In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the course of preparing this sermon, brothers and sisters, I engaged in a number of fantasies. I’m going to take great risks in this sermon, all of which I dismissed. [Laughter] I thought of arranging the sermon, for example, on three points—three Bs: build bigger barns. But I found that, although that sounds nice, it doesn’t work well in an outline for a sermon.
This brief parable in chapter 12 of Luke, the parable of the rich man’s barns, introduces a straightforward didactic section in Luke on trusting God. Some of chapter 12 of Luke parallels the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, a great deal of which is about putting our trust in God, isn’t it? This parable is, however, found only in the Gospel of Luke, and it’s quite consistent with other parables in Luke, especially this contrast of the rich and the poor man. It’s consistent with Luke’s constant attention to the dangers of wealth and the needs of the poor.
Most of us are aware, I think—the contemporary world makes us aware—of the needs of the poor. In fact, in this country it’s a major political tool, a major political weapon: the needs of the poor. It’s always going to be a major, big problem in democracy. It’s bound to be, because there’s always more poor people than rich people, and they vote! That’s one of the major dangers of democracy. Another one is also touched upon in this morning’s gospel, and that is covetousness. You might think that the rich and poor are the ones that are not covetous. That’s not been my experience. The poor, as far as I can tell, are just as covetous as the rich. Covetousness is a major problem. It always is, because the thoughts of man’s heart [is] prone to evil from his youth.
Yet perhaps the danger of covetousness is more consistent in a democracy. Back 150-or-so years ago, Alexis de Toqueville, when he came to the United States and examined the United States, particularly our political and economic systems, he wrote in his book Democracy in America that if pride, overweening pride, is the major spiritual danger in an aristocracy, he says in a democracy it is certainly covetousness. I take that for what it’s… he’s saying that. That was his impression of the United States in the mid-19th century, that the major problem was covetousness. That’s certainly a big part of today’s gospel, isn’t it?
Anyway, Luke is eloquent and dependable on all of these themes. I rather wish the gospel story this morning had started just a couple of verses earlier. I rather wish: that way I wouldn’t have to tell you the context. But let me tell you the context. Jesus tells this parable in response to a request that he intrude his influence in an inheritance dispute between two brothers. That’s how the parable is told. A brother comes to Jesus, and he says, “Lord, I want you to talk to my brother and get him to share the inheritance with me.” And Jesus doesn’t do that.
About ten years ago, here at All Saints, someone who is sort of barely in the parish—I think I saw him in church three times in five years—he called me up, and he says, “I have this brother in Seattle, and he’s hogging all the inheritance. I want you to call him and tell him to split the inheritance with me more evenly.” [Laughter] I said to myself, “Oh, this is an easy one.” [Laughter] “This is an easy one. This ball is coming in about belt-high and kind of slow. This is an easy one.” I said, “Why would you expect that I would do something that Jesus refused to do?” [Laughter] I mentioned this passage in Luke, and he says, “Well, it depends on how you interpret it.” [Laughter] Second sign of heresy: “It depends on how you interpret it.”
Here’s the way it reads:
Then one from the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man” [He talks this… It’s very, very American in here: Man! Fool!”] He said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or an arbiter over you?”
Now, this is the judge of the world saying this! This is the one to whom all authority on heaven and on earth has been given, saying this: “Who made me a judge or an arbiter over you?” In other words: “This is not what I do! This is not in my job description. I’m here to save the world; I’m not here to arbitrate every little problem you’re having with your brother or your brother-in-law.
Now this is the context of the parable. It properly introduces the first of three points that I want to make this morning with respect to the parable. Point 1: Aside from its function of introducing the parable, this point already conveys an important lesson respecting the Gospel and the world. The place of the Gospel in the world, and the ministry of the Gospel that the Church exercises, is not intended to address questions like that. It’s often used to address questions like that. That’s why as long as I’m pastor here, I’m not turning this pulpit over ever to any politician. They all want to use the Church. I don’t care which side of the political spectrum they’re on. They all want to use the Church.
Jesus refuses to take sides or arbitrate here in a financial and domestic dispute in which, presumably, an arguable case could be made for either side. This sort of thing is simply not what Jesus is about. It’s not what the kingdom of heaven is about. Jesus doesn’t do this. He refused to be an authority in this sort of dispute. Jesus does not take the part of labor in his negotiations with management, nor does he take necessarily the side of management. Does God have an opinion on Obamacare? I’m sure he does, but he hasn’t shared it with us! He does not arbitrate over property rights. He takes no side in these matters.
He has, however, given us the Law. He has given us plenty for moral guidance. It’s isn’t as though God is not interested in the morality of the public order. He’s very interested in it, but he has given us the Law. He has given us the principles. We should be able to figure it out for ourselves what marriage is. He’s already told us enough about this. We should be able to figure out for ourselves about the rights and dignity of the unborn child. He’s already told us enough about this. He’s not all that worried whether Milwaukee Street is made one-way going southeast. Well, maybe he does. [Laughter]
You see, instead of deciding who is right and wrong on these questions, our Lord goes to the root of an abiding problem, namely, the assumption that human existence is adequately explained or can be sufficiently redeemed by a merely quantitative evaluation. The presumption of today’s question is that man lives by bread alone. That’s the presumption of today’s question. It has to deal with that part of the equal distribution of bread. There’s plenty the Bible says about sharing our bread with our neighbors, but it also insists in a deep way that man does not live by bread alone.
This problem is greatly enhanced in a society like ours, which is so deeply materialistic and tries to explain man in even biochemical terms, even questions the moral order, now reduced to DNA, or what sort of influences are brought to bear on our biochemistry. The problem of today’s parable is the rich man’s understanding of human existence. He fancies, “More is better. I will build bigger barns. More is better.”
My brothers and sisters, “more is better” is the philosophy of the cancer cell! The man was a pure materialist. “What shall I do? What shall I do? I’ve got no more room to put all my stuff! I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and I will store all my crops and goods, and this is called financial security! I will say to my soul, ‘Soul!’ ” I love that; I’ve always loved that. “ ‘Soul, you have many good laid up for many years. Take your ease. Eat, drink, and be merry.’ ”
Second, Jesus goes to the root of the problem. He attacks the root of the dilemma presented by his questioner. The root is greed or covetousness. He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses. Take heed.” Take heed and beware of covetousness. Once again, the Lord does not go into particulars. His is, rather, a word of caution: Take heed. Philassesthe—which often in the Scriptures means “keep on guard.” He states a principle: A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. The purpose of the parable is to reinforce that caution and to illustrate that principle.
How to apply that principle and how to implement that caution will vary a great deal according to the circumstances in which a person finds himself. That will vary a great deal. Where you are in life, what responsibilities you already have in life, that will determine a great deal of the particulars of what you do. What is essential is to be on guard, to bear in mind that a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. An extreme example is when the possessions possess the possessor, when a man is controlled by what he has, when man is controlled by what he wants.
Third, the message of the parable itself is self-evident, like a sensitive finger on the shortness of life. “This very night”: the shortness of life, and the unreliable nature of all things temporal or material. Read what Luke says: “Dielogizeto” Hear the word “dialogue” in there? Dielogizeto en aftō. He dialogues with himself. This man is so bad off he’s talking to himself. And what does he say to himself? “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease. Eat, drink, and be merry.”
Notice the word “soul” there. It has to do with the soul. You see, the problem with contemporary man is he only believes half of the Genesis account, that God took mud and created somebody; they don’t believe the other half, where he breathed a soul into him. And there’s the difference. It doesn’t say that about the plants or the animals. This doesn’t happen until Friday afternoon of the first week of existence. It’s a work of ceramics; it’s keramos in Greek, ceramics. Make this mud. See, modern man really thinks that, somehow or other, man really is mud. It’s just mud that evolved. In fact, he evolved even the mud, because he started out as nothing, but nothing with potential. Jim Kushner spoke about that the other night. A lot of modern men believe that. We start out with nothing, absolutely nothing, but it’s nothing with potential. Hello? And then we evolved to mud. The nothing finally becomes mud, and the mud, for heaven knows what reasons, becomes somebody.
What is this “soul”? This was the soul of which Jesus inquired, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” Did you hear the ledger in there? Can you see him reading the books? He’s reading columns. What does it profit a man who gains the whole world, loses his own soul? It’s a businessman’s question.
As in the case of the rich man and Lazarus, this is a story of how to lose your soul. You want to know how to lose your soul? Today’s parable tells you. It is a precise prescription for how to lose one’s soul. And what is that prescription? Relax—that’ll do it. That’ll take care of it right away: just relax. Notice the contrast? “Be on guard” and “Relax.” There’s the difference between heaven and hell: “Be on guard” and “Relax.” Don’t be vigilant, don’t be cautious, don’t be on guard—this is the tried-and-true path to the fires of hell. Many have attempted it; it always leads in the same direction. That’s the way to lose the value of one’s whole life: is not to attend to the soul.
This lesson the fool of a rich man learned after it was too late. Jesus explains, “Fool, this night your soul will be required of you, and who is going to inherit all these things you have provided?” Now, notice, brothers and sisters, this is a business question, very much like the question, “What does it profit a man who gains the whole world, loses his own soul?” Put it all down in a ledger, says Jesus. Count it up, figure it out. What is the cost, the gain, the loss, the profit? Just figure it out. Use your business head, and you’ll come up with the right answer every time. Who gets all this stuff afterwards? And you have nothing profitable to show to God for all the years he’s given you on this earth.
I’ve always been—or at least for many, many years—aware of a great irony in this story. In the book of Proverbs, who is the fool? It’s somebody who does not attend to business. It’s somebody who doesn’t get up when the bell goes off. One of the great lines in book of Proverbs: “As the door turns on its hinges, so turns the sluggard on his bed.” [Laughter] See, the fool in the book of Proverbs is the one who does not attend to business. He makes insecure loans, for example. That’s a foolish thing to do, to make insecure loans—and plenty of other things, but especially laziness, lack of diligence.
The fool in the Old Testament is someone who fails to take care of his financial resources. Notice how Jesus turns this on its head? He completely switches it around. The fool is the one who’s taken too much care of it. Jesus is saying, in fact, that this fool was not really a good man of business, or he would have looked at the final line. He would have looked at the last line: what’s the profit? He did not understand the true worth of things. He imagined his soul was worth less than his possessions. He was also wrong about his expiration date. See, we don’t really know the expiration date, although we all have one. This man had less shelf-life than he thought. He suffered a confusion that leads to the loss of one’s soul.
Many years ago—oh, goodness, nearly 40 years ago—when I was on the chaplain staff of a maximum-security prison, I was giving a Bible class one day. I’m not going to tell the story, just because there’s so many wonderful stories in that one, but I was talking about this to the prisoners. These were all fellows in maximum-security prison. I talked about this parable. And one prisoner put up his hand. He said, “Let me see if I understand this. If I understand you correctly, you say that Jesus thought that money was not the most important thing.” I said, “Well, yeah.” He says, “Never heard that before!” [Laughter] I think maybe we’re not getting the message out there. Now, this was in prison. This was in prison, but obviously this was brand-new to this man. I think he came to the Bible class because nothing else was happening in prison that day. You’ve got a captive audience. [Groans and laughter]
Consequently, this rich man, at the end of his selfish life, has nothing to show for his efforts. He was not rich with respect to God, says Jesus. He had failed in elementary vigilance. He’d lost track of his ledger. He had not heard the warning of Christ: Take heed. Beware of covetousness. For man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses.