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Whining to Jesus

A Homily from Luke 12:13-21

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

St. John's Lutheran Church, Atlanta, GA

August 05, 2007 (18th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

There are some people that are just no fun to whine to. I keep a list of them in my head. These are the folks who, when you just want to complain, insist on giving you practical advice to solve your problems rather than just letting you moan and gripe. These are also the people who, when you come to them with a list of the problems in your life, explain to you why those things aren’t really problems at all – the real problem is your priorities.

There’s a reason that I keep a list of these kinds of people in my head. Whenever I feel the need to gripe or whine about my life, I want to make certain that I don’t whine to one of them. They take all the fun out of a good pout.

In the introduction to the parable in our gospel lesson for today, Luke uses a short anecdote to let us know that Jesus probably wouldn’t be my first choice of listeners when I want to whine. One day, when a crowd had gathered to hear Jesus’ teaching, a man called out a request, “Teacher, tell my brother to split the family inheritance with me.”

According to the laws at the time, the eldest brother would have received a double share [Deut 21:17], and this man thinks that’s unfair. He thinks that Jesus, an advocate for doing what is right regardless of tradition, will look out for what is best for him. He’s right, Jesus is concerned about what is best for the man, but in a way that won’t get him an extra dime. Poor fellow. He had his one chance to ask Jesus, in person, a question – and he asked the wrong one. I wonder how often, when we’re frustrated that the Bible or the Church or God don’t seem to be answering us, the problem is the same. We’re asking the wrong question.

Jesus says, “Friend, who made me your judge” and that’s the only reply he makes directly to the man. It is not, however, all that Jesus has to say on the matter. He turns to the crowd and says, “Watch out for every kind of greed, because your life is not about how many things you own.”

Clearly this is not the answer the man is looking for. “Jesus, my brother is getting twice as much money as me just because he’s older!” Jesus’ reply is that fairness isn’t about making sure that everyone gets the right amount of money or property, because no amount of wealth will give us anything of real value. The value of our lives cannot be measured in dollars.

That sounds like good, Christian advice. In fact, as Christians we’ve heard it so often as a cliché that I suspect we don’t really take it seriously. How do we measure the success of our lives? How do we determine its meaning? What kind of standard do we use as a benchmark for evaluating how much we have accomplished as people?

Be careful as you answer that question for yourself. We all know what the right answer is. Think about what the honest answer is. We have a joke around our household that every time I go back to school and get a new degree I take a 30% pay cut. If I don’t think about that too long, it’s funny, but if I’m honest with myself, every time I see a smaller check on payday it feels like I must not be accomplishing as much – doing as much – with my life as when I made more money.

Even those of us raised on the good socialist values of Woodstock and the Peace Corps are conditioned to evaluate success and social value based on wealth. When comparing job possibilities, the first thing we look at is the salaries. When we pause to consider the health, safety, and security of our lives – we invariably turn to factors that are directly affected by how expensive our home is, how much money we have saved, and how successfully our assets insulate us from hardship and loss. How many of us, when we fantasize about the one thing that would make our lives significantly better, imagine winning the lottery – even if we have never bought a single ticket?

Leaving aside the silly and embarrassing influence of an obscene media culture on our lives, it’s still easy to understand why even the most committed of Christians would find it difficult to not see the value of money and wealth. No matter how much we downsize and streamline our lives, even if we move beyond judging our accomplishments by our bank account, we still want food on the table, a roof over our heads, and some security that we will continue to have those things as we grow older. These are normal, human concerns.

The danger of the teachings of Jesus is that they are never about being “normal.” In fact, as a general rule of thumb, if we come up with an interpretation for a biblical passage that seems logical, sane, and easy to obey, then we probably are misinterpreting the passage. Jesus makes astonishingly strong, completely counter-intuitive, uncompromising demands for how we should live our lives. Many of them are scary, if not downright terrifying. The answer to “What Would Jesus Do?” is never something that a “normal” person would do. Being a Christian is not about thinking like the rest of the people around us.

The parable that Jesus tells in response to the man’s question is a reminder of just how abnormal Christian principles can be. The gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus spoke in parables so that his listeners wouldn’t understand what he was saying [Mark 4:11-12], but there is really no ambiguity whatsoever in this particular parable. In fact, it is so clear, that many biblical commentators go out of their way to make it say something else so that we as Christians won’t feel compelled to take it literally.

Nevertheless, let’s study it at face value. One day, a farmer steps out onto his front porch and looks out over the fields that he had planted in the Spring. I have to admit, the farmer I picture here is Mr. Douglas from Green Acres. Somehow, the image of him stepping onto his front porch, stretching his arms, and looking out over his land just fits. I’m sorry if you now have that theme song stuck in your head. Feel free to substitute the image of any farmer that works for you.

However you picture him, our friend the farmer realizes that, miraculously, he has grown far more food than he ever imagined. The corn is taller than his house. The wheat is so thick that his tractor will hardly go through it. Every plant is green and lush, and every tree is heavy with ripe fruit. The yield is exponentially more than even a bumper crop. In fact, he has grown so much food that he will never have to grow so much as another bean.

Jesus tells us that the man stops and ponders his situation. He says to himself, “What can I do with all this food? I’ll have to tear down my barns and silos and build new, larger ones that will hold everything I have grown. Once I get them built, I will store all my extra food and everything that I gain from selling what I don’t store. Once I have everything I could possibly want, I will sit down and say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have everything you need, relax! Eat, drink, be merry!’” He is not so different from a woman or man who every day goes online to check the balance of their 401(k), and when it reaches the magic number they’ve been waiting for turns in their retirement notice.

That plan doesn’t work out so well for our farmer. After months of labor, erecting new barns in the hot summer heat, harvesting acres of food, preparing it for either storage or sale, hauling it to where it needed to be and getting everything ready, the day of his retirement finally arrives. He kicks back to enjoy the first of the many days of leisure that await him. But before his rocking chair has made its first creak, God speaks. The voice of the LORD proclaims, “You fool! That soul of yours is required this very night. You will die, and all those things you gathered for yourself will go to someone else. You cannot take them with you!”

All of his hard work: meaningless. All of the extra labor he put in to make sure that he could eventually lead a life of relaxation: in vain. In an instant, he loses everything he worked so hard for.

Aren’t you glad you came to church today for a happy, uplifting message that would make you feel good? At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much hope to be found in this parable. If we take its message seriously, real hope is here, but we have to let go of other hopes before we can see it.

The first is the hope that the right amount of money, the right amount of financial security, the right amount of stuff will ever bring us to a place of peace or give us a lasting sense of accomplishment. We’ve already covered that ground, but the parable drives it home in the starkest possible terms. No matter how much we accumulate, at the moment of our deaths it is all meaningless.

That’s something that an attentive, thoughtful person can figure out in the secular world as well – if they can overcome all of the temptations that make it so easy to get distracted by money. With some serious reflection, it’s possible to realize that – at the end of our lives – the only legacy that is worth pouring our labor into is one that is measured in changed lives, not money.

This parable, however, is not just about that kind of simple advice. Jesus doesn’t just teach us simple life lessons, he calls us to recognize the absolute power of God in our world and in our lives. He calls us to see that anything we want to claim for ourselves actually belongs to the God who created us, and anything that we think we have earned is actually a gift from the loving God who is the source of all that is good.

To claim that, we have to give up another kind of hope, the hope that we can rely on ourselves, the hope that if we invest our time and energy into the right things and into truly noble causes, we will have established for ourselves an accumulated wealth that really matters.

That is a hard idea to give up, the idea that we are the ones who determine our destinies, that we are the ones who can claim credit for our successes. That’s an even bigger mistake that the farmer in our parable today made. It’s not just that he put his trust in his wealth and possessions to bring him security and happiness. He also assumed that anything that his farm produced was something he earned and that it belonged to him.

We do not have that luxury as Christians. At the end of the parable, God addresses the farmer and proclaims, “You fool.” As the Psalmist reminds us, the hallmark of foolishness is to believe in one’s heart that there is no God [Ps 14:1], and that is exactly the mistake the farmer made. Looking out at the sight of his fields overflowing with food, he was so proud of his accomplishment that he could only try to think of ways to capitalize on what he had done.

As many commentators on this passage point out [Culpepper, Buttrick], perhaps the man should have remembered the example of Joseph, who stored up the extra grain to give to the hungry in times of need in Egypt. It is God who provides abundance, and when God is generous to us it is so that we can prepare to support those who will need that generosity in coming times of tragedy. Everything we seem to have earned is a gift from God, and stewardship of that gift is part of our obligation to the God who provides for our needs.

Even with that in mind, however, we haven’t opened ourselves up to the full impact of this text. Jesus is not simply reminding us that we should focus our energy on something other than material gain. Nor is he just teaching us that we should not claim for ourselves what, in fact, comes from the providence of God and we should, consequently, share that generosity rather than hoarding it. These messages are certainly in the text, but the heart of the parable is even more dramatic, more radical.

Jesus is reminding us that every moment of every day, we depend solely on the providence of God. The teachings Luke has placed before and after this parable are all about fear and worry, about doubt and anxiety. These are the things that, ultimately, we must surrender if we are to step fully into the good news of this text.

Perhaps that’s why I don’t like whining to the people who refuse to just let me complain. I want to be able to whine. There’s something comforting about worrying about my life, about my future, about my legacy. If I’m worried, then at least I’m taking those things seriously. It also means that I think I have some control over those things.

A few verses later, Jesus will remind us that no amount of worrying can add a second to our lives. As the farmer in this parable learned, no amount of preparation can add a minute’s happiness either. Our only hope, the only worthwhile investment in our future, is to trust that the God who called us into this life did so with a purpose for us, and that – if we turn loose of our desire to control our own lives – every moment we have been given will be more rich than the one before, and we will be wealthy beyond measure.