on the way with Jesus: “it’s the stuff in the way”

Luke 12:13-21

So it’s a second son—or third or fourth—
or a daughter (Numbers 27:1-11),
speaking anonymously from the crowd,
demanding that Jesus confront
the economic system of primogeniture.
That system in which the first born receives the bulk of the estate—
that system grounded in Torah—the law
(Deuteronomy 21:15-17).

And anonymous though it may be,
and there’s no comment on the justice of the request.
So it could be that the petitioner
has not gotten what he or she deserves;
or it could be that the petitioner
is trying to get more than he or she deserves.
We just don’t know.
What we do know is
that someone with less
is making a request for more
from someone with more
and wants Jesus’ help.

We also know it’s not an inappropriate request to direct to Jesus.
After all, within a system based on Scripture,
to whom other than the experts in that law—in the Torah,
would people address their concerns?
Rabbis fielded such requests.
Moses did (Exodus 2:14; Numbers 27:1-11).
And Jesus was such an authority on Scripture.

And if we read back through what precedes our text in Luke,
we find all the more reason for the petitioner in the crowd to hope—
all the more reason to think Jesus predisposed
against those with more
and for those with less!

This is, after all, the gospel
that begins with Mary singing the Magnificat—
that great song of reversal
in which the rich are sent away empty-handed (Luke 1:53).
This the gospel in which Jesus, in the Sermon on the Plain,
as part of the beatitudes states baldly,
“Woe to you who are rich” (Luke 6:24).
This the gospel in which Jesus, telling the parable of the sower,
again states baldly, in his explanation of the parable
that the seed that fell among the thorns
was the seed that was choked
by the cares and riches and pleasures of life (Luke 8:14).

There’s good reason—lots of good reason
for our anonymous person in the crowd
to hope Jesus will speak out on his or her behalf.

But Jesus responds to the request
not with the enthusiasm one might have hoped for,
but, as he so often does,
with a question.
“Friend, who set me up to be an authority here?”

And we tend to, I think, hear that question
as a rhetorical question—
representing the rejection of the request—
Jesus rejecting that authority.
Because there’s no answer—
to the question.

But what we mean by saying there’s no answer,
is that there’s no answer from the crowd.
There’s no answer recorded in Scripture.
Because I can, in fact, think of three answers—
three good, legitimate answers to the question.
“Who set you up as an authority you ask?
well, you did—
claiming authority and claimed by God
and recognized by the people—
tax collectors and Pharisees.
You set yourself up as an authority.
And I did. I set you up as authority—
investing authority in you out of my own hopes
because of what I’ve heard about you and from you.
And, if this is, truth, a case of injustice,
then your own commitment to justice
sets you up as authority.”
Three good answers.

So I tend to think—
what with the anonymity of the person making the request,
and the lack of response of that person to Jesus’ question
when there were good responses that could have been made,
I tend to think that this was an illegitimate request.

This was someone who had heard enough of Jesus
to hope to hear Jesus say,
“You have heard it said, thou shalt not covet (Exodus 20:17),
but I say to you it’s normal—it’s natural to want what others have.
You have heard the prophets (Micah 2:1-2) denounce covetousness,
but I say to you, what do they know? Covet away, that’s okay.
You have heard the wisdom of the psalms (Psalms 39 and 49)
and the wisdom tradition itself (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19)
stressing the value of not valuing stuff,
but I say to you, ‘The one with the most stuff
and the coolest stuff wins!'”

Now of course Jesus doesn’t say that—any of that.
We can’t imagine Jesus saying any of that.
Yet don’t we want to hear it too?
Don’t we live as if he says that instead of what he does?

And with that now silent, still anonymous person in the crowd,
and in the absence of individual response to his own question,
Jesus said to them—
so not just talking to the petitioner anymore,
that anonymous voice from the crowd,
Jesus said to them—to the crowd—to us:
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed;
for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

And there’s no one—
there’s absolutely no one who doesn’t need to hear that.
Be it the person who doesn’t have enough
who thinks if only I had more money, all would be well.
Be it the person with enough
who thinks if only I had more money, all would be better.
Be it the person with lots of money who—
well, wait a minute now,
because that’s the story Jesus precedes to tell—
the story of the one who has so much.

But notice in this story, there’s “nothing … of graft or theft;
no mistreatment of workers or any criminal act.”
(Fred B. Craddock, “Luke” in Interpretation:
A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching

[Louisville: John Knox, 1990] 163).
There’s no exploitation—no injustice.
The rich farmer does nothing wrong.

In fact, let’s take it a little further.
Let’s say the man’s wealth is the result of his own hard work.
Throw in a little good fortune, if you want to.
All of which is to say, in another story in Scripture,
this man could be the hero—
exemplifying the practicality of the wisdom tradition,
the value and reward of hard work (Proverbs 12:11, 24; 13:4).
He could be the servant in the parable
entrusted with ten talents who doubled his assets
and so would be rewarded with more (Luke 19:12-17).
He could be the sower whose seed yields 100 fold (Luke 8:8).
He could be like Joseph who had to plan wisely
for the storage of excess that wouldn’t spoil or be lost
who had to build bigger barns—
who had to build storehouses (Genesis 41:34-36).

And I want to point out another admirable trait.
Did you notice that the story, in bold counter-cultural truth,
has the wealthy farmer explicitly state at one point,
“I have enough.”
Now what kind of vile, asinine, un-American,
communist foolishness is that?
What is this “enough” of which he speaks?

But in contrast to the unbridled, unending greed
that drives too much of our economy—
the tacit assumption that there can never be enough—
that more of a good thing is always a better thing,
we need more CEO’s who, like our rich farmer,
realize: “I have enough.”
We need more sports figures and movie stars,
and more of the highest paid individuals in the highest paying fields
realizing just because I can command this much
doesn’t mean I have to or should.
We need more who realize they don’t need more—
realizing their extravagant wants
cannot with integrity be met in face of so much basic unmet need.
I am not advocating communism, by the way,
but courage and compassion and integrity.
We have far too many so-called leaders
without any of the three.

And, of course, we need more of us, too,
affirming we don’t need more, right?
More middle class families not dreaming ever of more.
More children and youth saying, “I have enough.”
More people of God modeling enough is enough.

Because Jesus said there are all kinds of greed.
For greed’s not about an amount, but an attitude.
And there’s no one who doesn’t need to hear this.
And if it’s hard to hear, we need to wrestle with why.

But back to our farmer.
Because even within all that’s admirable about him,
there’s that succession of eleven uses
of the personal pronouns “I” and “my” (Ray Summers,
“Commentary on Luke” [Waco: Word, 1972] 156).
And there’s no one else mentioned at all. You notice that?
There’s no sharing of the stuff with anyone.
No eating with anyone; no drinking with anyone;
no making merry with anyone else.

And there’s the presumption of the future tense:
I will do this. I will pull down my barns,
and I will build larger ones, and I will store all my stuff.

And then there’s that matter of telling your soul,
“Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years;
relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
Is that care of the soul?

The rich farmer’s last words in Greek are “be merry”—euphrainō,
and God’s first word, in response, is “fool”— aphrōn.
(R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke:
Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections”
in the New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary
in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX

[Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 256).
The alliteration brings home the point:
the man thinks one thing is true,
when, in fact, something very different is.

So what do you think? Are we talking greed or foolishness?
Jesus was talking about greed, but then tells this story
that ends up being about foolishness.
The rich man isn’t greedy; he’s foolish.

So I think this story is actually directed to those,
like the anonymous daydreamer in the crowd that day,
those like, I dare say, many of us,
whose dreams are shaped by the foolishly seductive thought,
“I’ll be one of those rich folks one day”—
not the CEO’s and the obscenely wealthy,
but those who allow their dreams and visions
to be infested and infected by the idolatry of a material salvation—
who allow themselves to be invested
in skewed priorities and value
(and that may be those CEO’s and the obscenely wealthy,
but maybe not, and definitely not only).

We’ve noted before in our following along
in the way of Jesus through Luke’s travel narrative,
that we always seem to know what Jesus is talking about.
He’s pretty clear—downright explicit.
We may not want to know. We may not implement.
We may choose to ignore or deny.
But we know.

So there’s a three minute video clip making the internet rounds.
Set in Thailand, it features a small soup store owner,
who knows.
How many of you have seen it?
Oh, not that many?
Okay, we’ll show it.


Now here’s what I find ironic.
Not ironic.
That’s a commercial.
It’s a commercial for a communications company.

Everyone’s familiar
with those MasterCard commercials, right?
The ones that celebrate the fact
that there is experience in life that is priceless,
but that imply, when you think about it,
that you do have to have this stuff
in order to put yourself into those contexts that can be priceless.
Before you get to priceless, you have this costing this much
and that costing that much—
the implication being, surely you should pay that,
if it leads to priceless.
Surely you’re not too cheap for priceless?
And MasterCard will be glad to help you make those purchases.
Because, come on, honestly,
they’re really not interested
in you having priceless experience.
We all know that, right?
They don’t care about the quality of our lives.
They just want to sell us a bill of goods—sell us short.
They see us as buying units, after all. That’s all.

The best commercials take the best of who we are
and use it to try and sell us on something.
And you can name them, right?
The Folgers coffee commercials around Christmas time,
Budweiser has pulled it off several times with their Clydesdales,
Sydney’s been making fun of this Walmart commercial—
pointing out how it so poignantly shows
members of our armed services coming home,
being reunited with their families,
and then it says Walmart—like there’s a connection.
You seen that Guinness beer commercial
with all the guys playing wheelchair basketball all out,
and then, at the end, how all but one of them
stand up and walk out of the gym
accompanied by their one friend in his wheelchair?
Because people who drink Guinness
are such compassionate and sensitive friends.

Here’s the thing.
Because commercials aren’t disturbing.
I mean, they are. They are.
But if you stop to think about it,
their whole reason for being is to sell you.
If you forget that, it’s on you, not them.

No, what’s disturbing to me
is that commercials have the right idea
and all the wrong resources,
while we as the people of God have the right resource,
but all the wrong ideas!

Here you have this host of commercials
seeking to name the priceless and eternal in life—
reaching for concepts of the abundant
with awareness that it has to do with other people—
with awareness that it’s relational,
and that it can’t be bought.
The best commercials know all that,
and then try and use it—make use of it.
So while they admittedly can’t sell what they advertise,
they try and link their product to it anyway—
desperately try and capture such moments and experience
and associate them with product—
to make their pitch—to make their sales,
while we as followers of God in the way of Jesus
have historically tried to scare people into heaven—
have historically and traditionally
not claimed the abundant life—not valued the priceless and eternal,
the relational, the joys and grace and wonders of the here and now,
but chosen rather as motivation
the threat of eternal damnation in the fires of hell.

Now I don’t know the fullness of what the Bible speaks of
when it speaks of eternal life,
but I do know this:
gospel—good news includes moments of living
in the here and now.
Moments we feel like should last forever—
experiences we assess and say this should never end—
timeless moments.
Because if eternal life doesn’t include
what I understand to be abundant life—
moments that are the best of life as we know it,
why would anyone want an eternity of it?

Something we’re going to be talking more about
through the fall and through next year is the idea of
reclaiming a passionate imperative.
That’s what the church—traditionally, historically, conservatively, has had—
some sense of the vital importance of saving people.
But we want and need a passionate imperative that’s not angry.
That’s not judgmental. That’s not fear or threat-based.
That focuses more on what it’s for than on what it’s against.

So how does that goal fit with a story
that suggests you’re not greedy if you focus on the stuff,
you’re a fool.
How’s that positive? Being more for than against?
Well, it suggests we were created for more than foolishness—
more than the foolishness we indulge—
more than the foolishness for which we settle.

So receive our story as one among many that seek to
dismiss false security in order to deal honestly
with very real fears and anxieties,
and embrace the love that casts out fear—
stories that seek to help us live with gratitude and a sense of sufficiency—
of grace and blessing,
stories that cultivate the disciplines of courage and compassion—
that locate life in eternity,
and make of living priceless abundance.

Isn’t that a story big enough, wonderful enough, rich enough(!) to live into?
Isn’t that a story important enough to share with enthusiasm and passion,
because in our world, there’s no better news?

It’s time to live as those who know this.


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