Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
Introduction: Sibling Rivalries
He’s beside himself—the guy who comes to Jesus with his problem at the beginning of this morning’s scripture reading. He is angry in the way only one sibling can be angry with another sibling. Maybe you don’t know this, but fights between brothers, or between sisters, or between a brother and a sister, can be one of the most intense and long-lasting of any kind of human conflict. Remember the first murder in the Bible? Cain was jealous of his brother Abel, and he killed him. And the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors is described in the Bible as basically a sibling rivalry.
Sibling rivalries go back to earliest childhood. They’re about the most basic kind of jealousy. And because they’re so long-lived, there’s been a great deal of time for the competitors to nurse their wounds. I don’t believe all siblings have this kind of rivalry. For example, Sophia and Hannah certainly won’t. But there’s enough of it to go around, and sometimes—as we’ve already seen—can grow into biblical proportions.
I. ‘A Brazen Rampart’
Speaking of which, let’s get back to this morning’s sibling rivalry from Luke’s gospel. A man comes up to Jesus and immediately launches into him about the wrong his brother is, even at that moment, doing him. Luke doesn’t tell us about any greeting or any other respectful form of approach—and I sorta get the impression that Luke doesn’t tell us because it’s simply not there. The man is so obsessed with what he perceives as a family injustice that he can’t be bothered with any of the niceties that either imply or establish a relationship with this man Jesus: No “Hello,” no “How are you?” no “Teacher, how do you feel about inheritance law as it touches upon the relationship between two brothers?” None of that. Just an immediate demand, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me!”
Jesus obviously has no animosity towards this man, for he answers with a question: “Friend, who set made me your arbitrator?” It’s been suggested that he said this for three reasons.
- He had no desire to rile the authorities for taking upon himself an office that he didn’t hold.
- He needed to draw a distinction between the political and the spiritual.
- The man’s priorities were askew.
And judging from what Jesus said next, it seems clear enough that—though the first two of these reasons might be perfectly true—it’s this third reason that is the most correct one. For the story Jesus tells is of a rich man who spent his life amassing wealth and the means to keep it safe so that he could spend many years eating, drinking, and making merry. Jesus revealed the foolishness of the rich man’s priorities by letting us know that he did not get to enjoy his wealth at all, but died on the very night of his early retirement.
Please note here that Jesus wasn’t condemning the rich man for his riches, and certainly not for “acting the part of a careful householder in storing up his produce.” He’s condemning him for not understanding their proper use. At best, the man’s riches appeared to “drive far away from him the remembrance of death,” and at worst, they functioned as “nothing less than a brazen rampart against death.”*
Which all boils down to the fact that the riches which were intended to enable the rich man to live the good life actually served the purpose of causing him to forget the meaning of life.
Interlude: You Can’t Take It with You
Which reminds me of a story I once heard—purported to be true—about a rich man who was at death’s door. He’d always heard the old saying, “You can’t take it with you,” but he had worked so hard to earn what he had and had had so little time to enjoy it that he prayed fervently that he could be the exception to the rule. “Please let me take my wealth with me to heaven,” he prayed.
And lo and behold, an angel appeared to him in a dream. The rich man realized that this was his opportunity. And so he told the angel what he wanted, and the angel replied, “Sorry, but what you’ve heard is true: you can’t take it with you.”
The man woke up the next morning feeling much more depressed than before, but he didn’t cease praying. In fact, he prayed all the harder that he could be the exception to the rule. And that night, the same angel appeared to him in a dream and informed the man that he would be allowed one carry-on bag when he went through the pearly gates.
When the man awoke he was overjoyed. Finally, he was ready to enter the hereafter, but first, he found the biggest suitcase he could possibly carry, and he filled it full of gold bars. It was only a fraction of what he had, but at least he’d have some of his wealth when he entered heaven.
And that night, the fateful hour arrived and he was transported to stand before Saint Peter at the very gates of heaven. When he saw him lugging that suitcase (which on earth had been brand new, very expensive, and of the most sought-after designer label, but which in heaven seemed absolutely shabby), Peter said, “Hold on a second. You can’t bring that in here. Everybody enters heaven empty-handed—it’s the rule.”
“But I was told I was the exception to the rule!” the man answered!
Perplexed, Peter checked his list, then said, “Huh. What do you know? It says here that you’re allowed one carry-on bag. But I’ll need to check its contents before letting you through.”
This last caveat didn’t bother the man at all, since he’d been assured he could bring anything he wanted in his suitcase. So he handed it over, and Peter commenced to opening it. When he did, there was displayed the beautiful gold that he’d packed on earth. And then Saint Peter began to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” the man asked. For to him gold was no laughing matter.
“You could bring anything you wanted in all the world with you into heaven, and you brought pavement?!”
II. Getting to Know Jesus
Sometimes we have such a torrid relationship with the things in our life that we forget what’s really important. And I think if we start again at the beginning of today’s reading, we can begin to see where the problem really lies. As I pointed out, the man who asks Jesus to tell his brother to share the family inheritance with him doesn’t bother with any greetings or any pretense that he’s interested in a relationship with Jesus. He just immediately makes his demand.
I don’t know whether it was the Bible’s intent or not, but reading this story centuries after the fact, I am struck by the man’s priority. So obsessed is he with money that he allows it to stand in the way of people. Perhaps his brother really has done him wrong, and if that’s the case, then I think many of us could understand why the relationship between these two brothers has unraveled. We can’t blame the man in today’s passage without knowing the full story.
But the part of the story we do have seems to indicate a complete disregard for something Christians of every stripe place at the center of our religion, and that is a relationship with Jesus. We don’t all agree on how we get there. But that’s one of the things we see as integral to the faith. Christianity isn’t just an expectation that Jesus will be judge. Christianity is about knowing Jesus and wanting to be known by him. Which is where the man who was fighting with his brother failed before he even got started. He wanted to benefit from Jesus without ever taking the time to know who he was or why he should love or respect him.
When we baptize a person into the church—and this is true in most churches—we are not converting her. God works in her heart to accomplish that. And such a conversion can happen at any age or stage of development. What we’re actually doing is welcoming her into a new set of relationships.
First, we’re saying that the newly baptized is a daughter of God. We specifically speak her Name with the holiest Name Christians know: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus, the Christian is part of God, and God is part of her, for their names are bound together.
Second, we’re acknowledging that what we think of—in this country at least—as “the family” simply isn’t enough. Some say “it takes a village to raise a child,” but we say that it takes a church—a community of faith to back up the values that parents teach their children, and even one that might have to fill in where the parents cannot. There’s neither shame nor criticism in this. We enthusiastically hand ourselves and our children over to teachers and coaches and instructors and mentors in areas where we don’t have as much expertise. In the family of God there are also teachers and coaches and instructors and mentors, for none of us has perfect faith.
And finally, in baptism, we enter into a new relationship with life in general. The priorities of the baptized may end up being wealth or power. But those are not values they learned from the community that baptized them. Here we learn that relationship is what’s important:
- Getting to know who somebody is long before we discover what they can do for us;
- Learning that the person with the least is as important as the person with the most—and even that the least and the most might be faith, and not money;
- And that we cannot go it alone in life—we need others to help us get there, and failure to give thanks to God for our blessings or to appreciate those through whom the blessings came to us is an absolute block to true happiness.
Conclusion: In Plenty and in Want
In the parable Jesus told today, we might get the impression that Jesus is singling out the wealthy for having bad priorities. But I don’t see that here. Yes, in some places Jesus speaks against wealth of all kinds. But in other places, he uses it as a positive metaphor. The fact of the matter is that anybody—from a penniless beggar to a billionaire—can be controlled by material greed. Just as anybody can live lives that aren’t controlled by material things.
What I bring away from today’s story is that life’s blessings are to be enjoyed in the context in which they’re given to us—not hoarded away for a later date, or for ourselves alone. In plenty or in want, in good times and in bad, our calling is to relationship—with God and with each other. Just we are called to give thanks for our possessions and to seek ways to share them to make the world a better place, so we are called to seek spiritual blessings—not so that we can sit back and judge others who don’t have them, but so that we can share them to make the world a better place.
—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
*John Calvin, Commentary on Luke 12:13-21