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August 4, 2013 - Luke 12.13-21

“Wise Up!”

Luke 12.13-21

August 4, 2013

 

13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And 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.16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then 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. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But 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?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

 

I don’t think any of us are shocked when we read this scripture.  But if we look carefully and see this as a comparison to how we actually live our lives, then it is a shock. We are confronted with the fact that Jesus looks at things differently than we look at things. Earlier in Luke's Gospel Jesus says, "What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his or her soul?" (9:25). Most of us honor those who "gain the whole world," or at least a big slice of it. We honor these people in our yearly roundup of "the most successful" and "the most famous" in our celebrity magazines. Yet Jesus calls these successful people "losers," which brings us to this little story of Jesus about the rich farmer. Here is a prudent, productive man whom we might call a success. He is not only a success at farming but he is also a wise manager of his success. He builds great, secure barns to hold all of his grand harvest. We might give him the "Farmer of the Year" award, if there is such an award.  Jesus calls him, "You fool!"  Why?

When the WorldCom scandal hit a few years ago, sending thousands into unemployment with the loss of millions of dollars in investments, and a scandal to the tune of 3.8 billion dollars, the CEO of WorldCom, Bernard Ebbers, was called "a fine Christian man," by his pastor. Ebbers addressed his church and said, “You are not going to church with a crook.” What would Jesus call this man?  I am not sure, but I have a good idea.

 Why does Jesus call this man a fool?  It’s not because being smart at a business venture makes you spiritually foolish; it’s because this man trusted in his materials possessions more than God.  We said in our Sunday School class last week that the U.S. has become one of the hardest places to spread the gospel to the masses.  Why?  Because we are so rich.  Rich people feel like they have everything they need.  And truth be told, they do – except for Jesus.  Rich people have a very hard time knowing that they might need something.

The farmer was a fool, Jesus implied, because he actually thought that he could secure his life on the basis of his stuff. Get the stuff piled high enough, deep enough, it's a barrier against death and misfortune. And for such thinking, Jesus calls him a fool.

 

Luke sets this parable of the rich fool in the context of a set of sayings and parables about the peril of possessions. Covetousness is a violation of Moses' law (Ex 20:17) and is condemned in the prophets (Mic 2:2). It is a problem that is frequently addressed in the early church (Rom 1:29; Mk 7:22; I Tim 6:10). Sometimes covetousness afflicts those who consume what rightly belongs to others; more typically it involves accumulation of goods beyond one's needs. In the parable of the rich fool, the desire to accumulate is based upon a desire to secure oneself against the vicissitudes of life. This acquisitiveness Paul calls "serving the creature rather than the Creator" (Rom 1:25); in Ephesians 5:5 it is called "idolatry."

In the parable, the rich farmer has apparently acquired his goods through just means - nowhere is he accused of criminality or even greed. He is successful through his wise management and through God's providence.

What he is called is a "fool." He is rich only toward himself, not toward God. He talks only to himself. He lives for himself thinking that he is securing his life through his possessions and for this, the man that we might call a prudent, productive business person Jesus calls a "fool."

One reason why we come to church, listen to sermons, read scripture, is to "wise up." The church loves us enough to tell us the truth, to set before us the difference between the ways of God and the ways of the world.

But this is more easily talked about than actually absorbed.  When you consider that we must put our allegiance to God and God’s message above all else, even some of our deeply held loyalties can be challenged – and rightly so, perhaps.

The brilliant Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann writes:

There is little doubt that religious idolatry is matched by social ideology in which the American dream is the goal of life . . .. The religious seduction of civil religion is found not only in the powerful propagandas of consumer advertising but is also present in much of the church which is simply an echo of and guarantor for the controlling ideology. [1]

Let me break that down for you.  What Bruggemann is saying is that too often, the Church becomes nothing more than a tool to propogate the status quo – to prop up what people feel should be “normal.”  He is right.  What is sad is that such an existence for the Church is completely contrary to the purpose for which God created the Church.  What is more, I think the world knows it.

 

Following Jesus is NOT a normal thing.  If we think it is, we aren’t doing it right.

We aren’t supposed to have “normal” values.

We are supposed to love our enemies.  That’s not normal.

We are supposed to turn the other cheek. That’s not normal.

We are supposed to love the Lord with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.  That’s not normal.

We are not supposed to judge anyone.  That’s not normal.

We are supposed to forgive.  That’s not normal.

We are to treat others as more important than ourselves. That’s not normal.

Following Jesus SOUNDS like a normal thing, but that’s only because we talk about it so much.  Doing it doesn’t look normal though. 

 

Following Jesus is not a job for the status quo, and if we follow the status quo, we are not following Jesus.

 

I heard of a young man, a youth minister who was serving a conservative Christian church. He led the youth into a number of controversial activities - anti-abortion protests, anti-drug rallies, and picketing at a movie theater. The youth responded well to his ministry and the youth group grew.

Then one day he appeared in his college chaplain’s office to say that he had been unceremoniously fired. Why? He had simply made a videotape containing a collection of TV commercials. Then, at the youth meeting that Sunday evening, he showed the tape and led the youth in a discussion of these TV advertisements, discussing the ways in which television tries to lure us into the acquisition, hoarding, and grabbing of things that TV tells us will make our lives better. They discussed what this sort of getting and buying does to our families and to our souls.

The next week he was fired. He was told by the senior pastor, "that was a foolish thing to do."

What do you think Jesus would have called it?

 

Dr. Ernest Becker wrote a book called The Denial of Death, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974.  In it, Becker talks about the human need to avoid our own deaths.  We do all sorts of things that reveal in us a psychological need to live beyond our own deaths.  He says that we name our children after ourselves to further the family name.  My oldest brother is a “Junior”, for instance.  Becker says that we establish companies with our names on them, give money to charity to establish funds that bear our names, give money to hospitals and colleges to build buildings that bear our name in order to “live on beyond our lives.”  Becker came to believe that individuals' characters are essentially formed around the process of denying their own mortality, that this denial is necessary for us to function in the world, and that this character-armor prevents genuine self-knowledge. Much of the evil in the world, he believed, was a consequence of this need to deny death.[2]

Ironically enough, Dr. Becker died in 1974, the same year he won the Pulitzer, and the Ernest Becker Foundation was founded after his death to do research into human behavior.

I wonder if Dr. Becker knew about Jesus because I think Jesus would have agreed with him.  I think Jesus would call much of our behavior “foolish”, not the good deeds part, but in trying to avoid our own mortality, we are indeed foolish.

 

Part of my job is officiating at funerals.  I don’t really like doing them.  The reason is obvious.  But there is one thing I have noticed.  When the funeral party proceeds to the gravesite, there is a procession.  There is the hearse, the limo, the pastor’s car and everyone else follows.  But there is one thing you will never see in a funeral procession: a U-Haul.  You really can’t take it with you.  The Egyptian Pharaohs thought you could take it all with you, but all that happened was it made their graves bigger.  At least it gave us the pyramids.

 

We humans spend so much time of our lives accumulating stuff.  Our lives revolve around getting stuff.  Are we idiots?  We can’t take this stuff with us.  It’s not even REAL, not in the eternal sense.  What are we doing?  I think Jesus is really onto us here.  If we store up for ourselves and not for God, we are idiots.  Only the stuff we store up for God will last, nothing else is real.

 

Fred Craddock tells an interesting story about his niece and her Greyhound.  He visited his niece in Miami and was sitting by the dog that his niece has rescued from racing.  He and the dog struck up a conversation.  He asked the greyhound, “So you used to race?”

“Yep,” said the dog.

“Do you miss it?”

“No.”

“You don’t look old.  Why did you retire from racing?  Did you lose a lot?”

“No, I never lost.  I made my owner a lot of money. It wasn’t the money.”

“So he must’ve been cruel and beaten you.”

“Look, I don’t want to talk about it. No. He treated me great.”

“Well, there must be some reason you quit. Tell me what it is.”

“Okay, okay. After all that running, I found out the rabbit I was chasing wasn’t real.”

What are we chasing after?  Is it real in the eternal sense?  What are we storing up?  Are we wise or are we fools?  Are we ready for when our time is up here?  Just as sure as you and I live and breathe right now, there will come a time when we won’t.  Are you ready?  What are you chasing after?  Is it real?  I mean is it eternally real?  That successful farmer could be you or me. 

The good news is that there is still time.  In that there is NOW.  All the time we have is just that.  NOW.  We have nothing guaranteed beyond that.  If you have never made a decision for Jesus, or even about Jesus or what to do with Jesus, I would just say that if you decide to put it off, to perhaps decide later, you aren’t guaranteed later.  All you have for sure is right now.

 

[1] (Brueggemann, Israel's Praise, p. 128.)

[2] Wikipedia article on Ernest Becker.