People’s attachment to wealth – particularly when they saw it something just for themselves – seemed to bother Jesus. A lot.
Fred was sitting on the porch of his farmhouse in Green County that early afternoon in the summer. He was sipping on a glass of lemonade, reading a book, when his neighbor George pulled into the driveway.
George got out of his black Chevy Silverado, looking way more dressed up than usual.
“Where you been?” Fred asked.
“Just back from the bank,” George replied. “Signed the final papers for the loan for my third barn. It’s going to be a beauty. Stanchions for more cows, more room to store corn. My business is going great guns.”
“That’s wonderful, George. Can I get you a lemonade?” Fred asked.
“Naw, I’ve got to meet with my contractor. I saw you sitting out here and just wanted to give you the good news.”
“Nice of you.”
George paused. He looked around at Fred’s place. The house was small, but clean. The barn was old. The tractor was parked in the driveway.
George shook his head as he looked at Fred. “I don’t get you,” he said. “You could do so much more with this place. You could have a bigger barn.
“When the Anderson place next door went up for sale, you could have bought it and planted more crops. Now it looks like some developer is going to turn it into a subdivision.
“When the Jones place behind you went up for sale, you could have bought it and chopped down those woods and had more fields for planting and for grazing. Now the county has it had as put in hiking trails for those city folks to tromp all over.
“Instead of growing your business, you just sit out here in the afternoon and drink lemonade.”
“Yup,” said Fred. “Not sure what I’d do with all that extra land and all that extra work.”
“Well, you’d make more money,” George said.
“And what would I do with that?” Fred asked.
“You could buy more land. You could hire folks to work for you. You could put money aside for your retirement.”
Fred thought for a moment.
“Yup, I could. But I’m not sure how that would all work out when I was ready to retire.”
“Just think about it, Fred. When you are ready to stop farming, you would not have to scramble from morning to night. You could enjoy the finer things in life. You could just eat and drink and be merry.”
“Yup,” said Fred with a smile. “After I did all that, I could finally slow down. You know, I could even sit on my front porch and sip a lemonade and read a good book.”
Fred put down the book and the glass of lemonade.
“I guess you have to go meet those contractors, so you better get going. Me? I’ve got to stop over to stock some shelves at the food pantry and get back in time to do the milking. You know, the cows don’t like it much if you forget about them.”
George walked back to his truck shaking his head again. He just did not get this Fred. Nice guy, but he really ought to be looking out for himself. He revved the engine a bit and headed down the driveway.
I suppose if I wanted to make this story an even closer parallel to the one Jesus told, I could have added a dramatic ending – like George gets killed in a head-on crash on his way back home. But let’s leave this story with a happier ending for both Fred and George.
Happier in that they both live. But I suspect that both in the moment and ultimately, Fred is the happier of the two.
His happiness does not come from wealth – although if he owns farmland and cows and could have afforded to buy other land, he is not living at the edge of poverty.
His happiness comes from having time for his neighbors, from the rhythm of his life, from serving others.
It’s easy in hearing the story that Jesus told to cast the rich farmer with the bountiful crop as the villain in the piece. It’s not hard in our world today to focus on people with great wealth whose focus is only on themselves and to feel good that we are not like them.
I suspect, though, that most of us could have a little lighter grip on our money and our stuff. There’s a reason the storage unit business is thriving in our nation and it’s not just to store a bumper crop.
But let me suggest that in addition to being about wealth, this story is also about isolation.
The rich farmer with the bountiful crop seems so alone. Wealthy, yes. But happy?
Listen to the pronouns in the story:
“He said to himself, ‘What will I do. I have no place to store my harvest…I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store my grain and goods. I’ll say to myself…take it easy! Eat, drink and enjoy yourself.”
And then – unexpectedly – he dies. Now who gets this abundance?
There is no indication that he had family or friends. There is no indication that he thought about a wider community that might have benefited had he shared his abundance.
People’s attachment to wealth – particularly when they saw it something just for themselves – seemed to bother Jesus. A lot. It’s a theme he comes back to many times in many ways. He talks about that a lot more than, oh, say, sexuality.
It’s not simply having things that he rails against. It is making money and things the focus of your world. It is when hoarding things replaces God’s spirit of generosity.
There’s a story I came across from Brian Stoffregan, who writes commentaries on the gospels. This story involves a social worker in Appalachia who arrives at the rented home of a large family in deep financial distress.
The father, struggling with a severe physical handicap, had still managed to shoot a bear. The meat had been processed into big canning jars to feed the family into the winter.
The man offered the social worker one of the jars of bear meat and she hesitated.
The man insisted: “Now you just have to take this. We want you to have it. We don’t have much, that’s a fact; but we ain’t poor!”
The social worker asked, “What’s the difference?”
He replied: “When you can give something away, even when you don’t have much, then you ain’t poor. When you don’t feel easy giving something away even if you got more’n you need, then you’re poor, whether you know it or not.”
I think Jesus would have liked that guy.
We may be familiar with the frequent times Jesus advises his followers to sell what they have and give the proceeds to the poor, and to sell some of what they have and give the proceeds away or to pay back in multiples those they have defrauded. Those always seem so drastic, so hard to do.
But there are other stories that really are the counterpoint to the story of the rich farmer, stories that also are in the Gospel according to Luke that included today’s story.
There are 5,000 people on a hill listening to Jesus and they are getting hungry. Loaves and fishes were shared and when all were filled, there were still 12 baskets of food left over – abundance from scarcity, abundance from sharing.
In the story of the Prodigal Son, as he decides to return home after squandering his inheritance, he remembers that his father’s hired hands always had bread to spare.
And in the story of people giving to the Temple treasury, Jesus took note of those of wealth who gave a bit, but then he noticed the poor widow who gave out of her poverty.
Let me try to summarize what I hear in the message of Jesus this way.
Don’t be so focused on the making of money or of piling up lots of it. You don’t always need a bigger barn – or another storage unit. Pay attention so that the money you do make is not done at the expense of others.
If you are lucky enough to have an abundance of money, the best thing to do is to share it, not to hoard it. Because, after all, you will ultimately lose out if you don’t have a spirit of generosity.
Let’s go back to our friends Fred and George – especially Fred. He approached life with a relaxed spirit. He lived simply, but not in destitution. He welcomed in his neighbor – even a neighbor who was pretty narcissistic. He used the time and talent he had not just for himself, but for others as he helped out at the food pantry. He lived in harmony with the land around him.
And although the word “God” never really came up in the way I told the story, I have the sense that Fred understood what it meant to trust in God’s love. That does not mean that he thought that God would make everything right or that God’s blessing was manifest in signs of great wealth.
No, he understood in a way that George did not that God’s love is what the psalmist was singing about in Psalm 107 that we heard today. God’s love is good and it lasts forever. God is with us no matter how desperate the circumstances.
Whoever is wise pays attention to God’s faithful love more than they pay attention to the size of their barns or the size of their crops or the balance in their checking account or the growth in their net worth.
And when they find that they have more than they need, they let the love of God flow through them to those around them.
Psalm 107 is one way to sing God’s praises. Hymn #582 is another, reminding us of our connections to God and to one another is a less-than-perfect world. It’s called “O God of Earth and Altar.”