Text: Luke 12:13-21
Guest preacher: Jim Jarrard
Many years ago the North Carolina Baptists asked me to go on a four-person, several-week, interracial good-will visit to Belize. One of the colleagues with whom I traveled was James Lacewell, the local pastor of the Good News Baptist Church. He assured me at some point on our adventure that he had never heard a sermon from which he couldn’t derive some new insight. I called him on that. “Really, James?” I asked skeptically. “Never?” “No never,” he said. “Of course,” he explained. “Sometimes what I get from a sermon is, ‘Boy I would have never said that in a sermon!’”
So, I invite you to give heed to these prepared remarks, relieved that if you apply Rev. Lacewell’s criteria, you, too, may get something out of it!
Leo Tolstoy wrote a story in 1886, entitled, “How Much Land Does One Need?” A peasant named Pahom has lived all his life without property envying those who had property. He hears that a nobleman has offered to make it possible for peasants to buy parcels of his estate for themselves. The peasant, with the savings he had, bought 20 acres. At first he was euphoric, but gradually, he felt restless. Perhaps, he thought, it was just that he didn’t have enough land. A traveler passing through told him of a place he could buy more land, so he moved his family there. The chieftain who managed the land told the former peasant that he would sell him, for a thousand rubles, all the land he could walk around in the span of one day. He agreed immediately, and the next dawn he began his trek on a dead run. The chieftain placed his big fur hat as a marker from which Pahom would embark, and to which he must return. He buried small posts in holes he dug along the way to mark the boundaries of his land, but he failed to track the sun in the sky. So, he discovered he was more than halfway out, with less than half a day to go. He ran. He pushed himself to his limits. As the sun was setting, he spotted the fur cap hat that had been placed at his starting point on the top of a small hill. Then, as the last rays of day faded into darkness, he stretched out his hand toward the cap, and lay out, and died.
That story has always reminded me of a quip by Abraham Lincoln, who spoke of a neighboring farmer in Kentucky. “He was not a greedy man,” Lincoln said. “He just wanted the land that bordered his!”
And Jesus tells a story of greed, all kinds of greed, and the short-sightedness of the human temptation to own, to possess, to gather and hold, to amass, to hoard, to revel in those holdings. From the crowd with whom Jesus was speaking came a question from one of two brothers, asking, “Jesus, instruct (for he is called ‘teacher’ here) my brother to divide our inheritance with me.” Jesus responds with annoyance. “Am I to be an arbiter for one of your family disputes?” Now this really was one of the things a Rabbi might be called upon to do, but on this, Jesus would have none of it.
Of course, it would not be an even split, but a one-third, two-thirds division, based in the laws of inheritance which anticipates another story Jesus will relate about a prodigal who asks for his inheritance only to take it and waste it and finally return to his father. In that parable, of course, Jesus does not take issue with the father’s considerable holdings, and relates the story to point to God’s grace. But in this case, the root of the question is the greed with which a wealthy landowner chooses to stockpile grain, and speaks to it with an eerie parable.
It is about possessions. A man has a lot of land, and his land produces bountifully. His harvests are so large that he finds that his grain store is beyond what his current storage facilities, or warehouses, or barns, may hold. Such grain is currency – it may be sold, bartered, used to secure other things. This man’s first instinct is to build bigger barns. To house a greater store of wealth. What did these barns look like? Well, when I was growing up and visiting family in rural Georgia, I was impressed at the size and breadth of the barns. Driving along the roadways, you couldn’t miss the fact that people put a lot of love into their barns. Sometimes you’d even see a house that needed fixing, but the barn was tended and in good repair. I especially recall the ones with painted signs advertising chewing tobacco or candy bars, or the most prevalent ones, “See Rock City.” Sometimes, “See Lookout Mountain,” but usually, “See Rock City.” I remember even mailboxes and birdhouses with “See Rock City” painted on them in white on black roofs. The grain, though, wasn’t stored in the barns, so much as it was in the big cylindrical silos which usually stood next to or near the barns.
And this man Jesus singles out for comment today had so much grain, he didn’t have room to store it all. Now we may assume that he hired day laborers to harvest and tend his crop. We may assume he paid them the going rate of a denarius a day. We may assume something like a first-century pickup truck drove into the town square and picked from among the laborers who gathered each day, each one hoping to make that denarius to feed and house and clothe and protect their families. And now they will be hired not only to harvest grain, but to build barns, because that’s all the man could think to do to fix his problem of having too much grain for his current storehouses. He did not contemplate alternatives. His instincts bid him build bigger barns.
A friend of mine spoke of a funeral he attended of a family friend who had died. At the funeral, there were only two songs sung, “Amazing Grace,” and, “I Did It My Way.” I guess that comes from the old “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” school of hedging your bets. And our farmer this morning appears to belong to the “My Way” school of thinking. One cannot ignore The Republican Nominee’s words this week in response to the powerful testimony of Kizhr Khan and his wife, as Kahn stood and painfully said, “You have sacrificed nothing.” The Nominee’s response: “I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures,” he said. He added: “Sure those are sacrifices.”
Now Jesus doesn’t suggest this fellow in the parable was a menace to society. There is no suggestion of graft, or ill-gotten gain. There is no mistreatment of workers. He’s just a hard-working farmer. He is not wasteful or careless, so he makes an economic decision, and decides to tear down the barns he already has and builds great structures, to store the hearty harvest the year has brought. He has done no more than a good investor does each year when his interest income comes in. He’s just “rolling it over.” But Jesus says he’s a fool.
We don’t like to hear that, because if this guy’s a fool, then there are lots of fools running around, and some of us might be some of them. But I believe the point of the parable has to do with the state in which the farmer believes these possessions places him. The farmer believes that these possessions are, in fact, guarantors of his security. They are his “insurance” against the perils of life. So, he figures, the bigger the barns, the greater his security. Like children in the dark, we hold onto our high-tech Teddy Bears, falsely figuring they bring us a greater degree of security. It was in this regard that Jesus called him a fool. “You fool,” came the voice. “This night your soul will be required of you.”
The farmer thinks himself secure, but he is not. The farmer has a conversation with his soul: “Soul, you have ample good laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry” (12:19).
Now “soul” here is that Greek word, PSYCHE, soul, self. Psychology is the study of the self, or as I would remind my psychologist friends, the study of the soul. It is that part of ourselves which is ourselves. It is what, and who, we are. And it is with this “self” that the farmer has his conversation. It is a self-justifying conversation. Look here! I’ve done well! I’ve got lots and lots of stuff. I can take it easy. Eat. Drink. Relax. I was right to build those bigger barns and to store all that grain.
But it is at this point that God intervenes. “You fool!” This farmer is deemed foolish because he cares about the wrong things and is driven by the wrong instincts. His security rests in things he himself has brought to himself, rather than a security which comes from another source. He is all about the harvest.
Rollo May, the existential psychologist, writes in his book Love and Will of the Greek view of the daemonic. He writes:
The daimonic is any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person. Sex and eros, anger and rage, and the craving for power are examples. The daimonic can be either creative or destructive and is normally both. . . .The daimonic is obviously not an entity but refers to a fundamental, archetypal function of human experience.
May says that there is the possibility that those instincts, those drives can take over our psyche, our souls, our selves. This farmer’s tragedy is not that he owns great wealth, but that the great wealth owns him. And God says, “you fool!” because this very night, God says, yourself, your soul, will be demanded of you.
Does this mean he’s about to die and doesn’t know it? Maybe. A lot of interpreters read it like that. But there is another way to hear those words of warning. What if there comes a point in our own living, in the course of our life direction, or our life journey, at which we make a decision to serve this dark, miserly, lonely part of ourselves, this daemon, this archetypal function of human experience when, once chosen, will not let us love, will not let us serve, will not let us feel sympathy or friendship, for fear that there is more grain to harvest, more land to own, more power to grasp. What if the moment doesn’t come when we fall down dead at the end of the fruitless trek to circumscribe all the land we can in a day? What if the moment comes when we decide to take the first step? When we say, “I do not have enough. When I have just a little more, I can stop, but the drive within us will not allow us that peace. There is always more. What if that is that moment when our souls are required of us?
It will rob us of the very joy we think is just beyond our grasp, or is there for the taking with the construction of that next big barn, and we will forget, as did this farmer, what we are doing on this earth. We are not here to own, but to manage. We are not here to dominate, but to be stewards. We are not here to hold things to ourselves, to create and conserve institutions that become museums and monuments to what has been. We are here to have the courage to renew and remake ourselves in the image of God, so that in every generation, justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like mighty streams, to see that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, to seek out those in whose faces we see the face of Jesus. Our security does not come in the gathering to ourselves, but in the giving of ourselves, in love and mercy.
It is said that Thomas Aquinas and Pope Leo II were having a conversation as they surveyed the gold and silver and riches of the church, as Leo II observed, “You know, Thomas, no longer can the church say, ‘silver and gold have I none.’” To which Aquinas responds, “Yes, holy father, and neither can the church say, ‘rise up and walk.’” And so this loss of purpose and strength accompanies the moment at which we commit ourselves to see only ourselves, and to make choices only for ourselves.
It may be we should examine those bedrock matters which cause us to make our decisions, for it may be that “these things have required our souls.” If so, and we are so tempted, Jesus had a word for us.
And, finally, how how much land did Pahom need?
Tolstoy concludes the story:
“His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”