It is a familiar scene in courtrooms, families arguing over an estate. It is an especially ugly scene when dividing the inheritance divides the family. That is the scene that opens our text for this morning, the gospel lesson from Luke.
A man came up to Jesus, and said, “Make my brother divide the inheritance with me.” The request was crass and boorish, but probably not uncommon, for Jesus was known as a Rabbi. In fact, in this passage, he is addressed as Rabbi: “Teacher, make my brother divide the inheritance with me.” Rabbis could settle these disputes because the laws were part of the religious scriptures. The Rabbis were experts in the scriptures, so they were often called upon to interpret the law and to make a decision in a dispute between two people.
That is what is happening here. According to the text he is also addressing a large crowd. At the beginning of the twelfth chapter, it says that there were thousands there, “stepping on one another.” Which means, it was something of a unruly crowd, as well. And there is one man in the crowd, shouting at Jesus, interrupting his sermon (I can tell you preachers don’t like that), saying, “Make my brother shape up.”
Jesus’ annoyance is obvious. He replies, “Who made me a divider over you?” Then instead of adjudicating the case, he lectures the plaintiff, “Beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
When he said that, you could hear a gasp over the thousands who were gathered there. For Jesus, with these words, has challenged a fundamental assumption of 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 on your life. Their reasoning was, if you are right with God, then God will be good to you, you will be rich, and you will prosper in all areas of life. If you die 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, 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. 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 is a narrow and literal reading of Deuteronomy. A reading, incidentally, that was challenged by all of 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 personal wealth.
The equation of wealth and righteousness was also taken on in the Old Testament by the Book of Job. A tale about a rich man who was righteous altogether, 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. Jesus, therefore, attacked it with all the fury of the prophets. Like the prophets, he used exaggeration, hyperbole, to get their attention, saying, “Blessed are the poor.” That is just the opposite of what everybody believed. Everybody believed that you were blessed if you were rich. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.”
A rich man came to him. This is at the end of the Gospel of Luke. “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” That in itself was shocking, a rich man asking for the meaning of life? The assumption was that the rich man had found the meaning of life. That’s why he was rich. He had found it. Jesus, with even greater irony, now tells him, “Go obey the commandments, if you want to find this life.” Of course, the man’s reply is what we would expect, he has obeyed all the commandments, even from the time of his youth.
So here is a man who is righteous, who has the evidence to prove it, he is wealthy, and still he is separated from God. He does not know God. That society would have said, that is impossible.
But then comes the coup de grace, “Go sell all you have and give it to the poor.” It is the most shocking way to say it. It is designed to get their attention. “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
Now our text. There was a rich man, who had more than enough possessions to guarantee his comfort. The obvious conclusion was this is a righteous man, this is a man who has been blessed by God. In fact, he must be very righteous, because his blessings just keep coming. No matter what he does, all these wonderful things keep happening to him, making him richer and richer. He must be doing something right in his life. The man, in order to insure his future, or as the parable puts it, so he can “eat, drink, and be merry,” into an indefinite future, builds more barns so that he can store his surplus wealth.
That night, the parable says, ironically, the night that he completed building his barns, he died. God came to him, and said, “Fool! Tonight your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose are they now?” He died just as he finished preparing for his future. Jesus told these parables to shock people, to get them thinking about the way they were living, the priorities in their life.
Luke put them in his gospel for us, so that we would take account, too, think about your life, about all that you have, about what you are doing with your life. He wants you to think as you hear this parable, maybe that could be me. He wants you to ask, what have I sacrificed in order to gain wealth? What values have I devalued because I value possessions most? What immorality have I condoned in order to get wealthy? What have I not given to my family in order that I might give them material things?
Luke wants to get you thinking. He wants you to think about what really constitutes the “good life,” and to ask yourself, have I been seeking that, or have I postponed it until I have enough? Then I will take care of those matters, that’s next. But today I have to secure my future. Someday I will spend more time with my family. Someday I’ll sit down and say to my loved ones what I have always wanted to say to them. Someday I’ll sit down and listen to them, to find out who they are and what they have to say to me. Someday I’ll do that, when I have enough time, when I’ve got it made.
“You are a fool!”, says Jesus. Someday you may hear the voice of God speaking to you. Well, maybe not the voice of God, not directly, but maybe the voice of a doctor who tells you what you thought you would never, ever hear.
The man was just 29 years old. It was in the newspaper some time ago. He was married, and had three kids. All three kids were under five years of age. He is an attorney in Illinois. One day he woke up with a headache. As the day went on, it got more painful. Then he had difficulty seeing. Then he had difficulty walking. He went to the doctor. The doctor said, “You have a brain tumor that will require special surgery right away. If you survive the surgery, then there could be a critical time of recovery for about a year. If you survive that, then each year after that you can be more assured of a full recovery.” He made it through the surgery. He made it through that first year. Then he had this interview. A reporter asked him, “Have you learned anything through this?” He said, “Your life is on loan.”
That is the message of this parable. The obvious point of the parable, the one that everybody seems to get, is that we can’t take our possessions with us. We are going to leave our possessions behind. “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” But that is not the main point of the parable. The main point of the parable is that your life is on loan, too. “Fool! This night your soul is required of you.”
Incidentally, the Greek word translated “required of you” can also be translated as “a payment due.” That is the real point of the parable. Not just your possessions, but your life belongs to God. That is the classical, Christian understanding of our lives. We are sojourners here, pilgrims, travelers. In the beautiful words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “Here on earth have we no continuing place.” We are here for a short time. We are supposed to use that time in order to live responsibly as stewards of the gifts that God has given to us. Christians have always believed that. We are just travelers, passing through, so make the most of it.
John Bunyan made that idea a part of our consciousness in all of western civilization in his book, Pilgrim’s Progress. I understand that up until the 20th century, in most American homes you would find three books: the Bible, McGuffey’s Reader, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Everybody read it. It shaped our consciousness of who we are as human beings. Everybody read it.
Nobody reads it now. In fact, we no longer see ourselves as sojourners, pilgrims, or as travelers. We see ourselves as settlers now. No longer dependent on a power that is greater than ourselves for our life and for our sustenance, but independent, autonomous, free moral agents. From childhood we are told that our life is our own, and we are free to make up our minds about what is right and what is wrong, according to our own perspective.
Instead of uniting us as one people, one culture, with a story, such as Pilgrim’s Progress, in our time there is a spate of autobiographies, thousand of stories, not written necessarily by older people who have lived a long time and done great things, and now have wisdom to share with us all, but from people who have gained notoriety. That is the only qualification necessary now to write an autobiography, or have a biography written about you. People in their teens and twenties now are writing autobiographies that are filled with self-indulgence and self-congratulations, all reflecting the common assumption of our time, that this is my life, no one else’s, and I can do with it what I want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else.
Both assumptions are wrong, according to the Bible. The Bible continues to be an affront to us. It maintains what you do affects other people. Immediately, your family. Then, your friends and neighbors. Then, this society and the next generation. All are affected by what you do. What’s more, this is not your life. You belong to God. You bear God’s image, that’s the way the Bible describes it. You belong to God. If you call yourself Christian, not only do you bear the image of God, you have also been bought by the blood of Christ. You now belong to him. That is the meaning of your baptism. You belong to Christ.
The man who had the operation put it this way, “My life is on loan.” That helped him put his priorities in order. He said, “It has really strengthened our family, what’s happened to me. Now my wife and I are trying to raise our children to be happy, right now; to live each day, right now; because there are no guarantees. My message to people would be to accept each day as given to you as a gift from God. Because I lived for 28 years, and then one day I woke up with a headache. It was that sudden.”
The parable of the rich fool is a judgment parable. Jesus told judgment parables for one reason: to wake us up. Stop being foolish about these things. What is really important is life, life itself, the life that God has given to you as a gift. You may want a whole lot more. You may want to store up a whole lot of things. But you are a fool if you think you need these things. And you are doubly a fool if you sacrifice the present in order to get something else in the future.
It is common to call Luke, “the gospel for the poor.” There is so much evidence of this in the gospel itself. The poor are the heroes in the gospel, and we are to be concerned about the poor. It is here, after all, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.” The beatitude in Matthew is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” But Luke edits it, and says, “Blessed are the poor.” There is other evidence that Luke’s gospel is for the poor.
In spite of that, I have another theory. I believe that Luke wrote his gospel for the rich, to warn us about the foolishness that you hear about wealth. In his day the foolishness was to say that if you are wealthy, that means that you are living a righteous life, and have God’s blessing. In our day, wealth convinces people that they are independent and autonomous.
Wealth is dangerous because it can shield you from your mortality. If you were to live day by day, if you were to live hand to mouth, then you would be aware of the transitoriness of our lives. That is the real situation of our lives, we live from day to day. But if you can store up stuff for the future, then you can be seduced into believing that life is your own, and you can do with it what you please. If you really believe that, then you are a fool. So I think Jesus is really preaching to the rich, not to the poor.
Notice also, Jesus doesn’t condemn wealth. He just says, don’t trust it, don’t believe in it. Trust God, put your faith in God, be rich toward God. That is the way he puts it at the end of this passage. Then, use your wealth to do some good. Do some good for yourself, but especially do good for other people.
The lesson that he will teach in other places is that your life is not going to be judged by what you have, but by what you give. In another place he will say, “To whom much is given, much is required.” That is the basis for the whole understanding of Christian stewardship. We have a responsibility to use what God has given to us for God’s purposes. He talked about stewardship all the time, even in this chapter he talks about it. The chapter begins with the parable of the rich fool. It ends with the parable of the wise steward who is put over his master’s possessions. We are given what we have, to do good. And we are given a limited time in which to do it. That is the message of the parable. It is as if “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” but in the quality of his charity.
A minister in Columbus, Ohio, has a friend who works downtown. He is a shaker and mover in Columbus. The man was something of an enigma to this pastor, and as far as the church was concerned, the man ran hot and cold. But they were good friends, and had a grand relationship, got together often.
On this occasion they are together in the man’s office downtown. The man is looking out the window, and says, “Barry, you know I’ve kind of got it figured out. The Big Guy is going to ask us two questions when we get up to the gate. I am serious, now, I really mean this. First he is going to ask, ‘What did you do with what I gave you?’ And then he is going to ask, ‘Who did you do it for?'”
He was a man who finally woke up and saw that his life is “on loan,” and that we are stewards here. “For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” but in what he does with them.