The stories and parables in which Jesus criticizes the rich can be hard for us to hear, because we are, in comparison to most of the world’s population, rich people. In today’s story, Jesus suggests that prudent investment to handle a surplus by storing it for the future – saving, in other words – is somehow unwise and a sign that the well-to-do farmer in the story is not in right relationship with God. Most of us in this congregation are beneficiaries of just such prudent planning. We are either contributing to or receiving pensions either from the government or private plans. We are living into our old age in some degree of comfort because we built bigger barns, or at least bigger pension plans.
So, when we hear it said that such financial prudence is a sign we are not ‘rich toward God” we may get a little defensive. One of the first things we might say is “But I’ve earned that money. By saving up for the future, I’ve made sure I’m not a burden on the community.” And that’s exactly right. But you may have heard preachers in the past, perhaps me among them, who have said that all that you have is a gift from God and God calls upon you to share what you have with others. In response you might say, “Well, I do share with others. I share time and talents and resources.”
A discussion along the lines of “how much is enough” might then follow. The demands of the least of our brothers and sisters, the homeless, the sick, the hungry and the naked, their needs are more than we can satisfy. And we need to not give so much that we become a burden to others.
Approaching the story of the man who wanted to build bigger barns as a demand by Jesus that we give more to the offering plate is a common enough way to go, according to the sermons and commentaries that I’ve consulted in thinking about this passage. But I think that misses the point and also risks alienating those of us who, though rich by the standards of the world, are not rich in the way that Jesus means in this story.
The man in the story is described as a landowner. The image that comes to mind for us may be of a farmer who has worked hard to mix in more manure – the only fertilizer available in Palestine – and through his own efforts produced a bumper crop. We may see a hardened, sunburned fellow looking at his harvest and saying, “At last, I can take a break. I’ve got enough set aside that I can ease up a bit.”
In our world, riches are assumed to be the reward for labour. The history of this idea goes back to the time of the Protestant reformation. We sometimes refer to it as the Protestant work ethic. That ethic urges us to work hard, to be frugal and industrious. There is a paradox here though, as John Wesley saw:
“I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore, I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.”
It is certainly the case that some people who have worked hard and earned much fall prey to the vices that Wesley alludes to, the vices that the apostle Paul warned the Colossians against in today’s reading. A little self-examination on this score is always a good thing.
But the rich man in Luke’s story about the bigger barns is not a self-made man. His failure to live in the richness of relationship with God is not because he has worked hard and earned his wealth. The key here is that we are told he is a landowner. Land was not bought and sold in Jesus’ day the way it is in ours. Some peasants bought and sold small patches, subsistence farms enough to support their families, but a farm large enough to grow a surplus, a farm large enough to warrant even the smaller barns that this man had, such a farm was a gift from the King and the King in Palestine was Herod.
To be wealthy, in other words, had nothing to do with having earned a good income by hard work or astute investment. To be wealthy, to own land, was a reward given to those who supported the King, usually militarily, sometimes by the role they played in the temple cult.
Anyone who knows the Christmas story knows that Jesus grew up in occupied Palestine. In Jesus’ day, the occupiers were the Romans. The image I have of what an occupation is like is, I suppose, derived from films about occupied Europe during the second world war, where cruel soldiers of the enemy stand on street corners and demand to see the papers of passers-by as the check for members of the Resistance.
In fact, there were very few Roman soldiers in Palestine, and most of those were concentrated in the Roman capital of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, several days march from Galilee or Jerusalem. After conquering new territory, and Palestine had only been taken by Rome shortly before Jesus’ birth, Rome appointed from the population a King and a High Priest who agreed to serve their interests, that is the interests of the Romans. And their primary interest was taxes. Rome conquered territories in order to extract tribute from them, primarily in the form of grain to feed the hundreds of thousands swelling the population of the capital of the Empire as well as the army needed to maintain order.
Herod, the appointed king of Palestine, collected tribute from the wealthy landowning class who owed their positions to him. The landowner of our story enjoyed wealth and power, but his life and position always hung by a thread because Herod was a nervous and volatile king, as we recall from the story of his slaying firstborn infants at the time of Jesus’ birth.
For the rich man to store up a bumper crop may be a form of insurance for him, to set aside a little nest egg that might, just might, keep him going if Herod for some reason turned against him. What Jesus is criticizing here is not so much his decision about what to do with this extra-good harvest, though I’m sure he would agree with the generations of preachers who have urged him to give more to the poor. It is the landowner’s participation in the power structure based on oppression of the many by the few that lies at the heart of Jesus’ critique.
What the rich man does with a bigger harvest is neither here nor there compared to the exploitation in which he participates with every harvest as a powerful man beholden to Herod. His role is to exploit the peasants for the benefit of Rome, which will keep him comfortable and safe, or so he hopes.
Worldly power, political clout; these are the things that this landowner relies on to give him security and comfort. The fact that he occupies a position of power means his life is improved by the impoverishment of others. When Jesus says this man and others like him who store up wealth are not rich toward God, it is both their mistreatment of their fellow citizens that he is criticizing and their trusting in Herod rather than God.
Jesus does indeed urge us, even if we are not wealthy, to be generous to those who are in need. But the message of this story goes beyond that. Here, Jesus’ concern is that we trust in God and the activity of God through the love of our neighbours, rather than rely on worldly wealth or political position and power to sustain us. If, like the rich man, we put our trust in the things of this world, we condemn ourselves to a life of anxiety that we might lose it all. If, like Jesus, we put our trust in God, we have it all.
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