Jesus invites us to be rich toward God—to let go, to give up, to reach out, and to share one's life.
Vicar Anna Helgen
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 18 C
Texts: Luke 12:13-21; Colossians 3:1-11
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“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.” I have a lot in common with the farmer in this parable. But instead of building barns, I build shelves. And I should be clear here: I don’t usually build these shelves, my husband does, but I consider myself a part of the creative process.
Kurt has built wooden shelving for our shared common space when we lived in a condo building. He’s built shelves for storage in our basement. He created a beautiful gear closet, with custom drawers and shelves to fit all of our camping equipment—from tents and tarps to paddles and nalgene bottles. He just helped his dad build shelves for the garage at his new house. He’s installed at least nine shelving systems in bedroom closets, hallways, office spaces, and, most recently, at my parents’ cabin, to store our dishes. These shelves hold plates and mugs, wine glasses and serving platters, dainty ice cream bowls and pint glasses from our travels to England. When we lived with my parents briefly between moves, a friend warned my mother, “You’d better be careful because Kurt might start building shelves!”
We like well-designed, efficient storage. We’re not afraid to get rid of junky shelves in order to replace them with new, better shelves. We like to be able to find what we’re looking for and access it without having to move a bunch of boxes or go digging. Like this farmer, we love a good storage solution.
So why does Jesus tell this parable? What are we to learn from this farmer and from his choice to build a bigger and better storage solution for his grain?
On the one hand, this farmer is successful. His land has brought forth an abundance of crops and he is faced with a problem: where on earth will he store it all? There is so much grain that it cannot fit in his current barns. He needs bigger, better barns, and resolves to knock down his current barns and build new ones. It seems like the right thing to do. His storage solution wasn’t working—so he built a new one! It’s what I’d do.
But despite his success, and after deciding to build bigger and better barns, Jesus calls him a fool. It’s worth remembering here we’re in Luke’s Gospel, a gospel in which the powerful are brought down and the rich are sent away empty. Jesus doesn’t follow the rules of the world where one’s wealth is defined by the accumulation of goods, or where one’s future is secure only when retirement accounts are maxed out and one has 6 months of savings in an emergency fund. Jesus plays by the rules of the gospel. And according to the gospel, the lowly are to be lifted up and the hungry are to be filled with good things. The kingdom of God belongs to the poor, not the rich.
So yes, according to the world, the farmer is successful in that he has accumulated goods and will store them up for himself in order to secure his future. But according to the gospel, this farmer is a fool. For one, he neglects to praise God for the abundance of his harvest. His first thought is that he has a problem. A problem having too much food?! Wouldn’t a problem be having too little? He could be feeding the hungry, but he’s not.
Perhaps he doesn’t think to feed others because he is completely isolated. With no community, no family, and no friends, he has no one to consult with, no one to convince him that he’s making the wrong choice, no one to help him see differently. All he has is me, myself, and I. And unfortunately, his isolation leads him astray: his motivation for a new storage solution is all wrong. He will build bigger and better barns to store his crops so that he can eat, drink, and be merry for his future.
Poor farmer. I guess he missed the message, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” We miss it sometimes, too. So often our greed gets in the way and we are unable to see beyond ourselves, beyond our needs, beyond our lives. We can be greedy with all kinds of things: our time, our truth, our possessions, our gifts, our money. We say, “I’ve been so busy,” as if it’s a badge of honor. We insist on our truth, even if that truth hurts others. We take credit when credit is not due, and we neglect to give it when it’s deserved.
So how can we see differently? How can we live as God intends for us to live?
What I love about parables is that they can be interpreted in all kinds of ways. And our interpretation may shift depending on what’s happening in our life, in our community, and in the world. So let’s take a look at some of the other players in this story. Perhaps Jesus invites us to consider not only the rich farmer, but also his grain and his barns.
Let’s start with the grain. The farmer’s crops. His prized goods that he stores up in barns all for himself! The parable teaches us that these goods are not meant to be stored away; they are meant to be consumed, to be shared, to provide nourishment for the other. What if we saw our lives like that? That is, after all, what it means to be a steward of one’s own life. Our responsibility is to live for the sake of the other. To be a steward of our very lives means to live as if they are not our own. Because it is actually Christ who lives in us! And Christ gives his life by emptying himself, by showing power through vulnerability, by giving himself completely for the sake of the other.
But Jesus knows that this can be challenging—that to give, give, give can be impossible, especially when we are faced with our own difficult circumstances. Sometimes we need to receive the gifts of others. And this is where we can look to the barns. The farmer’s storage solution. Consider what happens with a barn: it fills up with grain and then the grain is removed, emptied out to be made into flour. The life of a barn is about filling up and emptying. Like the shelves at my parents’ cabin that are filled with dishes, as these dishes are used, they are removed from the shelf to serve food to others. Then, after they’ve been washed and dried clean, they return to their space on the shelf. The life of a Christian is like this. It’s about emptying and filling up, about giving and receiving. And it is always done for the good of the neighbor.
This parable gets at the heart of what it means to be rich toward God. In our culture, to be rich is to acquire or accumulate wealth. But in the gospel, to be rich toward God is to let go, to give up, to reach out, and to share one’s life. It is to live as Christ lives for us, to live as though Christ is our life.
God invites us—creates us, in fact—for relationship. Just as our plates and cups aren’t meant to sit on a shelf, so are we not to be stored away, collecting dust. We’re not created to be kept for ourselves! God made us to be shared.
So don’t go collecting dust at the back of some disorganized closet.
Build yourself some better shelves.
Make yourself available—
To be seen.
To be known.
To love and to be loved.
And know that Christ dwells in your heart and gives you the freedom both to be emptied and to be filled back up again. Both to give and to receive.
Thanks be to God.