Text: Luke 12:13-21
As always, we began our lectionary group this week by reading the text that I had chosen to preach on this Sunday. It’s not unusual, after reading the scripture passage, for Suzanne Newton to say “There’s a song for that.” And this week was no different. Out of curiosity, someone in the group said, “What song?” And this is what we heard.
How many times have I heard someone say, “If I had the money, I’d do things my way.” But money won’t buy back your youth when you’re old or friends when you’re lonely or a love that’s grown cold.
In a nutshell, that song is what Luke 12 is saying: There Are Things Money Can’t Buy. Now we could stop there, have communion and go home. But since I will be away from you for the next three Sundays, I have a bit more to say about Luke 12. And if you are thinking that this sermon is about money, listen closely.
Jesus says, “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 this parable.
Somebody in the crowd said to him, “Preacher, speak to my brother about dividing the inheritance with me.” Jesus said to him, “Say, fellow, who appointed me as a judge or arbitrator between you two?” Then he said to them, “You all be careful and stay on your guard against all kinds of greediness. For a person’s life is not for the piling up of possessions.
He then gave them a Comparison: “A certain rich fellow’s farm produced well. And he held a meeting with himself and he said, ‘What shall I do? I don’t have room enough to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my old barns and build some bigger ones in which I’ll store all my wheat and produce. And I will say to myself, ‘Self, you’ve got enough stuff stashed away to do you a long time. Recline, dine, wine, and shine!’ But God said to him, ‘You nitwit, at this very moment your goods are putting the screws on your soul. All these things you’ve grubbed for, to whom shall they really belong?’ That’s the way it is with one who piles up stuff for themselves without giving God a thought.” (The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts, Clarence Jordan)
It is easy to read this parable and think that it is about money. But it’s not. Jesus doesn’t warn against money, wealth or material abundance. He warns against greed, about the insatiable feeling of never having enough. The farmer’s problem isn’t that he’s had a great harvest, or that he’s rich, or that he wants to plan for the future. The farmer’s problem is that his good fortune has distorted his vision so that everything he sees starts and ends with himself. He says to himself: “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.’” Or as Clarence Jordan says: recline, dine, wine and shine!
As crazy as it sounds, this man is actually having a conversation with himself inside the conversation he is already having with himself. He includes no one else in his thinking about what he should do—no spouse, no friend or neighbor, no clearness committee. This is why he is called a fool. He has bought into the notion that life, and particularly the good life, consists of individual possessions and individual accomplishments and having things for oneself. But Jesus reminds us in this text and all across the gospels that the good life is not about possessions or self—what I have, what I can do, who I am—but it’s about relationships: relationship with each other and with God and the larger world. In this story and the other parables of Jesus, he invites us to think more broadly about whom we imagine being our neighbor, and he preaches sermons about caring for the poor, loving our enemies and doing good for those in need. At the heart of the gospel message and Jesus teachings, is an invitation for us to step outside of ourselves and consider who we are in relationship with. The gospel of Jesus, contrary to what the church has taught us, is not an individual, personal salvation gospel. Rather, it is a collective, communal gospel that speaks to and for the good of the whole. It is a gospel of grace not greed; a gospel of abundance not scarcity; a gospel of letting go not holding on.
I’ve been reading a book that has been transformative in my thinking about money and our relationship to the things we possess. The title of the book is, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. The basic question the book poses is about the role and reach of markets in our society. The author asks questions like, “Do we want a market economy, or a market society? What role should markets play in public life and personal relations? How can we decide which goods should be bought and sold, and which should be governed by nonmarket values? Where should money’s writ not run?”
To illustrate just how important these questions are for our society, Michael Sandel offers a few examples of what is up for sale in our society today.
- A prison cell upgrade: $82.00 per night. In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for better accommodations—a clean, quiet jail cell, away from the cells for nonpaying prisoners.
- The right to immigrate to the United States: $500,000. Foreigners who invest $500,000 and create at least ten jobs in an area of high unemployment are eligible for a green card that entitles them to permanent residency.
- The cell phone number of your doctor: $1,500 and up per year. A growing number of “concierge” doctors offer cell phone access and same-day appointments for patients willing to pay annual fees ranging from $1,500 to $25,000.
- The right to emit a metric ton of carbon into the atmosphere: 13 pounds (about $18). The European Union runs a carbon emissions market that enables companies to buy and sell the right to pollute.
He also notes that not everyone can afford to buy these things. But today there are lots of new ways to make money. If you need to earn some extra cash, here are some novel possibilities:
- Stand in line overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing: $15-$20 per hour. The lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to queue up.
- If you are a second grader in an underachieving Dallas school, read a book: $2. To encourage reading, the schools pay kids for each book they read.
- Buy the life insurance policy of an ailing or elderly person, pay the annual premiums while the person is alive, and then collect the death benefit when he or she dies; potentially, millions (depending on the policy). This form of betting on the lives of strangers has become a $30 billion industry. The sooner the stranger dies, the more the investor makes.
Some say the moral failing at the heart of market triumphalism was greed…(Jesus says be on your guard against all kinds of greed) This is, at best, a partial diagnosis. While it is certainly true that greed played a role in the financial crisis, something bigger is at stake. The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed: we need to rethink the role that markets should play in our society…We need to ask whether there are some things money should not buy.
So as I have thought about the parable of the farmer from Luke 12 and this question about the moral limits of markets, something became clear to me. It is this: Questions about market reasoning are purely money questions. The only interest is how much value do I place on something? But questions about moral reasoning, or questions about creating a market society rather than a market economy are relationship questions. When we talk about morals, we are talking about how we live in relationship with one another and how we treat one another.
It seems to me that the farmer in Jesus’ parable was using market reasoning—what can I do and have for myself. His reasoning was: tear down my perfectly good barns so that I can build larger ones so that I can have more for myself. And Jesus comes along and says: “At this very moment your goods are putting the screws on your soul.” How often do our goods put the screws in our souls? We, too, fall into the trap of thinking that the good life is about the things we possess. And our souls are suffering.
When I return from my trip in three weeks we will begin our budget conversations. I want us as a community to be able to talk about money in those conversations. It is an important conversation and frankly one that we’ve never been really good at having. We need to change that part of our narrative. But more importantly, I want us to understand what Jesus is saying to the farmer in Luke. Our problem isn’t our money but our inclination to look to money, rather than to God and each other, for life. If that statement is true, and I believe that it is, then our opportunity is to see beyond money as something I have or we have and to see it as something that can grow us into new and deeper relationships. The gospel calls us to be rich toward God and one another. If we can live rich toward God and one another I can’t promise our money problems will magically disappear. But this I believe, we will live with satisfied minds and peaceful souls.