of that evaporates completely when we die. All we really turn out to have is what we started with – life, the breath of God in us. Everything comes from God.

And that reminder compels us to look around us. Where did all of this stuff we have come from? Who worked to make it? What conditions did they labor under? Was the person who made this beautiful robe paid enough for their time? Is the money I’m spending on this new car worth spending on the car, or could I use it to feed others who are hungry? Do I have so much now that it is more than I can possibly use myself? Whom else should I share it with? And how should I live with the little time I have left?

The problem is, there are no simple black-and-white answers to these questions. It’s not as easy as any of us would like it to be. But we are meant to ask them – to look at this caricature of the rich man and see just what features of ourselves we might recognize in him. To allow God and God’s priorities to sift through our money and our possessions, our time and our energy, and do some reallocating. Away from the greed and idolatry our culture upholds, and toward the trust and true abundance scriptures urges us toward instead. Be on your guard, says Jesus, against greed of all kinds. It destroys your soul, ruins others, separates you from what is your true source of life in God. May we heed this warning, and embrace the good news of God’s abundant love for us. Amen.