Anyone who’s ever taken on the responsibility of dividing up the spoils of a dead person knows just exactly how quickly the vultures can begin to descend. Some people have barely breathed their last before the survivors are squabbling over the dead person’s stuff. Everyone wants a piece of mommy, or lots of pieces of mommy, or in some cases, most of mommy’s pieces. And suddenly, everyone’s developed a fantastic memory. “Oh I know that mama really wanted me to have that silver tea service. She always told me, that when she was done with it that it would be mine.” “Well that’s funny, because she always said the same thing to me! How can you even think that she would want you to have it! You were the one who broke her heart, back in ’73 when you brought that hippy home for a boyfriend! How’d that work out, huh?”
And on and on it goes. I’m sure that every one of us has a similar story to tell, and if they didn’t sound so hilarious in the telling of them, they’d be down-right heartbreaking. And that’s because all too often some dead person’s stuff can divide a family. Too often it creates an animosity between siblings that is never resolved. Better to die homeless, penniless and without possessions, and leave one’s loved ones with a rich treasury of memories that can be divided over and over again, without loss, just gain, than to die with one item that can be fought over and lost.
Jesus says to be on our guard against greed. And he says that as if greed was something that could sneak up on us from behind and grab us, turning us into “stuff-eating monsters”. I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen normally sane people, people with normal attitudes and perspectives turn into absolute monsters when it comes to greed. Jesus says “…one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” but for far too many people alive today, the exact opposite is true. Life does consist in the abundance of possessions.
Our passage begins with a question from the crowd. Actually its more of a demand than a question. And behind that demand is a family squabble over some dead person’s stuff. It is two brothers at war. Let us assume that the older brother is being stubbornly slow in dividing up the spoils, or he’s doing it unfairly, or he’s not doing it at all. And the younger brother is appealing to Jesus to jump into the middle of things and make everything all better. “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” This brother is asking Jesus to become an impartial third party, but somewhere in here Jesus smells greed wafting out of this fellow’s breath.
Jesus won’t get involved in a family dispute, but he will use the opportunity to turn his attention back to the crowd to tell the crowd a parable about a farmer who stumbled upon a whole lot of wealth.
This guy had a fantastic year. Boy, did things come together for him. It isn’t all that often that the land produces a bumper crop. It’s a rarity. Even today with all of our modern farming techniques a bumper crop is still a rarity. And so in Israel, where things can be very dry and desert-like, a very good crop would be a wonderful surprise. The sun, the rain, the soil, and most importantly, the blessings of God have all come together in a marvelous way to provide this farmer with his unusual crop.
And really, he should have realized that this crop was not of his own doing, but rather that it was of God’s doing. But he didn’t, and greed jumped up behind him and grabbed him. And unfortunately, that part of the story is not so unusual. The crop was unusual, that’s for sure. This crop should have had “blessing of God” written all over it. The farmer should have seen signs reading that message cropping up all over his fields. The message that the crop spoke to him was loud and clear. “Blessing of God, blessing of God.” But, sadly, either this guy didn’t see those signs, or worse, he saw them and refused to acknowledge them.
We often give lip service to the blessings of God in our lives. It’s the Christian thing to do, right? We may even thank God for the good things that come our way. We may even acknowledge the unusual nature of of the good things that come our way. But do we hear the message that those unusual blessings are preaching to us? Are we willing to listen to the lessons of responsibility that those unusual blessings are trying to teach us? Or is greed sneaking up behind us, ever so quietly, and ever so insidiously?
Interestingly, everything that this farmer did in response to his happy situation was appropriate. There is nothing immoral or evil in the things that he did.
First of all, he did not gain his wealth immorally. There is not even a hint in this story that the farmer mistreated his workers, or that he was conniving or deceitful, or that he somehow cheated to gain his wealth. He simply had a good year. That’s all. Jesus simply says that “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” The only thing we know is that he was rich before he had this bumper crop, and that he is even richer now. Something about the rich get richer…and well, you know the rest. This rich farmer is being tested in an absolutely wonderful way, he just doesn’t know it yet. Because this is a parable, and probably not a real-life event, although I’ve got some ideas on that aren’t quite ready for prime-time, Jesus is stacking the story quite a bit. And so we shouldn’t miss the fact that Jesus says that it was the land that produced abundantly. We should understand that Jesus is placing the emphasis on the “land” and not so much on the efforts of the farmer. A wise farmer puts in the same effort whether he gets a bumper crop, or no crop at all. That’s just the nature of farming.
Secondly, it was not wrong for the farmer to do all of the “rural renewal” that he did. He needed more room for storage, and so he built it. That’s wisdom at work. He’s not stupid economically, either. I think he’s investing. He’s not going to sell the whole crop this fall. If he sells the whole thing, he won’t need his bigger barns. He’s planning for the future. He’s gonna release this stuff later on, after the prices go up. He’s got retirement in mind. In fact, he’s planning to take early retirement. There’s nothing stupid about this at all. We should congratulate him for his insight.
So why then, does Jesus call this guy a fool? Foolishness is on the opposite end of the spectrum from wisdom, and this guy seems to be acting very prudently and very wisely.
He is a fool, because he has a terrible attitude. His actions speak wisdom, but his attitude shouts “fool!” He’s got a really bad case of mine, mine, and more mine. He’s totally self-focused. He thinks of no one but himself. He even talks to himself. The most important relationship in his life is the one that he has with himself. He talks of my crops and my barns, and my grain, and my goods and my soul. He is totally consumed with greed. He’s not just first and number one in his life, he’s the only one in his life.
It is ironic that he speaks to his soul. And it is even more ironic that he speaks to his soul in terms of what he intends to enjoy in this life. And that makes him all the more foolish, because he does not realize that his soul will outlast his crops, his barns, his grain and his goods. He will not even allow his soul to enter into relationship with God. This life is all that he can see. The life of ease, of eating and drinking and making merry has overshadowed any thoughts that he may have of eternity, and that is the deepest, and most pernicious form of greed that can possibly exist.
“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you, and the things that you have prepared, whose will they be?” Part of me wonders, are we really supposed to believe that he really did stop breathing that night? Did God really snuff him? I’d rather like to think that he lived to a ripe old age, but that every breath he breathed was death to him. He did die that night. His life was demanded of him, but he might have not stopped breathing. Its not so much that God snuffed him, as it is that his stuff snuffed him. It was his stuff, the burden of his stuff that sucked the life out of him.
His future plans to relax, to eat and drink and to make merry have come to naught. He will not enjoy life, even if he continues to breathe into a ripe old age. None of his stuff will bring him any joy at all. He will live a life of misery. And he will certainly not enjoy eternity. The blessings of eternal life and eternal joy are lost, and they are lost because he has intentionally forfeited them. He has not realized that the unusual blessings of this life are actually the very blessings of eternity. They are the gifts of God for the people of God. They are a foretaste of the sacred eating and drinking and making merry that we will enjoy in heaven. He, the farmer, that is, has allowed his stuff to snuff him, when it could have given him life, if he had been rich toward God. He failed the test. Let us always keep in mind that the blessings of God are just that. They are blessings and they are from God. They are tastes of eternity. They are unearned, and they are unmerited. But their intent is that we use them for the glory of God and not our own glory. This is where the farmer got everything backward, and all twisted around. Let’s not be snuffed by our stuff. It’s not worth it. There’s no gain in it.