"The Problem With Barns"

LUKE 12:13-21

MAR 30, 2014

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            A 5th grade teacher posed the following problem to her arithmetic classes.  "A wealthy man dies and leaves ten million dollars.  One-fifth is to go to his wife.  One-fifth is to go to his son.  One-fifth is to go his butler, and the rest to charity.  Now, what does each one get?"

            After a very long silence in the classroom, little Joey raised his hand.  The teacher called on Joey for his answer.  With complete sincerity in his voice, Joey answered, "A lawyer!"

            He's probably right.  Where there is a will, there is often a lawsuit.

            Look at our passage for this morning.  I'll begin reading.

 

            Someone in the crowd ... by the way if you were here last Sunday you'll remember it was a huge crowd, in the thousands, who had travelled to hear Jesus, so many that Luke says they trampled over one another to get a place close enough to hear Jesus speak. 

 

            Someone in the crowd listening to Jesus said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."

 

            The more things change, the more they stay the same.  How many families have come to grief because of the settling of an estate?  Money matters often do that to us.  Sometimes it comes at the time of a death, sometimes at the time of a divorce, but whenever it comes, it's painful. 

            Jesus does not want to get in the middle of this particular family squabble, but he does want to use this opportunity to tell a story about money and possessions.  Verse 14,

 

            But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?"  And he said to them (that is turning to the crowd), "Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."

 

            Luke left out something.  At the end of Jesus' statement, there would have been a collective gasp from the crowd.  My wife, Trudy, who is in California this weekend with girlfriends she has had since elementary school, is a hoot to go to movies with.  In a shocking or scary part of the movie, you can clearly hear her gasp.  Sometimes her gasp is so loud it startles me, and that's what Luke left out here, a multi-thousand person gasp.  When he said, "one's life does not consist in the abundance of one's possession" the crowd would have taken a collective gasp, and Luke leaves that out.

            I say that because Jesus just challenged a fundamental assumption of that society.  In that society everyone believed that a person's life was measured by the abundance of his or her possessions, because the abundance of possessions was seen to be a sign of God's favor.  Their reasoning was, if you are right with God, then God will be good to you.  You will prosper in all areas of life, including material possessions.  If you are separated from God, if you are a sinner, then you will be poor, and you will suffer calamity in your life.

            That is how they read scripture.  They could point to chapter and verse.  They could say, here it is, right here in Deuteronomy 29, where God says, "I will make a covenant with you.  If you will obey my laws and live righteous lives, then I will give you this good land, and you will live in it and your descendants will live in it, and you will prosper in all you do.  But if you disobey my law, and do not live righteous lives, and chase after other gods, then you will be punished, and your days in this land will be few."

            That was their narrow and literal reading of Deuteronomy.  A reading, incidentally, that was challenged by the prophets in the Old Testament, who said that righteousness does not result in personal wealth; righteousness results in social justice.  If a society is righteous, if the citizens of a society are righteous, the result of that will be a moral society, not necessarily a luxurious standard of living.

            The relationship between wealth and righteousness was also taken on in the Old Testament by the Book of Job.  A tale about a rich man who was altogether righteous, zealous in morality, loved his neighbors, exemplary citizen, devoutly religious, and he ended up suffering the most devastating tragedies in his life, and in the lives of his family, beginning with the elimination of his wealth.

            So the assumption that wealth is the reward for righteousness was wrong.  But it was very popular and very persistent.  Even into Jesus' time it was still the popular theology of the people and Jesus throughout his ministry attacked it as he does here with a story, a parable.  Verse sixteen.

 

            Then he told them a parable:  The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  

 

            Before we go any further in the parable, I want us to keep something in mind about this rich man.  This seems to be an altogether good man.  This is no slumlord.  He does not cheat his employees or mistreat them.  He appears to be a hard worker, an upstanding citizen. Through a combination of skill and luck and plain hard work, his investment and labor have paid off.  His land produced abundantly.

 

            And he thought to himself, What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?  Then he said, I will do this:  I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.  But God said to him, You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'  So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.

 

            Can you picture his funeral?  Im sure many fine words were spoken at the rich man's funeral.  His barn-building provided much needed jobs in the community.  He was always willing to help his neighbor in times of need, a strong supporter of community charities, a member of the Chamber of Commerce and the Optimist Club.  By all accounts he was a fine man, a fine man.  But that night, the angel of God walked through the cemetery and wrote on the man's headstone the letters F O O L.

            You and I may not relate to building bigger barns, but is there anyone in this room who would like larger closets in your home?  Is there anyone who would simply like more storage space of any kind, just to put away the clutter you have accumulated?  As embarrassing as this is to admit, Trudy and I would love to double the size of our walk-in closet in our master bedroom.  We aren't going to do it because there is no room to do it, but if there were, we would probably do it ... not build a bigger barn, but build a bigger closet.

            Our nation has just come through a financial downturn over the past few years, but there is one investment area that did extremely well in spite of the downturn.  I mentioned this before ...  mini-warehouses.  Storage facilities.  We have so much stuff we have to rent somewhere to keep it!  So, maybe we can relate to this farmer who had such a good year he had to build bigger barns to store his goods.  He wasn't a bad man.  After all, Jesus didnt call him a sinner.  Moreover, Jesus did not say it was wrong to have nice things.   He simply calls the man a fool.  He thought his possessions would enable him to retire in luxury, doing anything he wanted, whether it had to do with food, drink or entertainment.  He was wrong.

            Dr. Richard Halverson, while serving as chaplain of the U.S. Senate, made a speech in which he said that we Americans suffer from what he calls "Destination Sickness."  Destination Sickness is the tendency to focus one's time and energy in the wrong direction.  It is marked by the belief that money and success are the most important things in life.  Halverson describes the victim of Destination Sickness like this:

 

            He's the man who has become a whale of a success downtown and a pathetic failure at home. He's the big shot with the boys at the office and a big phony with the boys at home. He's the status symbol in society and a fake in the family. "Destination Sickness'" - the illness peculiar to a culture that is affluent and godless.

 

            That may seem a little harsh, but Destination Sickness seems to have plagued every generation throughout history.  Many people in the past, and many people today, are focusing their time and energy in the wrong direction.

            I was intrigued to read of a family who put up a hummingbird feeder with four feeding stations. Almost immediately it became popular with the hummingbirds that lived in the area.  Two, three, or even four birds would feed at one time, and for a short time the feeder the family would refill the feeder once a day.

            Suddenly, however, the usage decreased to almost nothing.  The feeder needed filling only about once a week. The reason for the decreased usage soon became apparent.  A male bird had taken over the feeder as his property.  He was now the only hummingbird who used it. He would feed and then sit in a nearby tree, rising to attack any bird that approached his feeder. Guard duty occupied his every waking hour.  He was an effective guard.  The only time another bird got to use the feeder was when the self-appointed owner was momentarily gone to chase away an intruder.

            That hummingbird was teaching a valuable lesson.  By choosing to assume ownership of the feeder, he forfeited his freedom.  He was no longer free to come and go as he wished.  He was tied to the work of guarding his feeder, his stuff.  He was possessed by his possession.

             I don't know if the rich man in the parable was possessed by his possessions but that often happens.  We spend so much time accumulating our stuff and taking care of our stuff we have less and less time for other things.  The Romans had a proverb: "Money is like seawater; the more you drink, the thirstier you become."  Some folk, however, are trying to do something about their addiction to stuff.  A PBS program titled Affluenza, not "Influenza" but Affluenza noted that, of the Americans who have voluntarily cut back their consumption, 86% of them said that they were happier as a result.  More and more people are discovering the joy of living more fully on less.

            Let me close with another story about an inheritance.  I think Jesus would have liked it.  It goes as follows ...

            One day two brothers got word that their father had died and the land that had been the family farm was to be divided equally between the two brothers.  After their father had been buried surveyors came and marked the land to allow for equal distribution.

            That night the older brother was lying in his bed, and he thought of his younger brother and how poor he was.  With his big family he could certainly use some extra income.  He thought, "I am rich and have plenty.  I will go out in the dark of the night and move the marker that divides the farm in half, giving him the bigger portion of the land."

            Meanwhile, the younger brother was lying in bed and thinking about his older brother and how alone he was, without family and friends.  He thought about how blessed he was to have a large family and so many friends.  He thought, "All my brother has to remind him of his family is this piece of land. I will go out in the middle of the night and move the marker over further on my side, so that he may have the bigger piece of the land."

            That night, in the middle of their father's field the two brothers met.  When each heard what the other brother was doing, they embraced and wept.  Years later, legend has it, that the city of Jerusalem was built upon the spot where their tears had fallen.

            Listen once more to Jesus: "One's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."  Amen.