Jesus had just said, âWhen they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say.â Then suddenly, out of the blue, someone in the crowd shouted to Jesus, âTeacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.â
Someone had not been paying attention. Someoneâs mind had been somewhere else. Someone in the crowd was very worried â worried about money.
Jesusâ story of the rich and foolish farmer is framed by the commandment âDo not worry.â Just before the story of the farmer, Jesus told his listeners not to worry about what they would say when they were brought to trial for his sake. Just after the story, he said, âDo not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.â And in between, he told a story about one of the things we worry about most: money.
We can empathize with Jesusâ anonymous listener. We live in a prosperous country and the economy is robust, but we probably worry about money at least some of the time. Some time ago public television broadcast a program entitled âAffluenza.â The point of the program was simple: the more money we make, the more we want, and the more we spend. Our wants always outpace our income.
So when Jesusâ listener asked him to command his brother to divide the inheritance, Jesus responded, âTake care! be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for oneâs life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.â
Human beings are greedy. Older translations use the word âcovetousâ instead of greedy. The two things are different: greed is wanting more than we need; covetousness is looking at what someone else has and wishing that we had what they have. Thereâs nothing wrong with wanting and having a nice car or house or clothes, but there is something very wrong when we feel incomplete if we donât have all the things that we would like to have. Yet, our economy is largely based on creating in us the desire for things we donât want. Advertisers base their appeals on our insecurities. Drink this kind of soft drink! Use this deodorant! Buy this car! It will make you happy, attractive, fulfilled.
In 1931, Alabamaâs bishop, William George McDowell, said that the cause of the Great Depression was âthe general extravagance in the recent era of so-called prosperity. This is an economic term for presuming on Godâs providence. The vicious circle is something like this: our desires are inflamed by clever advertising till we feel we must indulge them for the things we want. We delude ourselves into thinking we must have the things we crave and that we can afford them.â They were prophetic words, as applicable now as then.
Many years ago, renegade Baptist minister and all-round troublemaker, Clarence Jordan, rendered the gospels into the idiom of the modern South. Hereâs his translation of todayâs gospel from his book The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts:
âA certain rich fellowâs farm produced well. And he held a meeting with himself and he said, âWhat shall I do? I donât have room enough to store my crops.â Then he said, âHereâs what Iâll do: Iâll tear down my old barns and build some bigger ones in which Iâll store all my wheat and produce. And I will say to myself, âSelf, youâve got enough stuff stashed away to do you a long time. Recline, dine, wine, and shine!â But God said to him, âYou nitwit, at this very moment your goods are putting the screws on your soul. All these things youâve grubbed for, to whom shall they really belong?â Thatâs the way it is with a man who piles up stuff for himself without giving God a thought.â
One reason that I like Clarence Jordanâs translation of the story of the rich but foolish farmer is that, alone among all the translations of the New Testament in my library, Jordan translates the story correctly. The New Revised Standard Version reads, âThis very night your life is being demanded of you.â But that is not what the Greek text says. Rather, it says, âThey have demanded your life.â Who were the âtheyâ who demanded the life of the farmer? His things, of course. He no longer owned his possessions; they owned him. Or in Jordanâs words, âYour goods are putting the screws on your soul.â
Somewhere deep inside, we all know that Jesus was stating a powerful truth. Everything we own also owns a little bit of us. If we own a house or a car, then we are under an obligation to earn money to pay for the house or car; we have to take time to see to it that our house or car is cared for. We are no longer quite as free as we were before.
The rich farmer made the mistake of believing that he really possessed his great wealth, although Jesus said that the reality was that it possessed him. Movie magnate Sam Goldwyn, on being told that he couldnât take it with him, replied, âWell then, I just wonât go.â But that is not an option. We canât take it with us, nor can we refuse to go when it is our time. And neither can we really possess, only hold in trust. Todayâs possessions become tomorrowâs garage sale treasures.
So, Jesus concluded his parable of the rich farmer by saying, âSo it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.â He had stored his wealth in earthly barns, even though he had had the opportunity to store it in heaven.
I want to reiterate this: Wealth is not wrong or sinful, but it is problematic. The spiritual problem of wealth is that it anchors our hearts too firmly in this world, rather than in Godâs kingdom.
The rich and foolish farmer tore down his barn and built bigger barns. He opened more bank accounts and invested his money in high-tech start-ups. Nothing wrong with any of that. But God invites us to invest our money and ourselves in the kingdom of heaven.
The story is told that at the funeral of the fabulously wealthy Aristotle Onassis, one of the mourners turned to another and said, âHow much did he leave?â And his friend replied, âEverything. He left everything.â