Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
August 15, 2010
THE RICH FOOL AND OUR FOOLISHNESS
Text: Luke 12:13-34
Jesus is trying to help us here today, us caught in the American Dream which has morphed into a Consumer Monster. For you who grew up on Sesame Street, picture the Cookie Monster grown gargantuan: the Muppet That Ate America.
Jesus is a wisdom teacher here, offering deep spiritual wisdom. Even the word “Fool,” which is what the man in the parable is called, literally means, “Not Wise” or “Without Wisdom.” Jesus sometimes contrasted the wise and the foolish: One guy built his house on sand, another on rock. Houses on sand fall when the big storms come. Houses on rock endure the storms.
In his novel Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry contrasts two farmers, Athey and Troy:
He [Athey] and Troy were different, almost opposite kinds of men. Athey said, “Wherever I look, I want to see more than I need.” Troy said, in effect, “Whatever I see, I want.” What he asked of the land was all it had.1
Today Jesus invites us onto the path of wisdom.
Our passage begins with a man coming to Jesus asking him to be an arbitrator in a family dispute: “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” (Parents, does this sound like sibling arguments in your home? “Mom, tell Tommy to share with me.”) Jesus replied in effect: “I did not come to preside over your greed.” Then added the wisdom teaching:
All kinds of greed, Jesus said. There’s the hard-core greed we’ve seen ruthlessly at work in the financial industry this past decade: “financial instruments,” we call them, designed to make a quick million and pass the risk to unsuspecting others. There’s the soft-core greed of American affluence. It says, “You are what you own,” or what you’re paying for! Its sour fruit is what we could call “affluenza,” a moral lassitude which dulls the soul to its deepest needs and to the needs of others. I’ve defined greed as “The love of possessing which orders the soul around possessions and closes its eye to the neighbor.”2 (Is it the sin of vanity to footnote oneself in a sermon?)
We all struggle here. It’s part and parcel of the culture in which we live: it’s the air we breathe. There’s been a man picketing us the last couple of months carrying his signs, shouting his warning of God’s judgment on us, saying your preacher is a false prophet. I’ve been called worse. At least I’m trying to prophesy, true or false. Probably true and false. Such the risk of preaching. He told some people passing by: “Your pastor drives a BMW and wears $500 suits!” I’m just glad he doesn’t know where I shop. I could reply, “Yes, but it’s a five-year-old 3 Series, and my suits were on sale!” But that would be like a glutton saying, “I only eat reduced-fat ice-cream.”
So Jesus told a parable to warn of the perils involved.
A certain man had land that produced bumper crops. He began to say to himself: What shall I do, for I have no place to store my crops? Then he said, Oh, this is what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones! Then I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to myself, “Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, take it easy, eat, drink, be merry.”
But God said to him: Fool, Un-Wise One, this very night, your soul is required of you. And all these things you’ve piled up: Whose will they be?
Let’s reflect on this man’s condition. He’s received a huge windfall of good fortune. How does he respond? Not by thanking God or thinking of neighbor. He tears down his barns and builds bigger ones. Sounds like Charlotte. He does not believe his good fortune has anything to do with God or anyone outside himself. So he acts in sole reference to himself. He is stuck in the first person singular! Thirteen of the sixty words of his speech refer to himself: I, I, my, I, I, my, I, my, my, I, myself, Self, you (meaning I).
A second thought to ponder. This man cannot distinguish, to us Jungian terms, between the ego and the self. In the text the word “self” is psyche, translated sometimes “soul.” This man cannot tell the difference between ego and self or soul. The ego is the self we’ve constructed through the years which consciously holds everything together. It is our version of ourselves. Without an ego we’d be in big psychological trouble, a disintegrated self. But there’s a deeper, truer self, created by God. This is our spiritual quest: to find this self. In our work toward wholeness the ego is one voice we bring to the table for conversation, but it is not the sole voice. This man thinks his ego is his self, is his soul, and his ego is constructed around acquisitiveness. But the soul, the self is more than the ego, and as Jesus said, “One’s life consists of more than the abundance of one’s possessions.”
In my Rule of Life class we begin with the question: What nourishes your spirit, feeds your soul? We begin to put everyone’s answers on the board: Hiking, walking in the woods, music, the seashore, the mountains, children, grandchildren, friends, laughter, creating art, good conversation . . . on and on. And when we get through and look at the board, we suddenly recognize how many of these things are free, cost nothing, cannot be bought.
A question: Can we be a community that supports each other in our desire for simpler lives and help us stand against the tide of compulsive consumerism?
Luke then joins the parable with some wisdom teachings of Jesus on how we relate to material things:
Do not worry, be anxious, about your life, what you will eat or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. [How many commercials are about what you eat and drink and what you wear?!]
Consider the birds of the air (Jesus said). They neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.... And can any of you by worry, add a single hour to your span of life? [“Or a cubit to your height,” as one manuscript reads. But you’d think by how much we worry, worry can change everything!] Consider the flowers of the field, how they grow. They neither toil or spin, yet Solomon in all his riches was not arrayed like one of these!
Years ago a Japanese theological student, Eiko Kanamaru, gave me a gift of Japanese calligraphy, a beautiful piece of calligraphy art which said in simple and beautiful Japanese pictographs (I’ve reproduced it on the cover):
The sky’s birds.
The field’s flowers.
Birds of the air, flowers of the field. It stays near me in my study. It brings to me the serenity and trust of Jesus’ teaching. Be not anxious; look at the birds; consider the lilies. Abba will care for you. Remember the acronym from a couple weeks ago? BAM, Be Abba Minded!
Reinhold Niebuhr said that the root of the sin of pride is anxiety. It may also be the root of much of our greed, our worry that we will not have enough.
Perhaps this is why Jesus went on to say:
Not give you everything, but enough, and most of all to give you the kingdom and all the really important things of life it brings.
So Jesus says, “Sell your possessions, and give to the poor.” At least he doesn’t say here as he did to the rich young ruler: “Sell all your possessions.” But simply and clearly this: Sell some of what you have and give to the poor. Divest in order to be generous. Buy less to give more. This is the opposite path of the man in the parable. Jesus is serious here. It is the path of wisdom, the path of the kingdom.
Then he says, make purses that don’t wear out. Not our normal purses and billfolds bulging with the treasures of the world. Ever worn out a purse for all it’s tried to carry? Has your billfold ever worn a hole in your back pants pocket? That’s where my suits wear out first. Instead make purses that will not wear out filled with kingdom-of-God treasure, treasure that thieves cannot break in and steal or moth destroy, or the Dow Jones shrink.
Mariah Currin told us this week of the commercial going around picturing boys and girls going to school with backpacks almost as big as they are. They can’t get into the school bus, their backpacks are so large, or they fall over backwards! Of course the commercials are selling something! Jesus invites us to travel lighter.
Annie Dillard writes of the 1845 Franklin expedition which crossed the Atlantic and set off across the Canadian arctic to try to reach the Pacific. On their ships they carried all kinds of British finery: silver services, a 1,200-volume library, cut-glass crystal, engraved silver flatware, silk scarves.3
They did not make it across the arctic expanse. Later when their frozen bodies were found there was found what they carried with them across the arctic: engraved silver flatware, a backgammon game, silk scarves. Oh, the things we carry.
Jesus ends with the words: Look at where your treasure is; there you will find your heart.
I’ve told the story. Let me tell it again. Fred Craddock tells of missionary friends in China who were told by the communist authorities that they had to leave the next day and could pack only so many pounds to take with them. They spent the night carefully weighing, choosing what was most important. Then the next day arrived at the exit gate. The state official said, “Have you weighed everything?”
“Yes, we’ve weighed everything.”
“Have you weighed the children?”
“Yes, the children.”
Suddenly everything changed.
So Jesus calls us to change today. Change something. Recognize your real need, your real treasure. This is the beginning of wisdom.
Sometimes the most saving thing that you and God can do together is to make a “before” and an “after” in your life story. Is this what you need today? Jesus will help.
1 Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint Press, 2000), p. 181.
2 H. Stephen Shoemaker, The Jekyll and Hyde Syndrome (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), p. 76.
3 Annie Dillard, The Annie Dillard Reader (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), pp. 26-7.