The Rev. Melanie McCarley
When Roy DeLamotte was chaplain at Paine College in Georgia, he preached the shortest sermon in the college’s history. However, he had a rather long topic: “What does Christ Answer When We Ask, “Lord, What’s in Religion for Me?” The complete content of his sermon was one word: “Nothing.” He later explained that the one word sermon was meant for people brought up in what he referred to as the ‘gimme-gimme’ gospel. When asked how long it took him to prepare the message, he said, “Twenty years.”
This is a rather round-about way of coming to the Gospel lesson for this morning. In the twelfth chapter of Luke, immediately prior to today’s lesson, Jesus exhorts those who have gathered of the importance of making a fearless confession on behalf of God saying: “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourself or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” This is pretty heady stuff. These are serious words hinting at the cost of becoming a disciple of Christ. We can almost picture the crowd bowing their heads, seeking courage and confidence to live up to the expectations of the Messiah and trust in the Holy Spirit to give them the right words to speak in the time of decision.
Now, picture this; as Jesus is speaking, someone in the crowd calls out to him, urging our Savior to solve a practical matter involving a family argument. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!” What? Where did this come from? This is a scud missile of a question coming out of nowhere, with no relevance to anything that Jesus has been saying? How irritating is that?
What’s more, this isn’t even a question, is it? This is a demand. Jesus responds with something of a curt reply: “Friend, who set me to be an arbitrator over you.” And then our Savior uses the occasion to offer a brief parable. But, if you think about it, this parable is rather unusual. Most of Jesus’ parables illustrate some aspect of the kingdom. They are about grace or salvation. This parable, however, doesn’t seem to relate much to the kingdom of God at all. In fact, the character featured in the parable doesn’t appear to have any obvious connection to anything spiritual whatsoever. This man, he’s secular in every sense. Um…..kind of like the man who had the audacity to interrupt Jesus to ask him to solve a problem about an inheritance.
So, let’s take a closer look. The man in the parable is all about himself. Notice the language: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? Then he said 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 all laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
Do you hear? This man, he’s totally self-consumed. He is completely out there on his own. He’s doing his own thing, with no reference to anything or anyone else. He is, Jesus says rather pointedly, “a fool.”
Now, the people listening to Jesus would have been familiar with the Old Testament. They would have known precisely what Jesus meant by calling this man “a fool”. Fools, they are the ones who spit into the wind. These are the kind of people who saw off the branch they’re sitting on. Fools are fundamentally un-teachable. What’s more, fools also refuse to listen when others point things out for them. As the old adage says: Fools are often in error, but never in doubt.”
But now, I would like to ask you to look a bit closer. It’s easy enough to assume that what the fool in this parable (and perhaps also the individual who interrupted Jesus to solve a family dispute about an inheritance) that what they worshipped was money. And really, who would blame us if we did? But I’m not so certain this is the case. I think this man made an idol out of himself. You see, everything was all about him. He was a complete and utter narcissist. And in so doing, he lost himself.
Because the problem here isn’t money—with a bit of forethought and planning, that money could have been used for a whole world of good. Wealth isn’t so much the issue here as is the sin of self-centeredness. The rich fool—he had no imagination—he couldn’t see beyond himself, his money and his barns. He had no interest in making the world a better place for anyone save himself.
Think about it. There wouldn’t be a problem if this man, who had come across a windfall had run into the village to celebrate, announcing his plan to share his good fortune with the community, let alone get their help with deciding how to deal with this most excellent problem. Instead, he contemplates bigger barns. And that very night, he dies.
This, Jesus tells us, is what awaits those who are not rich toward God. So, what does it mean to be rich toward the Almighty? Scan the teachings of Jesus and we see that being rich toward God entails the cultivation of things such as compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and above all else, love. Our true wealth lies in what we value. This is what we can take with us when we die. The great American Evangelist, D.L. Moody once said: “God sends no one away empty except those who are full of themselves.” The rich fool in today’s parable—was full of himself. And, we gather, with Jesus’ response to the person inquiring about their inheritance, that Jesus might have thought the same of him as well.
In the end, we don’t know if the person with the problem of the inheritance was justified in their claim or not. Likewise, when we listen to the parable of the Rich Fool, we hear nothing in it that suggests that the rich fool was an evil man who cheated and stole to earn his wealth. The issue here isn’t about ill-gotten gains; it’s about living a lie. It’s about saying we believe in God, but living as if we don’t. It’s about practical atheism.
God has placed into our hands all that we are and all that we have. The question is: What are we going to do with it? With our life? And with our stuff? The real treasures God wants us to have are those of our values and our faith. Now, the truth is these are not things you can take to the bank, but you can carry them with you to Heaven. And that, I suggest to you, is worth more than all the stuff we can fit in our barn. In Jesus’ name. Amen.