Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man 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?’” Luke 12:13-20, NRSV
This story looks like yet another instance of Jesus criticizing the wealthy, as he often does. I mean, it’s known as “The Rich Fool;” kind of on-the-nose. But the reality of the text is much more uncomfortable, because Jesus is not so much criticizing the top 1%, but hitting closer to home at us average fools. While teaching a crowd of thousands, one person asks Jesus to tell his brother to divide his inheritance, because according to the law, the older brother got twice as much as the younger (female children―surprise―got nothing). This guy, hearing Jesus’ many teachings about upending the status quo, thinks maybe Jesus will upend this teaching, too, that condemns second sons to second class status. So he drags his brother along, hoping that Jesus will tell him off in front of thousands of people. Every younger sibling’s dream, right? And there are numerous other second sons in the crowd, and third sons and fourth, all economically disaffected young men, looking to this new teacher for hope.
This young man and others like him were the middle class of their day. He’s got some inheritance to produce a moderate income with―just not as much as he thinks he deserves. So he’s showing up like it’s a Bernie Sanders rally saying, “Jesus, the system is rigged!” And honestly, I would do the same thing and say, “Jesus, Son of God, I know you command even the winds and water and they obey you, but what are you going to do about my student loans?” But Jesus refuses to tell the crowd what they want to hear, and instead insults this poor guy, comparing him to a greedy rich man that God calls a fool.
Jesus’ goal is not to make the guy feel bad for asking the question. He actually wants to save this guy’s future by waking him up to the fact that he’s been focusing his energy in the wrong place: on possessions and work, “vanities,” as the author of Ecclesiastes (King Solomon, by tradition), discovered. Our young man is here in a crowd of thousands with the savior of the world, and all he can come up with is to ask a question about his finances? How typically bourgeois. So Jesus redirects him to what’s important. Jesus has laid out his ministry saying he has come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to prisoners, sight to the blind, to free the oppressed. Jesus does not say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to create a slightly more equitable distribution of wealth.”
When the parable says the rich man’s crops produce abundantly and he isn’t able to store it all, that means he’s gotten a much bigger yield than was expected, more than what the neighbors have gotten. That doesn’t happen all the time, and it’s a blessing to be celebrated. Jesus’ listeners, used to having to deal with drought and plagues would’ve understood that. But instead of thinking about how to share his windfall, the landowner wants it all for himself. He says to himself, “eat drink and be merry,” instead of inviting all his neighbors over and having a big party to celebrate his abundance, and so he dies alone, mocked by God―harsh, Dude!―instead of surrounded by friends and seeing the joy and happiness he created by sharing.
The young man, instead of saying, “Wow, I have an inheritance, when plenty of people,” (women, for example, as we’ve noted), “get nothing. Let’s see the good I can do with what I have,” looks at his inheritance and says it’s not good enough. Jesus offers him a choice: you can continue to be laser-focused on the unfairness of your financial situation, or you can turn your attention towards what you have to offer. The poor are the ones who get this philosophy of sharing much more so than the wealthy. Recent research by UC Berkley shows that the wealthiest Americans give about 1% of their income, while the poorest give over 3%; more significant than it sounds because the poor are not able to take the charitable tax deduction. So the poor are giving more from the less they have to start with. One of my seminary classmates spoke about a mission trip to Haiti, and how the people there, who had nothing, went out of their ways to provide a gift from the very best they could offer―a wonderfully cooked meal, clothing and crafts they’d made, etc.―to their North American guests, who had everything. Generosity does not spring from having extra to give away; generosity springs from understanding our interdependence on each other and that everything we think we own actually belongs to God. News flash: We don’t get to take all that stuff with us when we go. “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
We will continue to hear from politicians through November a lot about what they are going to do for us, how they are going to benefit our pocketbooks and bank accounts. And they should do all that. We deserve it. We are lovely people. But we can’t afford to let that kind of thinking about what we can get for ourselves control our spiritual lives. Jesus offers us spiritual promises of salvation and heavenly rewards, but he doesn’t promise us earthly blessings. Instead, he tells us to do things for each other, to look at what we’ve been given and find ways to share, so that we don’t have to eat drink and be merry alone but together with our beloved community. If you cling to what you have because you don’t think it’s enough, you will be poor indeed. But if you share what you have, however small it may seem, you will have unlocked the secret of Solomon: that growing our wealth and possessions is vanity, but true wealth lies in growing our souls and our community.
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