Luke 12: 13-21
Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?"And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, '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. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
This past week on my walk through the Reeveston neighborhood of Richmond, I cam across an empty plastic bag on the sidewalk. Now, an empty plastic bag is not uncommon in the alley by our house where I walk our dogs in the morning. But that is not Reeveston. Ours is a mixed neighborhood that we love living in. And the alley culture is vibrant and messy, private and secretive. Largely unseen except the trash that gets dropped by folks who walk alleys. So we just pick it up.
But, the Reeveston neighborhood in Richmond was planned and built up in the early 20th century, with legal parameters that there can be no two houses with the same layout. So it is an architectural riot of Tudor, Spanish, Colonial, Art Deco, Modern, Bungalow. Old style property wealth in Richmond in the beginning. Now, younger, far more diverse families are buying these up, and bringing lots of kids and dogs. But not lots of trash. They take their neighborhood very seriously. And I just walked on by the errant plastic bag, sure that the homeowner would survey their property at some point and go pick it up.
Our parable today opens with a couple of brothers bothering Jesus. I suppose it was legit for them to think Jesus an authority and decider of their family property. It was a common role for rabbis. But Jesus is clear that he is not their decider. Jesus is clear about who he is, and he is not here to connect humanity with material wealth but for a connection with God. So he tells a story that comes with a warning.
I can just see the Rich Man in the parable with that glint in his eye of a dream realized, of relief, of things turning out ok. His barns cannot hold the abundance that is being produced on his land. So build more barns! I can imagine him standing on the edge of the equivalent of what would now be his back deck, hands on hips. We will imagine it is evening, so the workers have gone home. This affords him the illusion that somehow he has done all the work, and that the rewards are all his. Build the barn! Bring in the crop! Sell, make money, hoard it! And don’t worry about anything! I’ve got it all!
Can’t you just see him there? Maybe his has sat down now….Feet up on a footstool. A glass of wine from his own vineyards, food on his table, brought by servants, no doubt, who quietly and invisibly hover out of eyesight to make sure every need is met. Yes. This is the life. And it is his life. And he can keep it all.
The parable continues. Jesus tells them and us, that God’s voice encroaches into that blissful scene of much and more, and lays it out flat for the rich guy with one word.
We all fall into foolish ways every now and again. The journey of the Fool is that of innocence and inexperience going through all manner of trial and tests, leading toward maturity, wisdom and profound connection. It might take a lifetime. It might last the 33 days needed to walk the Camino de Santiago. It might last one morning’s walk in the neighborhood. The reckless naivete of the Fool becomes a reckless abandon for living a mature life, not holding back because we have finally seen things, lived things, made mistakes and corrections. We have become and have been known and are knowing more.
This rich guy, not so much. Jesus is clear, if you store up earthly treasures, you will be disappointed and it leads to death. Store up connection with God. That is life.
This parable has been used often to warn of a life of hedonism and greed. Looking closely, and lifting some of the overused interpretations off this simple text, we can see that the incrimination isn’t of a life of leisure, nor is it building the barns or even having a lot. It is storing up abundance and not sharing. Our main character isn’t acting badly on the surface. Jesus would have directed us to notice bad behavior with words like greedy, cruel, unaware, self centered. But we don’t get any of that. There is a meanness, a baseness within his lack of vision, yes. We basically have a guy who has it all, has more than enough, and wants to sit back and enjoy it without a thought or care. Without a thought or care he sees the abundance and doesn’t even consider once that it might not all be for him.
And now, we can begin to turn this text toward ourselves to guide us into our own moments of life or death. Maturity or meanness. For we are witnessing every day the meanness of the world around. The world is mean. It is base. It is run on survival of the most powerful. And we can lose faith in another way of living.
The meanness that we are seeing, is a lack of elegance, a show of shabbiness in matters of manners, culture, discourse and collective good. It is far worse than the example of the Rich Fool in today’s text.
Dr. Christine Porath, professor and researcher at Georgetown University, has a TED talk on her studies on incivility in the workplace. Her studies and research and analysis show that incivility in the workplace reduces productivity. 66% of those who were the object of incivility cut back their efforts,
80% lost work time, 12% left their job. Cisco, a huge technology systems corporation that worked with Dr. Porath estimated conservatively that incivility cost their bottom line 12 million dollars. And it didn’t just demean and diminish those who were the recipients of incivility.Witness performances decreased, those that saw it happening to coworkers were equally affected. Dr. Porath says, Incivility is like a bug, it is contagious. She indicates that stress is the #1 reason we are not civil or we do not disrupt incivility.
Her Ted Talk goes on to say, There is also a perception that if I am “Nice” I will finish last. But, Further studies show that civil and nice people are actually 2X more likely to be seen as leaders. Those who are civil are linked with the following attributes that are highly valued: they are seen as warm and competent, friendly and smart. It doesn’t require a huge shift to move from incivility to civility or to shift the culture toward civility. Efforts can be simple and small, Porath’s research shows that
thanking, sharing credit, listening attentively, humbly asking questions, acknowledging others and smiling have a positive impact.
In the church, we talk about the gospel. We talk about the fruits of the spirit. We talk about agape love as a standard of living. I will be the first to admit that while I have not lived sequestered or in a state of separation, I have lived life from the very beginning among people who take simplicity, peacemaking, justice and community very very seriously. And I often take it for granted. Bad behavior is most certainly present in our structures of faith. But so is apology, self critique, support for growth, a belief for something more for each person. There is a basic belief that all are children of God, and that loving God, self, neighbor, stranger, enemy are basic foundational starting points to come back to, again and again. The world sees this all as foolishness. Civility or Gospel, There is an intentional hope in the Way of Jesus.
In the Reeveston neighborhood, the biggest lot and house, is protected by a high-end buried electric fence and Dobermans. When neighbors are out walking their dogs, the Dobermans will charge the perimeter right to where a person and their pets are, and do what they’ve been trained to do. Which is to signal that you are in their territory, you are not welcome, I will rip you to shreds if you touch that Solomon’s Seal plant on the edge of the flower bed (Kurt risks his hands every time). The owners of this large urban property seem to own what is beyond their own borders via their guard dogs bark-reach. It is a tangible energy of Mine. Mine. Mine. I walk on with heart racing from fear.
Contrast that with my walk on Friday with a home that has a fenced yard and two large dogs that could jump it if they wanted to. One of the dogs began a ferocious barking jag as I was half a block away, on the other side of the street. The owner was outside. He called the dog to him. Firmly told him to be quiet. Then loved on the dog, who had indeed gotten quiet. His viewpoint as seen in his actions was to look up and outward. He was taking in the variables of the neighborhood. He acknowledged a stranger, me, on the street as a legitimate part of the landscape and quieted his dog with firm and loving commands. Stranger, homeowner, and alert dog were all brought together. We became more than disparate and unconnected elements. It was just a quick moment, but connection can come quickly. I walked on with a smile on my face.
A few blocks later, a pick up truck slowed down to idle beside me. My immediate thought was, “Do I look that worn out that someone is offering help?” But no. It was Jeff Carter, President of Bethany Theological Seminary. He was coming home from a local Men’s Bible study, wearing not his ubiquitous suit but an orange polo shirt, heading home to mow the lawn, do some chores as assigned and maybe some golf. He was happy to see me. I was happy to see him. We talked and connected. I walked on with a smile on my face.
I was feeling good, seen, respected, and it was building with each positive exchange. It changed something in me on my own morning fools journey. My mind then sent me back to that empty plastic bag on the sidewalk. The one I had passed by earlier. I felt the lowness, the basic meanness, the shabbiness of my inaction, that I did not bend over and pick it up. I didn’t go back, but I continued on, now picking up a straw wrapper, a crushed cigarette pack, a bottle cap, and bit of icky dryer sheet, dropping them into my own trash can at home. In a moment I was part of this neighborhood and its well being is now my well being.
Our parable it is not about a simple chastising finger wag to not be greedy. Or an equally chastising finger wag to be generous. The Rich Fool, was indicted because he was not living from a place of connection, which is the Kingdom of God. The new Jerusalem is marked by gates that are always open, the light that is God always shining, a magnificent welcome on the walls with gems and precious stones. In the middle is a river and a tree whose branches are for the healing of the nations. It is our home, for us to walk into freely. An open invitation to everyone and everything.
The kingdom of God here and now is in the streets. It is the art in the murals that tell of change coming, it is sitting on our back patios and inviting the walkers in for an evening drink, or sharing a lemonade with the yard workers, roofers, or bored kids. It is putting your own plans aside when someone experiences an unexpected health crisis and needs someone to sit with them. We then share the moment as equals, rather than anyone being outside of the moment, disconnected, afraid.
We must look up to see one another. We cannot avoid the workers by day, to enjoy our perfectly quaffed lawns at dusk. What we may fail ourselves with is when we don’t look up and see that all are already invited in. Don’t hold back. Be reckless and grand. With your largesse or with your simple life. Our material possessions are not indicators of our worth or ability to share. Our worth is not in our possessions.
The parable alerts us that The possibility of missing the participation in theWide-Spread-generous-Arms-of-God-to-All is at stake.
We know that our invitation into God’s Way is for mutual enjoyment, mutual belonging, mutual care, mutual sharing in the grand great abundant generosity of the hand of the Divine. The world is in great need of people, like you, who know to live lives of selfless love, whether defined by Gospel goodness or secular civility.
May our Rich Fool, look up from his limited understanding and self importance, and see his dusty field workers walking home.
May he give a holler that turns heads. And with his arms in an over exaggerated gesture, call them to join him.
May our Rich Fool leave the naivete of self centered ignorance and fill his serving trays with bread and wine, grapes and cheese to serve those who work.
May our Rich Fool hear the jokes of the workers.
May they share stories of babies born, of wise elders, of life rituals.
May our Rich Fool, when he forfeits his life that night, smile, knowing that what he once saw as his alone is now in the hands of everyone.