"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How Much Is Enough? (Sunday, November 11, 2012)


People were always asking Jesus to solve their problems for them. Bad enough he had to turn water into wine, and restore sight to the blind, and heal the sick, and all that. One guy even  asked him, out of nowhere, to interfere in an inheritance battle within a family.

“Teacher,” the man in the crowd cries out to him, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  But this is one fight Jesus is not going to get involved in.  “Friend,” he replies, “who set me to be judge or arbiter over you?” According to the rules of the day, the answer to this question was clear:  the oldest son was to receive double what any of the other sons would receive. That was the way things were done in ancient Judea at the time, and Jesus saw no reason to fiddle with it.

But Jesus was here to talk about the Kingdom of God, not mere dollars and shekels, so that’s where he goes with this conversation. The issue, Jesus says again and again and again, is the life you lead, not the things you have. And, as always, Jesus tells them a story.

There’s this rich man, he says; his land, we are told, “produced abundantly.” The rich man wonders to himself: “What am I going to do with all this wealth that I have produced?” “I’ve built all this. What am I going to do with it?” Ultimately, he decides to pull down his barns, and build larger ones, and store the crops away. Then, he’ll be all set for many, many years—“And I will [then] say to my soul, ‘Relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

But God (as is often the case) has other plans. “You fool!” he tells the rich man. “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. This is your last day on earth. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? What’s going to happen to all your stuff that you’ve so carefully hoarded, and stored away, and made plans for?”

Then, Jesus delivers the clincher: “So it is,“ he says, “with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” They collect and collect and collect. And hoard and hoard and hoard. But there is never enough, and what good do their possessions do them when they’re gone? Absolutely nothing. We may not be sure where we’re going when we leave this earthly realm, but one thing we know for sure is that they don’t take the American Express Platinum card there! (Or I’ll be very surprised if they do.) All our wealth will do us no good when we’re gone.

“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  The problem isn’t the man’s wealth.  Jesus doesn’t condemn the rich farmer for being successful—or for working hard and industriously—or for having land and enabling it to produce—or for renting it to people to work as tenant farmers—or for being successful at what he was doing—or for charging a fair price for his goods—or for providing for his family-- or even for putting some of his wealth aside, and planning for the future. No, Jesus seemed to have no problem with any of these things; within the worldview of Jewish religion and society at the time, he probably would have found them quite commendable.

But, here, Jesus doesn’t say to the wealthy man, “Well done, good and faithful job creator,” does he? He doesn’t commend the farmer here; rather, he calls the man a “fool”.  

A fool? But not for being successful. Not for possessing wealth or material goods, or even for using them to live a comfortable life. No, Jesus says, the man is a “fool” because he is hoarding his wealth; because he is keeping it stored away in barns, , and ignoring his responsibility for those beyond himself . He is being condemned for “storing up treasures” for himself, but “not being rich toward God”, in the words of Jesus.  

Sun and rain and soil have combined to make this man rich, along with an abundance of the grace of God, and a little luck, too, we can imagine. He has been gifted by life; he has been rewarded, and that’s fine; that’s no sin.

But what fruit does all his wealth bear? Selfishness. That’s it. Greed.  He wants more. He is going to store all that grain away in those great big barns. What does he plan to do with it? Not eat it all himself, certainly. He’s going to sell it, of course—at some point in the future; probably during a time of scarcity or famine, when the price is really high. Rather than share what he has, and help others out of their distress, he’s going to profit from their pain instead. There’s where the sin arise; there’s where his alienation from God springs. There’s where he starts his movement away from God and toward utter foolishness.

Excessive greed—and covetousness and envy—and self-centeredness-- lead us to forget about our connections—our interdependence with all life— our dependence on the greater Spirit of Life in which we live and move and have our being. When we hoard, and crave more and more and more for ourselves alone, then we forget about our responsibility to other members of our community, and our brothers and sisters with whom we share this world. We forget about God, the great Source of Life, without whom he would not even exist. We live completely for ourselves, and no amount of wealth, then, will ever be enough. We will never be full. We will never be satisfied.

The more self-occupied we are, the less self-satisfied we will be. I’m not talking about a healthy ego here; I’m not talking about a healthy sense of self-esteem. Those things are fundamental to living a healthy life in our world today. I’m talking about our need to have a sense that the circles of any of our individual lives are only made complete in union with the circles of the lives of others.

But listen to this guy in this parable: He talks just to himself; he even congratulates himself on a job well done. “I’ve built all this,” he exults. “How great I art! I’ve really done it again!” Of the 50 words we hear from this guy (in their English translation, at least), a full dozen of them are “I”, “my”, or “mine”: “my crops,”, “my barns”, “my grain”, “my goods”. His greed has led him down the road to isolation, and in isolation there is no life, just him and his greed “Blessed is he who is joined to all the living,” the book of Proverbs tells us. We can assume that the inverse is true as well, and cursed is he (or she) who is cut off from all others, who is isolated from them, who lives for himself (or herself) alone.

There are currently approximately 358 billionaires in the world. Only 358. None of us, I suppose. Each billion dollars of their wealth represents the lifetime production of 20,000 working men and women who labored to produce it.

We do not live for ourselves alone. We do not build our wealth by ourselves. We will never have enough unless we remember that truth; remember those to who we owe a debt; and share what we have with those around us.

Now, after Jesus is done talking about the foolish rich man, he goes on and hints at what a satisfied life might be.

“Consider the lilies, how they grow,” Jesus says just a few verses down in the gospel of Luke, “they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink… Instead, strive for [God’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

We are, each one of us, a simple flower—just a lily of the field. Maybe a day lily, or an Easter lily, or a glorious Cala lily. There’s lots of diversity among lilies, but some scholars think that the lilies Jesus would have been referring to, with which his listeners would have been familiar (and yes, there are scholars who figure such things out) would have been what we call Loden lilies today: a common flower that grew among the grass and weeds in the area where Jesus preached. A simple flower, quite plain; but pretty hardy, too, able to adjust to adverse circumstances, and which grew abundantly wherever it took root.  

Sturdy, but simple, and not especially stunning. Nothing like King Solomon in all his glory, certainly. Not like Solomon, one of the wealthiest rulers of all time; who built the Great Temple of Jerusalem; who had shields and thrones built of gold; who built his palace with golden steps and doorways. He sat surrounded by 12 great lion statues, all solid gold. King Solomon was considered wealthier than all the other kings of his day combined.

But that’s not real abundance, Jesus says. Solomon had a lot in life, but he was never satisfied with his lot in life. He was always off looking for new riches and new conquests. And ultimately, in the course of life, even Solomons come and Solomons go. But the flowers of the field continue to burgeon forth, year after year, season after season. If you want to see what real abundance is, Jesus says, then look at the lilies of the field. The simple lilies who know they are dependent on the Source of Life for their entire lives.  

If you want abundance, Jesus says, if you want to have enough, then live the kingdom of God—practice the reign of love within your hearts. That love is infinite, and that reign lasts forever. Even in good times, even in rich countries, there might be just so much money to go around; just so many fatted calves that you can slaughter; just so much grain you can hoard in the barns you’ve built.  We become “rich toward God” when we stop circling the wagons around ourselves, and caring only for ourselves, and reach out and embrace and share all we have with all creation. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where there is great love, the hungry heart is filled.  

I think Jesus would have agreed with Brad Pitt, or, actually, with Tyler Durden, the character Pitt portrayed, in the movie Fight Club [Though I don’t think he would have liked the movie very much, but maybe I’m wrong. Who am I to speak for Jesus?] At one point, Durden exasperatedly shouts at his friend, played by Edward Norton: “You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not [the clothes you wear.]” {He actually uses a more colorful and explicit figure of speech than “the clothes you wear”, but it’s a figure of speech that even I can’t repeat it here.}

Or as President George Herbert Walker Bush (the elder President Bush; “Daddy Bush” as my mother calls him) said in his inaugural address:

“We are not the sum of our possessions. We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend; a loving parent; a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood, and his town better than he found it.”

That, very simply, is how we transform our reality, and transcend our limitations, and live out the way of the divine in this, our little kingdom of days. This is how we come to some sense of “enough” in these little, limited lives we lead. It is how we experience that profound, sustaining abundance which beats at the heart of this precious life. It is the way we bring about—right now-- if only in the holy moment we have before us, the blessed reign of the Love of God.

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