Grace Presbyterian Church
July 31, 2022, Pentecost 8C
Do You Own, or Are You Owned?
Six years ago when this reading showed up in the lectionary and I didn’t choose another reading, I started with the question of whether anyone remembered the TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the show with the host with the extreme British accent and lots of insanely wealthy people being paraded before viewers for little other reason than being insanely wealthy and willing to parade before viewers with all that wealth on display. Even the closing theme music – a tune called “Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams” – was designed to make you the viewer jealous of what you saw. It ran for twelve years and featured all manner of very rich people, from celebrities to the more obscure but still wealthy to even a future President of the United States among its featured rich people.
Anyway, that show itself (to its credit, I suppose) didn’t really pretend to be about anything other than ogling all the stuff. Sadly, though, the show proved to be a foretaste of future TV trends; the number of rich people who get on TV mostly for being rich has only gotten larger on more shows, although nowadays you’re likely to see more of their private lives than is frankly desirable. One such example is the so-called “reality TV” series Chrisley Knows Best, featuring an originally Georgia-based real estate sharpie and his family and their exploits in being rich and increasingly famous. As to the “reality” part, now that the husband and wife at the lead of the show have been convicted of bank fraud and tax evasion, I suppose we’ll see how much longer the publicity is something the family wants to seek. How much can you pass yourself off as a wise and trustworthy individual or role model with that particular conviction looming over you?
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 parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in chapter 16, is particularly harsh. And then there’s the rich 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 in chapter 19, 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 warning the young man not to expect Jesus to be a tool against his own family, 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. At last Jesus gets to the point: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (12:34). All of these taken together seem to point toward one harsh but fair conclusion: those who own great possessions tend to be owned by those possessions.
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 so that one forgets (as our last hymn today will remind us) that it’s all God’s anyway, a lesson we also see in Ecclesiastes 5:18-19. It may be a cliché to say that “money can’t buy happiness,” but clichés tend to become clichés because they are true enough often 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. He doesn’t seem to get that there might be others in his town in need, no clue that his workers (which he would have had to have if the harvest was that plentiful; he wasn’t bringing in all that by himself) might benefit from some portion of that harvest. He sounds like a man who most definitely has come to be owned by his possessions, who never learned the basic lesson we expect our kids to learn by kindergarten: the lesson of how to share. You might recall the brief snippet from Colossians read earlier here and its blunt equation of greed with idolatry.
But of course, this being a parable of Jesus, the simple answer is not quite the whole answer. The dirty little secret about us moderns, even us modern Christians, is that we don’t have to be “rich” by the standards of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or Chrisley Knows Best 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. We can all find some element of that unhealthy attachment in ourselves.
For myself, my downfall would be books or music, of which I just added several more at that conference I attended a week ago. 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.
Sometime soon, or at least some time this fall, you’ll be hearing from the Finance and Stewardship Committee, beginnng the process of discerning how we will steward our resources for the forthcoming year. The word “stewardship” can feel loaded and burdensome to us, but at its most basic it describes 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 is to do so without becoming attached to those possessions or resources themselves – not to be owned by those possessions – but to see them as gifts from God to be given in service to God and neighbor, the thing 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. No one is 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 unless otherwise indicated): #41, O Worship the King, All Glorious Above; #—, What things we own cannot give life; #708, We Give Thee But Thine Own