Many of us have more stuff than we’ll ever need. What happens when our possessions begin to define and control us rather than help or enhance us? Jesus knew some hoarders in his day and had some things to say about all those possessions. Whether you have too much stuff or are in need of some basic necessities, all are welcome to worship.
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “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 a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘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 laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Have any of you watched or heard of the TV show “Hoarders?”
This semi-reality tv show features individuals who suffer from the inability to part with their stuff. The network describes the show as:
“…an often painful look inside a disease that can bury its sufferer — literally at times — in its symptoms. Each episode profiles two people on the verge of a personal crisis, all caused by the fact that they are unable to part with even the tiniest possessions, and the cumulative effect becomes a mountain of junk and garbage overtaking their home or apartment. If they don’t respond to professional help, the consequences sometimes involve eviction, kids being taken away, or even jail time” because these people’s homes are no longer suitable or safe for human habitation.
For the people featured on “Hoarders” their stuff has overtaken their lives, their homes, and their well-being. And they aren’t usually greedy or selfish, but something happened in their lives, some pain or trauma, and their possessions, their things brought them comfort in that time, or their stuff connected them to people who are no longer with them. Their relationship to these objects changed as a result. Their possessions began to define and control them rather than helping and enhancing their lives.
I think the reason “Hoarders” became so popular among American viewers is that, while most of us aren’t over-run with mountains of stuff, we resonate deeply with the importance of things, the attachment to things. We get what it’s like to value, sometimes overly value, our possessions and to be reluctant about parting with what we have.
We are a society that is all-too-often defined by our possessions, and so we flock to shows like this, gawking at those who take it to the extreme, sighing with relief that it isn’t us, but perhaps secretly fearing that it could be. St. Augustine once said that, “God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin, in short, is the confusion of these two things.” We’ve come to love our things and to use people for our gain, rather than the other way around.
But our scripture today challenges this notion completely and calls us to a different way altogether. The reading from the gospel of Luke this morning presents two people, other than Jesus, who, to me, seem fairly reasonable:
The first is that “someone in the crowd,” probably a younger brother, who asks Jesus to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him. Perhaps this person has followed Jesus around and heard his egalitarian preaching on equality and upending unfair societal practices, and he thinks, “Here’s a guy who gets it and will side with me on this whole inheritance issue.”
Because, frankly, the Torah has a good amount to say about inheritance, and inheritance was a large part of how younger generations ensured a livelihood in ancient cultures, but these laws almost always favored the first-born son, and usually completely left out daughters altogether. Personally, I’d like to hear what Jesus has to say about those inheritance laws, but instead, Jesus refuses and instead warns against greed.
The second person we encounter is from Jesus’ parable, simply referred to as “the rich man.” This year, his hard work and good investment have paid off, and his land has produced so abundantly that he has no more space for his crops, his barns are full. So he does, what I think, many of us would do, when we find ourselves with more than we actually need.
He decides to save, and because there’s no more space, he decides to build bigger barns where he can store and keep this abundance. It sounds like a nice, reliable, agrarian retirement plan to me.
I’ve never been a farmer, but I do know that just because you have one good year, doesn’t ensure that the next year will be as fruitful. And with that kind of uncertainty, I understand this rich man’s desire to keep what he’s got. I would imagine most of us get where he’s coming from.
We don’t build bigger barns like in Jesus’ parable, but if we can, we put away some of our money into savings or bonds. We hold onto things longer than we usually need to. We like to keep what we’ve worked for and when we’re able to, we save for a rainy day or in case of an emergency or for a vacation we’ve longed for. We like to save when we can, because there are times when we just can’t. These things make sense to me.
These two people from the gospel story, don’t seem like sinister, greedy men who exemplify the sin of avarice. They’re certainly not Gordon Gekko from Wall Street.
In fact, we could easily argue that one only seeks a more equitable share of his inheritance and the other is actually a rather wise and responsible businessman. And yet, with the stories of these two men as a backdrop, Jesus warns his disciples, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
The word used for “greed” here is pleonexia, and it is built on the Greek root, meaning “too much.” It’s different from the Greek word harpage which means “greediness in terms of robbery, and plunder.” (Luke 11:39). That kind of greed involves taking away what belongs to others; here it is a desire for more, to accumulate and amass; to want “too much,” too much for one’s own good, for the good of others, for the good of human community, and perhaps even too much for the good of the earth’s ecosystem. It’s a desire to store up for oneself more than we need.
All of us tend toward this kind of greed, at least a little. We enjoy comfort and pleasure, and quite frankly, we enjoy things and the security that we think money and stuff have to offer.
Again, the two men in these stories seem like fairly reasonable people. People we might know, and could even be friends with. But God does not call us to be “fairly reasonable,”
God calls us to be radical disciples who, just three chapters earlier in Luke are told by Jesus, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Take up your cross, and follow Christ daily in sacrificial giving and love.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean we live recklessly and don’t save for the future. This doesn’t even necessarily mean we have to sell everything we’ve got and distribute that money to the poor (although Jesus does recommend that later in Luke for a rich ruler who walks away sad, knowing he cannot do this (Luke 18:18-24)).
Being a radical disciple of Christ is not a call to be irresponsible or even to live in poverty. Jesus never glorifies poverty, but recognizes it as a condition that reflects our society’s sinfulness.
Being a radical disciple of Christ is a call to live not only for yourself, but to live for God and to live for others.
You see, the rich man’s soliloquy from Jesus’ parable is fraught with first-person pronouns: I will do this for my crops and my barns- it’s me, myself and I. His is a Greed that is the opposite of Generosity and the opposite of Gratitude.
Radical discipleship pulls us out of being the center of our own universe, and places us in relationship with God and with others. It raises our awareness of the web of interconnectedness that doesn’t devalue who we are as individuals, but sets us as one integral part of the whole.
As the African Proverb goes, “I Am Because We Are.”
So, it’s not about my crops, my barns, my bank account, my vacation home, my accumulation of wealth. In fact, it’s not just about me at all, and it’s certainly not about my possessions. It’s about God, and it’s about the people whom God created & loves.
When our own needs or desires overrides the well-being of others, we fall short of what God intends for this world. We are all a part of one human family. But we let so much divide us: religion, race, political leanings, and even what we have and don’t have.
Jesus reminds us that, “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” but that our treasure, our hope, our security, our future, should be stored in God. We are called to a different way, the way of gratitude and generosity. Gratitude has us give back to God and generosity has us give to neighbors.
It’s not that the rich man’s abundance is sinful, it’s that he has forgotten both the God who created the earth and its bounty and the neighbor without access to that bounty.
In fact, God is all about abundance- abundant life; abundant love, abundant grace and mercy. God is even about abundant feasts and celebrations, but feasts and celebrations where all are invited and fed. Abundance, not for the one, but for the whole.
Laws in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy put this practice into code. Deuteronomy says this, “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.”
Our abundance has never been for ourselves alone, but for the care of the whole community, the well-being of all. But especially for those on the very margins of society, who in those days were the aliens (or immigrants), the orphans, and the widows, which is why you hear that over and over again.
Ruth and Naomi, heroines of the Bible, lived off of gleaning from another person’s land after becoming widows. If Boaz had harvested everything, then built bigger barns for himself to store the extra crops he had, they would not have survived. Abundance is for the sharing with all humanity and with all God’s people.
Followers of Christ live in gratitude to God and in care for others, recognizing that our own well-being is tied up with the well-being of others.
That is one of the reasons why this church has a banner that says “Black Lives Matter.” Not because we believe everyone else’s lives don’t matter, but because in order for all lives to actually matter, black lives must matter, too.
“Black Lives Matter” is not the opposite of “Blue Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter.” These are false dichotomies used to divide and control. We lift up that “Black Lives Matter” because then and only then will blue lives and all lives truly matter.
The Bible specifically lifts up that “orphans lives matter;” “widows lives matter;” and “alien, that is immigrant, lives matter.” Not because those with land or priests didn’t matter, but because these lives, the alien, the orphan, and the widow, were the most at risk, the most vulnerable and marginal.
We belong to each other. Paul Wellstone was a senator from Minnesota who was known to say, “We all do better when we all do better.”
The problem is, this is not the message we receive day in and day out.
We are told about the survival of the fittest or the strongest, and if you can’t be either of those, then the wealthiest or the most privileged.
We are told, by television, radio, magazines and websites, how much happier we’ll be if we just buy more things, have better things, or surround ourselves with just the right thing.
We are told about competition and scarcity, and how there’s not enough to go around, so you better make sure, you get enough for yourself.
Our society encourages us to build bigger barns; to keep all we have for our own pleasure and enjoyment; to look out for number one.
But radical Christian discipleship calls us to another way of life, to a life that shuns all kinds of greed and embraces gratitude and generosity, a life that is “rich towards God.” People of God, we are called to be disciples of Christ, living with gratitude to God and with generosity towards all.
There’s a quote by an unknown author that says this: “When you have more than you need, build a longer table not a higher fence.” As Christians, we are in the business of building longer tables. Our communion table here at Calvary is but a representation of the Lord’s Table. The Lord’s Table is long enough, wide enough, and big enough to fit everyone. God welcome us all.
So how long is our table? How much longer could it be? How many are invited to feast with us? In these next moments, as we sit silently in the presence of God and one another, let us consider:
May the Spirit of God illumine and guide us in our silent reflection.