August 4, 2013
A farmer had a record setting harvest. The weather had cooperated in every way. There was a good amount of snow over the winter which made the soil rich for planting. Spring didn’t come too early, but it didn’t come too late either. Some years the springs were so rainy or cold, she couldn’t get the crops in until late in the season. Once she had planted, there was no late frost to stunt the growth. As the days heated up, no wild storms whipped across the landscape, shearing the early shoots and damaging the fields with hail. Just enough rain fell when it was needed, and the sun drew the corn and the soybeans and the hay toward its warmth.
Some years of perfect growing weather meant trouble at harvest time. The harvest was plentiful but the market would flood and prices for the crops went down. Bad years and low yields meant prices soared, so few were buying. But this year was just right. The farmer turned a profit, a rare event. She bought new dairy cows to supplement her planting. She needed a second building to house them and more machines to milk them. Her barn was full of hay to feed them over the winter. She bought more chickens and built a new henhouse, selling twice as many eggs as she’d sold the year before. The farmer looked around the farm and she smiled to herself. She told herself that she was safe. She had taken care of her present and her future was assured. Even if nothing went right in the next years, she would be all right. She told herself that now she could relax, eat, drink and be merry.
You don’t live in Iowa as long as I did and not learn a little bit about the life of the farmer. This is not to say that I’m an expert on farming, not even slightly, but I know enough to tell you that the situation I described above is pretty close to a fairy tale. The farmers I knew would never have told themselves it was all right to sit back and relax, eat, drink, be merry. Even in a year when the harvest was good, plentiful, they were always thinking ahead. While this season might be near perfect, it was a sure bet that the next wouldn’t. Prices fluctuated. Harsh winters could kill even the best cared for animals. Farmers, especially individual farmers who worked land that had been in their family for generations, rarely had the peace of mind to tell themselves that their future was secure.
But it seemed fitting to use an illustration from farming because that’s what Jesus does in our passage today. It all started with a sibling dispute. One sibling, most likely a brother, comes out of the crowd around Jesus and asks him to settle a dispute between him and his brother. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But Jesus refuses.
“Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”
Be careful, Jesus tells him. Watch out for greed in all of the ways it shows itself. Life is not about an abundance of possessions.
If the story stopped right here, we would have enough to talk about for a lifetime. Every single one of us could preach a sermon on the dangers of materialism. We all know that in the end our possessions don’t mean as much as the people in our lives. We understand, whether we’ve experienced it or not, that possessions can be taken away in a blink of an eye. Things break and wear out and fall apart. Things can be stolen or lost or destroyed.
Probably all of us know, too, how hard it is not to be owned by our possessions. We may logically, intellectually realize that the things we have don’t really matter. But we live in a world of things. We live in a culture that makes it seem if we have the right clothes, or goods, or toys, then we’ll be better. We may not want to buy into the belief that our stuff gives us status, but we’re all susceptible. That kind of marketing is all around us.
And I’m the first to admit that I like my stuff. It’s a rare moment when I’m without my IPad. It’s one of those things that I’ve convinced myself I can’t live without. I try not to be a pack rat, but there are things I’ve saved for years because I can’t bear to let them go. I associate memories with them and I worry that if the thing goes so will the memory.
In the case of these disputing siblings, how many of us know siblings like this who feuded over who gets what stuff? Too often once the funeral of a parent is over the fighting over possessions begins.
Jesus warns them about greed and placing too much value on what we have. As I said, if we stopped here, there is enough for a lifetime worth of sermons. But Jesus doesn’t stop. Jesus goes on to tell this parable about the rich but foolish farmer. This farmer doesn’t just store up his grain as a stopgap for years when a plentiful harvest is just a memory. He focuses solely on himself. He is the only subject of his discourse. There is no discussion about sharing his harvest. He converses with his soul, and assures his soul that he and it are okay. All is well. He has taken care of himself, so now he can relax, eat, drink and be merry. But guess what? All is not well. That very night his life is demanded. Upon his death, what will happen to his stuff? What will happen to the treasure he has stored, to the things which he has prepared? Jesus ends by saying that is what happens to those “who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
I guess I could just tell you then to not be greedy. Share what you have, and don’t put too much stock in your stuff. It fits. It works. It’s important to remember. But I think there’s more going on here than just greed. I think there’s more at work than a farmer wanting to keep his harvest for himself. So let me retell that parable one more time.
An executive, a professional, a professor, a manager, a pastor – you fill in the blank – made a good living, and she said to herself, “I will not only add money to my 401(k), I will start an IRA and diversify my portfolio. I will invest my money wisely and I will hedge my bets against the future. I will create my own security and ensure my life will be okay.”
It seems to me that there are different kinds of greed. There’s the kind of greed that is based solely on the idea that whoever has the most toys wins. But there’s also the greed that’s driven not by wanting more but by fearing there isn’t enough. When I read this story about the farmer I don’t see him just wanting to keep everything for himself because he’s greedy, I see him trying to create his own security. He stores up out of anxiety. He wants to know, to be guaranteed that he will be okay. So he stores up and stockpiles and puts away to ensure just that. The tragic twist is that his future ends that very night.
I think Jesus wasn’t just warning against greed, but warning against the anxiety that fuels it. If we keep reading in the verses just beyond this passage, Jesus tells the disciples to “not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” Do not worry.
Do not worry. Easy for you to say, Jesus. How wonderful it would be if I could live out this non-worrying existence? How joyful I would be if I could just trust that I’ll be fed and clothed and everything will be taken care of. But it’s not that simple. 98.5% of my daily anxiety comes from worrying about money, about its scarcity. My worry isn’t just about the future, although that’s a big part of it; it’s also about having enough for the present. I suspect I’m not alone. And I don’t think Jesus would condemn any of us for being fiscally responsible, for being good stewards of our finances. That is an essential component of stewardship. I don’t think Jesus would chastise us for saving for the future, for looking ahead at retirement, not only for our own sake but for the sake of our children and grandchildren. I don’t want to have enough just for me. I want to leave something for my kids and their kids. I want to be generous, but I also want to be secure. Like it or not, money, more than anything else, is often at the heart of our security. And that’s where we run into trouble. There’s nothing inherently wrong with savings accounts and retirement plans. It’s when we think that security is solely in our hands, when we trust only in ourselves, that’s when we become like that foolish farmer. We put our need for security over and above our trust in God. As a dear friend of mine put it, it’s fine to plan for the future but we have to leave room for God. Where our treasure is our hearts are also. My treasure isn’t my stuff. It isn’t in what I can save. It’s not in my belief that all of my security depends on me. It’s not in my arrogance that only with me are all things possible. But you’d think that’s where my treasure is, because that is how I live. In my worry, my anxiety, my grasping need for security, I not only refuse to be generous towards others, I leave no room for God. I trust the things which I have prepared more than I trust God. I leave no room for God. Perhaps it is time to make some room. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”