I got one of those supposedly funny emails the other day. Now before anyone starts thinking, ‘oh, he’s into those’, and puts me on their sender list, I’m really, really not in to them. But anyway this one said,
If you can start the day without caffeine,
If you can always be cheerful,
If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,
If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,
If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time,
If you can take criticism and blame without resentment,
If you can resist treating a rich friend better than a poor friend,
If you can relax without alcohol,
If you can get to sleep at night without worrying about the day’s problems …
...then you are probably the family dog!
The rest of us, of course, can’t get away from the fact that we live in the real world where we do have worries and responsibilities, where we have to make adequate provision for ourselves and our families. We worry because it’s hard enough to make ends meet at the best of times, we worry because we don’t know what the future holds, what emergencies or difficult times might lie ahead, we worry because even though we’re earning more today than we ever did in the past, the cost of everything keeps going up, interest rates are back on the upward spiral. We worry because our lives are lived in the tension of a wealthy country in which our desire for material things is manipulated by the images of consumption and success that surround us, the contradiction of a society in which great wealth and persistent poverty sit side by side.
So when Jesus teaches us about money, about the conflict between wealth and justice, about the difficulties for those burdened down by wealth in getting into God’s kingdom, it can be hard to listen without feeling defensive, the sort of internal disclaimer by which we exempt ourselves from being the ones Jesus is talking about. ‘Not me, I’m living on the pension’. ‘Not me, I haven’t even got a job’. ‘Not me, sure, we’re comfortable but we’ve worked hard for what we’ve got’. And so we find various ways of telling ourselves that this one is for somebody else.
Except the conversation Jesus has with the envious man in the crowd before he starts telling this story tips us off that it’s not so much about wealth. Jesus tells us it’s about greed, the unattractive human characteristic of putting ourselves first. It’s about what our actions reveal about what is really most important in our lives. And it’s about insecurity, the ways in which we try to give ourselves a bit of insurance against future uncertainty. In the context of eternity, what really matters? And so Jesus tells this story about the farmer with the bumper crop. He’s done the hard work, he’s had some good luck, the rains have come at the right time, none of the workers went on strike, he’s got the best problem a farmer can possibly have, not enough room to store his windfall. And who can blame him for feeling good about himself, for making a few plans for expansion? In our country, at least, we’re used to expressing approval for the person who is reaping the rewards for good planning, hard work, and a bit of luck. There’s no suggestion he has ripped anybody off or cut any corners. Why shouldn’t he feel a bit self-satisfied?
‘Except’, says God, who doesn’t usually get a speaking role in these stories, ‘that you’re going to be dead by tonight’.
Like the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you. In the context of eternity, in the context of the last day of your life, what really matters? What would you look back at on that last day and say, ‘I wish I’d done more of that’? The story suggests he has got his priorities wrong. The farmer has been successful in the things that his culture and ours tell us are important, hard work and material success, a comfortable lifestyle – he just hasn’t been successful in what really matters, he hasn’t been rich toward God.
There are a number of levels we can unpack this on. The tantalizing or maybe infuriating thing about the story is that Jesus doesn’t actually tell us how the farmer has been poor towards God. Which means we have to think about ourselves, and the ways in which we ourselves substitute our own needs and our own security for the perspective of God. On this level I don’t think it matters whether you have a barn-full of wheat or not, the story applies to you and me just as much as it does to James Packer. We view ourselves as people who don’t have, or who might not have, or who might lose what they have. It’s an insurance mentality, which assumes the future is fearful and which focuses on managing risks. And so we make our calculations, depending on where we are in the lifecycle, so much superannuation, so much savings, pay off the mortgage by such and such a year. Or we calculate which political party is going to guarantee our security, to protect us from unfair dismissal or rising interest rates or global warming. And I actually don’t want to suggest that the calculations are wrong, that we shouldn’t plan for the future or think carefully about what is promised at a political level. Except that somewhere along the way we forget the lesson of the lilies and the birds, the parable, incidentally, that Jesus tells straight after today’s reading. We forget to be in touch with what is, we lose touch with the beauty of creation and the wonder of every present moment, we stop noticing the Holy Spirit murmuring in our own hearts or smiling in the face of a stranger on the street, we forget what God is like, and we forget that the God who surrounds us with blessedness is also the God of the future. We forget to trust that our own lives are unfolding in God, and that what seems hard or fearful or cold in our own lives, the absence, as we sometimes see it, of God – we forget that what hides God from us sometimes – is us. Like the rich farmer we are in danger of lapsing into what one writer has called practical atheism, the credibility gap of Christians who say they believe in God but act as though God is absent. Jesus is reminding us that our security and our future rests in God.
The second thing, perhaps, to notice about this story is that the man’s ‘I-s’ are too close together. My Bible commentary points out that in this story the successful farmer uses the word ‘I’ or ‘me’ eleven times – never the word ‘we’ or ‘our’ and certainly not the word ‘their’. Toxic insecurity makes us self-centred. Holy insecurity – learning to trust in the rightness of God and the goodness of creation – holy insecurity makes us other-centred. And so the farmer doesn’t rush into town to ask for help in dealing with the unexpected problem of full-to-overflowing barns, he doesn’t ask himself how the blessing he has experienced might be the opportunity to be a blessing to others, instead he sits at home alone, he turns inward and stays there, calculating that he can be self-sufficient and secure.
It’s helpful, sometimes, to ask how the stories Jesus tells would have been heard by his original listeners, the farmers and day-labourers and fishermen, the old folk and children who gathered around him in the villages of the rural backwater of Galilee. The poor folk, in other words, who know that community is a safety net, not a lifestyle, and who suspect that their own poverty is what keeps other folk in comfort. This is one of the Gospel stories that liberation theologians in the slums of Manila or the impoverished rural areas of Bolivia claim reveals God’s perspective on human life, and God’s priority for the poor. That God is on the side of those who suffer economic disadvantage while the successful and the powerful hoard what they have. For us living in a wealthy, often fairly self-satisfied, country, who whether or not we think of ourselves as particularly well-off live a lifestyle that two-thirds of the world would consider opulent, and who consume energy and water and natural resources at a profligate rate – the parable of the rich fool raises some awkward questions about our own need for generosity, our need to share more and to consume less. In the context of an election campaign maybe we need to ask ourselves whether, nationally, we are like the farmer with the full to overflowing barns.
On this level, the lesson of the parable is that human communities are interconnected, that in God’s perspective the human economy depends both on earning and on sharing. Vitally, it makes the connection between being rich toward God and being rich toward others, understanding our own lives as interconnected with the lives of others and the blessings of our own lives as an opportunity to live as a blessing to others.
If you want to take it with you, give it away.