Grace Presbyterian Church
July 31, 2016, Pentecost 11C
Lifestyles of the Rich and Faithless?
I am curious to know: how many of you remember Robin Leach?
If you don’t remember his name, maybe you remember the name of the show he hosted for many years on television:
(with accent) THIS is…Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous!
It was a show back in the 80s and 90s devoted to … well, it’s hard to make it any clearer than the title itself. Insanely opulent mansions, ridiculous limousines and luxury cars, and yachts the size of Navy ships – but far more luxurious than any military vessel ever, populated by Hollywood stars, Saudi Arabian princes, minor European royalty, the occasional athlete, and even a casino and hotel developer who, coincidentally, is seeking a new job this year. You may have heard of him.
Anyway, the show itself (to its credit, I suppose) didn’t really pretend to be about anything other than ogling all the stuff. I never could decide if the makers of the show really wanted their audiences to feel sick and depressed about their own mundane lives, or if social consequences of any sort were even contemplated in any way. It was just out there, relentlessly displaying luxury after luxury for the … entertainment (I guess?) of its viewing audience. If your brain didn’t shut down due to the sheer sensory overload, you might have found yourself wondering … why do these people have this stuff? What’s the point? Outside of the occasional “I saw it and I just had to have it” (which of course is not really an answer), that question seems never to have been asked or answered, at least not on the occasions I saw the show (which were admittedly blessedly few).
Maybe the lead character of the parable Jesus tells in today’s reading from Luke isn’t quite on the level of a featured rich person on that show, but he is rich, and we are told this by Jesus before we even know that he got such a super-abundant harvest. And in Luke, to be honest, “rich” isn’t always a good thing.
For example: even at the very beginning of this gospel, in the Song of Mary upon her meeting with Elizabeth, we hear that God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:53). In chapter 6, Jesus proclaims a “woe” on the rich, “for they have received their consolation” (6:24).
The hits don’t stop coming with this reference in chapter 12. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in chapter 16, is particularly harsh. In that story, the rich man ends up in the torments of Hades, while Lazarus, the poor beggar who lay at his gate daily, was in eternal rest in Abraham’s bosom. It doesn’t go well for the rich man when he (still not getting his situation) asks Abraham to send Lazarus to dab some cold water on his tongue, because hey, it’s really hot down here. The denouement of that parable is perhaps the coldest cut of all, when Abraham declares that such persons would not be convinced of the errors of their ways “even if someone rises from the dead” (16:31).
And then there’s the rich young ruler of chapter 18 who, when challenged by Jesus to give it all away and follow, “became sad, for he was very rich” (18:23), an event that prompts Jesus to exclaim “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (18:24), comparing the feat to getting a camel through the eye of a needle, but finally offering the hope that “what is impossible for mortals is possible for God” (18:27). Frankly the only rich person that really comes off well in this gospel is Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who pledges to give away for the poor and pay back any who have been defrauded.
So it’s not a surprise that this rich man here in Luke 12 is not going to turn out to be a good guy, but he does seem particularly tone-deaf, with his resolve to tear down perfectly good barns and build bigger and better, showier barns. Seriously, simply adding another barn would be a lot easier and quicker, and that’s before the moral calculus about a person’s responsibility with wealth.
Note that Jesus tells this parable in response to a man from the crowd calling out to Jesus to settle a dispute with his brother over the family inheritance. After an initial “who do you think I am?” rebuff, Jesus turns quickly to warning the crowd against greed, saying “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (12:15). Immediately after the parable Jesus launches into teaching that is very specific in its extension of this warning, inviting his hearers and us to look at the ravens who don’t plant or harvest, the lilies that “neither toil nor spin” (12:27) and yet are more glorious than Solomon at his most glorious. Finally Jesus gets to the point: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (12:34).
Now by this point, you may have already begun to draw a conclusion about where this sermon is going to end up. Ugh, another sermon bashing rich people. And there is definitely a moral peril expressed in this parable. The more wealth and possessions one has, it seems, the greater the danger of becoming attached to that wealth and those possessions in a way that clouds one’s spiritual judgment. It may be a cliché to say that “money can’t buy happiness,” but clichés often become clichés because they are true enough to get repeated over and over again, which seems the case here.
Perhaps more significant than simply the insufficiency of money to procure happiness is the utter inadequacy of money as a substitute for a relationship with God, which seems to be where the man who decides to build bigger barns goes off the rails. As Presbyterian minister Meda Stamper puts it, “The parable of the rich fool … illustrates simply and memorably the futility of choices made in isolation from the love of God and neighbor.” Stamper continues to describe what is a central theme, not just in this parable but in the whole gospel of Luke: “the problem of wealth in the context of the holy kingdom where closeness to God is life and attachment to things reflects soul-stifling anxiety and fear.”*
The particularly damning part of the choice the “barn man” makes in this parable is that only one person seems to factor into it: himself. There’s no notion that he even has a clue there might be others in his town in need. There isn’t even the notion that his workers (which he would have had to have if the harvest was that plentiful) might benefit from some portion of that harvest. He sure looks like a man who never learned the basic lesson we tend to expect our kids to learn by kindergarten: the lesson of how to share. To modify a quote that has become a popular social media meme recently, it never occurs to this man that, having more than he needs, he might choose to build a longer table instead of bigger barns.
But of course, this being a parable of Jesus, the simple answer is not quite the whole answer. The dirty little secret about us modern folk, even us modern Christians, is that we don’t have to be “rich” by the standards of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or other such popular measures to become attached to our stuff in a way that hinders closeness to God. Heck, you can even be homeless and be powerfully attached to your stuff. If we look deeply enough, we can all find some element of that unhealthy attachment in ourselves.
For myself, it would probably be books or music. For you it might be some other possession – not necessarily a pricey thing, but some thing or things to which the attachment might be so strong that it has the power to cloud one’s spiritual discernment. Whatever might be the case, attachment to the things of the earth is a moral peril to the degree that it precludes or hinders attachment to the things of God, to the “treasures in heaven” we are encouraged to store up, to the neighbors around us whom God calls us to serve.
You see in your bulletins today a survey from the Finance and Stewardship Committee, one that begins the process of discerning how we will steward our resources for the forthcoming year. The word “stewardship” tends to feel loaded and burdensome to us in such a context, but at its most basic it speaks to this question of how we participate in the kingdom of God, as a church and as individuals, and how we make use of the resources we have been given – the harvest we have gathered, so to speak – to participate in that kingdom and its work. In that process the challenge before us, this year and every year, is to do so without becoming attached to those possessions or resources themselves, but to see them as gifts from God to be given in service to God and neighbor, something that “barn man” never seems to have grasped.
We don’t need to have crazy luxury around us, or Robin Leach ogling our stuff on behalf of millions of TV viewers, to fall into the trap of attachment to things that cannot give life. None of us are beyond that trap. Only when we see what we have through the eyes of the kingdom, fully recognizing God and neighbor in our decision-making, do we begin to get free of that trap. Only then do we see that building bigger barns is not the answer.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#307 God of Grace and God of Glory
#417 Lord Jesus, Think on Me
#822 When We Are Living
#716 God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending
Credit: agnusday.org. Enough is never enough...