The Rich Idiot (A Sermon on Luke 12:13-21)

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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.” (Luke 12:13-21)

“Jesus is the Answer!”

When I first gave my life to Christ back in 1980 that was a popular catch-cry amongst my Christian peers. I think I even had a T-shirt with ‘Jesus is the answer’ printed on it. Certainly I sang the song:

“Jesus is the answer for the world today.
Above Him there’s no other. Jesus is the way.”

I haven’t sung that song for a while now. Even so, back in my youth group days, “Jesus is the answer” was a classic Christian catch-cry and the perfect thing to scrawl across a wall in the University somewhere, providing that it was entirely legal to do so, of course, as we young Christians, while wild and enthusiastic, were also meticulously law-abiding, which was a painfully difficult balance to maintain!

At any rate, you would see “Jesus is the answer” scrawled up about the place back in the 80’s, though over time you would find that others would scrawl the obvious response underneath it – “If Jesus is the answer, what is the question?” – and that is a good question!

Jesus is the answer? What is the question?

I remember the great Jesuit, John Powell, responding to this by saying “Jesus is the answer to all your questions”, and that sounds like the right sort of response for a Christian to make. It sounds like a pious and faithful thing to say – “Jesus is the answer? What is the question? Jesus is the answer to all our questions!”

That sounds right. It sounds pious. It even sounds Biblical. But if you don’t mind me giving away the main point of my sermon early in the game today, my key message today is that this is complete garbage! Jesus is not the answer to all our questions!

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?” (Luke 12:13-14)

In the culture of Jesus’ day this was exactly the sort of question you would take to your local scribe or Rabbi. The man had a grievance, and there’s no reason to think that it wasn’t a legitimate grievance.

His complaint is that he’s being unfairly cut out of his family inheritance! That’s a serious complaint. That’s the type of complaint that absorbs the energies of great armies of lawyers around the world today just as it did back then (just ask the family of Nelson Mandella). It is a serious issue, and when someone is being defrauded of their rightful inheritance it is a serious issue, and yet Jesus, it seems, is so not interested! “Who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

We don’t know how the man responded to Jesus question. He might well have said, “well … that’s your job, isn’t it, Rabbi?”

I remember one of the ‘ah ha’ experiences I had in my first year as rector of Dulwich Hill. I got into the habit very early on of sharing whatever money I had with persons who came to the door who were in need, and I found that the number of persons turning up at my door each day grew exponentially very quickly.

One day one particular regular came and asked me for a few dollars and I had nothing to give him. He said “that’s OK. I’ll wait here while you got to the ATM and draw something out.” I got a little agitated and said “I’m sorry, but it’s not really my responsibility to keep providing you with money.” The guy pointed to the plaque alongside my front door and said “it says here ‘rectory’. That means that you are the parish priest, and so it’s your job to look after me!”

As I said, this was one of those ‘ah ha’ experiences for me where it really dawned on me that providing ongoing finances to this guy was not my job, and I told him so! I don’t remember the exact words I used but I evidently said them with some force as I never saw the man again!

“Who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Jesus says. ‘What has your concern to do with me? Go see a lawyer. Go see someone else. Go see someone who cares!

OK. Jesus doesn’t use those words exactly but it is nonetheless a harsh response. Jesus is simply not interested in helping this guy work out his legal issues, whether or not he is suffering an injustice, and that’s a little concerning!

Perhaps this guy is being exploited by unscrupulous siblings! Shouldn’t Jesus be concerned about that? Didn’t Jesus have a strong passion for justice?

I’d like to think Jesus had a very strong passion for justice – both personal and social justice – but I have to be honest too and recognise that Jesus didn’t have a lot to say on either subject!

In terms of social justice, I personally wish that Jesus had had something more to say about the first century Palestinian occupation!

Back in Jesus’ day all of Palestine was under the thumb of imperial Rome and it was a harsh and brutal occupation, yet Jesus had almost nothing to say on the subject!

I was speaking at an Al Quds rally last Friday where I was publicly decrying the Palestinian occupation of the 21st century and I said “the Palestinian Occupation is a crime that cries out to Heaven for redress.”

That’s exactly what people were saying back then too, and what to do about the Roman occupation was the key ongoing issue that was the backdrop to all of Jesus’ dialogues, and yet Jesus seems to show very little interest in the subject!

Didn’t Jesus care? People were suffering under the Roman occupation. People were being killed! Their human rights were being violated. They were suffering humiliation and injustice. Didn’t Jesus care? And what about this character caught up in the family dispute – didn’t Jesus care about his rights and his inheritance and his future?

Well … I’m not going to respond to the broader social issues of Jesus’ day here as this passage doesn’t help us, but on the matter of the guy in the family law-suit we know exactly where Jesus stood on the matter. He interpreted the man’s question not as a cry for justice or as a human rights issue or anything of the sort, but rather as a simple expression of greed on his part!

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.” (Luke 12:15-21)

I was listening to an address last Sunday on the subject of fundamentalism, and there was some extensive discussion of how you define fundamentalism. One popular definition labels as fundamentalist anybody who takes their Scriptures (be it the Qur’an or the Bible) literally. If you take everything in your Scriptures literally then you are a fundamentalist (and, by extension, a dangerous person to be around)! I think that’s a very poor definition as I don’t think I am a fundamentalist and yet I think that this text and others like it should be taken entirely literally!

I’m not pretending that I take every word in the Christian Scriptures at face value, and yet there are some things in the Bible that are very straightforward and, I think, should be taken entirely literally. This passage and this parable are good examples. There is no need to spiritualise here or come up with clever interpretations. It’s all very straightforward. The challenge here is not one of understanding!

“One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”. This is the wisdom of Jesus and we know it’s true yet we have a great deal of difficulty actually believing it!

I have a good friend who worked as a missionary in Tanzania for some years. He said that one of the amazing things he found, studying the Bible in home groups both in this country and in Tanzania, was how differently the same passage could be interpreted in different contexts.

The example he gave me was the command Jesus gave the rich young ruler “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21). In Tanzania, he told me, people would say ‘Jesus clearly wants us to sell unnecessary possessions and share with the poor’. Back in Australia people would spiritualise the message, saying ‘Jesus clearly wants us to change our attitude towards our possessions’.

Call me a fundamentalist, but I don’t see any need to spiritualise that passage!

G.K. Chesterton said “Now we could have quite a good debate over whether or not Jesus believed in fairies. That would be a matter of which we could have endless speculative discussion.  However, there is no debate to be had over whether or not Jesus believed that rich people were in big trouble.  The evidence in Scripture is just too great, there are too many stories.  Jesus said too much on the subject.”

I haven’t studied any recent statistics but there was a seminal work published by Robert Wuthnow back in 1994 entitled “God and Mammon in America” – a book that was the result of over 2,000 surveys of Christian people across the US and Wuthnow’s conclusion was that his subjects’ religious convictions had little or no impact on their economic decisions!

“For most Americans, religious convictions and money matters belong to two distinct realms that rarely overlap. Prayer, scripture reading, religious values and convictions belong to the private world of religious devotion. Spirituality functions therapeutically, but has little power to address our daily lives, and our lifestyle choices.”

Are things different now in 2013? Are things different in Australia to the USA? I think we all know that the answer on both counts is ‘no’.

According to Wuthnow, there was only one area then (and I suspect likewise one area now) where the church-going community was markedly distinct from the secular community in money matters, and that was with regards to their willingness to talk about monetary matters.  Church people, apparently, were distinctly less willing to talk about money than were their secular counterparts, and that makes a lot of sense to me because deep down we are embarrassed by our hypocrisy.

‘Oh Dave, lighten up! Tell us a joke! You’re supposed to be preaching the Good News, and I haven’t heard much good news in this sermon yet!’

It’s hard, isn’t it? We love to listen to the words of Jesus that comfort the afflicted but every now and then we get words like these that are designed to afflict the comfortable and there’s just no getting around the sting in Jesus’ words!

The problem is that we live in illusion so much of the time – believing that life is like a game of Monopoly where we all start out with the same amount of money and that the winner is the person who ends up with the most at the end of the game, whereas the truth is the exact opposite. The truth is that in life we all start out with vastly differing amounts of money but at the end of the game we all depart with exactly the same amount – absolutely nothing!

We know this is true. It’s not rocket science. It’s common sense. We know that a person’s life ‘does not consist in the abundance of possessions’ and yet deep down we struggle to believe it.

We have moments of clarity, of course. Funerals, I find, are great moments of clarity.  It’s been my great privilege, of course, to officiate at a large number of funerals over the last 25 years and I find, again and again at funerals, that it’s as if a veil is lifted from people’s eyes (just for an hour or two) and things really come into focus!

One of the most memorable funerals I ever took in Dulwich Hill was that of one of Australia’s greatest trapeze artists! I can’t remember her name now but I remember her son talking to me about her before the funeral, and telling me how she was ‘old school’ and would never use a net.

He said that he could never watch his mother do the final jump that included three somersaults (or something like that) before she just managed to grab the hands of her partner on the adjoining trapeze. He said he used to wait outside the tent every performance and he’d hear the shrieks as she’d make that jump and then he’d wait (for what seemed like an eternity) until he heard the rapturous applause and cheers and knew that his mother was ok.  “She only missed the jump once” he told me. The fall didn’t kill her, in fact, but she never returned to the trapeze again after the fall.

Anyway, what fascinated me about the funeral of this woman was that in the family reminiscences during the funeral itself this woman’s amazing life on the trapeze barely got a mention! It’s as if the children barely remembered her amazing accomplishments. All they could remember was what a wonderful mum she was!

At funerals we gain this clarity momentarily, I find, where we suddenly see things clearly! We see how little our grandiose accomplishments really add up to, let alone how ridiculously trivial our financial worth really is. It seems to me that we see all of this with crystal clarity as we watch that casket of our beloved get lowered into the ground, and then … as we leave the cemetery we wake up again and tell ourselves ‘life is for the living’. We snap back to reality!

I believe that we’re not really waking up at that point but falling back to sleep again! The veil descends over our eyes once more as we re-enter the world of consumerism and take our appointed place in the rat-race where life is a game in which the person who gets to the end with the most money is the winner!

A person’s life ‘does not consist in the abundance of possessions’. This is not a deep spiritual mystery. It’s common sense. And if you really think that your net worth as a human being can be measured in monetary terms you are, as Jesus said, an idiot!

Jesus is the answer! Yes He is, providing that you’re asking the right questions! But if you’re questioning Jesus because you want a better sex-life or a bigger bank balance then He is not the answer because you’re asking the wrong questions, or at least you’re asking the wrong person.

Go speak to a financial advisor. Go speak to someone who cares, because Jesus only ever had one piece of investment advice that He ever passed on to anybody – namely, “give it away!”

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 4th of August.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

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About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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1 Response to The Rich Idiot (A Sermon on Luke 12:13-21)

  1. Arlene Adamo says:

    Can you believe that? They’re staring into the face of the Son of God, and can ask Him anything…anything at all! So what do they ask? One whiny loser wants Him to make his siblings play nice, and the other arrogant rich twit wants Him to hand over an easy to read map to the Kingdom of God. I tell you, it’s a miracle Jesus even bothered sticking around for as long as He did.

    About social injustice…Jesus’ first priority was the soul because without healthy souls real social justice simply cannot happen.

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