"What Do You Want and Why Do You Want It?"
Scripture - Luke 12:13-21
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, August 4, 2013

You may have seen the commercial where the man is living his dream retirement because he has invested well. He's building a pristine, hand-crafted boat made of the finest wood. His dream includes taking his family out on the water on a gorgeous day where they will be treated to the thrill of a whale breaching. The man's attention to detail as he is constructing his boat serves as a metaphor for the wise and careful work he has done with his financial advisor to plan for robust golden years. The ad beckons us to fulfill our retirement dreams by investing with their company.

I suspect most of us dream of an enjoyable retirement where we finally have time to do some of the things we've put off for years. Many of us view retirement as a reward for decades of hard work and we relish the thought of a saner pace once we put the constant demands behind us.

Many of us are also stalked by a nagging voice that questions, "Have I saved enough?" People are living longer than ever. What if I outlive my resources?

Making adequate preparation for retirement is a wise and prudent thing to do. Failing to formulate a plan and to put aside some money for the future is foolish and reckless. So why is the farmer in today's passage christened by God: "You fool?"

Our passage opens with a man making a request of Jesus. He says, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."

I suspect there has never been a time in history when there were not arguments over inheritances. "I've divided up everything fairly. There's my column and your column. In my column, there are mom's pearl earrings and diamond necklace - she always wanted me to have those. And in your column are dad's bowling trophies. What? That's fair isn't it?"

In the time of Jesus, Jewish law prescribed that the older brother was to receive a double portion of the inheritance.1 It was also up to the first-born male to decide when to split it.

Perhaps the older brother was dragging his feet. Or, perhaps the younger brother was angling for a larger share. Our passage does not say. However, to settle inheritance disputes, people did not go to civil courts. They went to a rabbi and asked him to serve as an arbitrator.

In our passage, the younger brother brings a dispute to Jesus for him to rectify. However, Jesus rejects the man's request. Why? Doesn't Jesus want the man to be treated fairly and to receive what's coming to him? Of course he does. But Jesus senses that the driving force behind the man's request is not fairness. The real issue is greed.

Jesus says, "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then, as we have seen Jesus do on a number of occasions, he illustrates his point by telling a parable. A man's land produced an unbelievably large harvest. It produced much more than he could possibly store in his barns. So to handle his dilemma, the man decides to tear down his barns and build larger ones. Then, once his super size-barns are built and his grain is stored, he'll kick back and live a life of pleasure. However, before he can instigate his plan, God says, "You fool! Your clock just ran out. And what about all your treasures, who gets them now?" Then Jesus concludes, "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich towards God."

Before anyone begins to imagine that God demands a possession-free existence, it's important to remember that Christianity is not an "escape from this world" kind of religion. God does not demand an existence that is devoid of possessions or physical pleasure. Some spiritual ascetics believe they can live a richer, more God-centered life if they take a vow of poverty, but Jesus does not denounce possessions, pleasure or wealth.

Let's be honest. Money can enhance the quality of our lives. Money can help us enjoy life. It can help us see and experience amazing things. Money can also tempt us into believing that it can rid us of our problems and satisfy the deepest longings of our soul.

That's the problem with the man in the parable and the younger brother who wants Jesus to help him with his inheritance dilemma. Both men think that wealth is the key to an abundant life. Jesus knows that is the great deception that corrodes so many lives. He does not believe money is inherently evil, but he knows it is dangerous. It can distort our perspective on everything. Jesus does not warn the man to avoid money, he warns about the destructive power of greed.

Greed prompts us to put too much stock in wealth. It lures us into believing that all will be well if we can just get our hands on more of it. Yet no amount of material wealth can give us the security we crave. Life is filled with uncertainties. A car can come across the center median and hit us head on. A genetic illness could be ticking like a time bomb inside of us. The one place we can truly find security is in God. Only when we develop a deep trust in God's grace can we say along with Julian of Norwich, "All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well."

We have hungers that wealth cannot satisfy. Having just received four days ago the gift of another grandchild, this could not be more evident to Camilla and me. Money cannot satisfy the deep desire for loving bonds with others. The Beatles put this to music and made millions: "Money can't buy me love."

In fact, the brothers in our passage remind us of the ways money can become divisive and split families. Augustine said that God gave us people to love and things to use. Sin is when we confuse the two and we love things and use people.

Jesus warns us to be on guard against greed because it bends our focus inward. I'm not sure if self-centered people tend to be greedy or greed tends to make people more self-centered, but greed distorts our perspective so that we imagine ourselves as the only one who matters.

Today's parable proves that narcissism is not simply a modern phenomenon. In all eras, people have been prone to thinking "It's all about me." Egocentrism is normal in the personality development of infants and young children, but when someone fails to grow beyond the infantile level, he/she becomes the dinner guest we wish we had not invited.

Listen to the way the personal pronouns proliferate the farmer's conversation with 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."

Greed distorts our perspective. The rich farmer believed that his abundance was entirely the result of his own efforts. It never crossed his mind to express thanks to God for the soil and the weather patterns that produced the extraordinary crop. It never crossed his mind to thank the laborers who helped plant and harvest the record breaking result.

New Testament scholar, Ken Bailey, who lived most of his life in the Middle East, points out that in that part of the world, people generally make decisions after talking it over with friends and family. "Communities are tightly knit. Everybody's business is everybody else's business. Even trivial decisions are made after hours of discussion with family and friends."2 But the rich farmer does not talk it over with anyone else. He talks only to himself. Why? Could it be because he already knows what others will say - "You have a marvelous opportunity to share" - and he does not want to hear it?

The tragedy for the farmer was that he did not know the special joy that comes from being generous. He thought the pleasure he gained from eating and drinking was as good as it gets. How sad. He had no idea how terrific it feels to feed someone who doesn't know where their next meal is coming from. He was clueless to the deep satisfaction of easing the burden of a family that is struggling. There was only one thing that was going to make this man generous. Do you know what it is? Death. After he died, he left it all to someone else.

God does not call on us to give away all of our possessions. That would make us dependent on others. The problem with the farmer was that his life was way out of balance. He needed to find a better equation that included both planning for his future and helping people who had real and current needs.

A colleague remembers his first mission trip. He was in his final year of seminary when he seized the opportunity to go to a part of the United States that more closely resembled a third-world country. On one of the first days, "two Mexican religious sisters took him in their Volkswagen beetle down a bumpy dirt road that led to a huge field where tomatoes and peppers were being grown. Off to the side there was a long row of housing units that looked more like sheds than homes. Inside the makeshift lodging were dirt floors and a few pieces of old furniture. His first contact with a family of migrant workers was unforgettable. He and the two sisters walked into the humble home of a family with four young children. They were greeted warmly and invited to sit down. The children had just opened the one and only glass bottle of soda in the house. They looked at the guests then looked up at their mother who smiled at them and nodded. One of the children handed the bottle to her - no questions asked. She poured in into three glasses - for the two sisters and the seminarian. [He said] €˜It was amazing to see how those obviously thirsty children did not hesitate to give even the little they had to their unknown guests. That image has stayed with him for decades because it was such an extraordinary act of generosity."3

Some of us from Westminster who have gone to Guatemala have experienced similar hospitality. We visited communities where everyone was poor. Yet, when we arrived, they gathered their finest and spent hours preparing, to provide us with an elaborate meal. When someone shares the little they have so generously, you can't help but reflect on your own values and your attitude toward wealth.

Today's passage beckons us to think carefully about what we want and why we want it. A rich life is not created by an abundance of possessions. A rich life is a generous life.


  1. R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume IX: Luke, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p.255.
  2. Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press: 2008), p.303.
  3. Albert Cutie, "Generosity as a Way of Life," Day1.org, August 04, 2013

Great Prayer
By the Reverend Thomas R. Stout

God of heaven and earth, in your wisdom you made the whole creation and called it good. We are mindful in this season of the year of the food we take each day from the Earth: for fields of corn and waves of grain;

For the harvest of fruits and vegetables;
For farmers, gardeners, and all who provide food for us who hunger;

Gracious God, hear our prayers.

For your Church that we may overcome divisions, and learn to live in the unity given to us in the Christ: Gracious God, hear our prayer.

For those who are ill, and for all who care for them;
For those who fight despair, or struggle with addiction, or live without love:
Gracious God, hear our prayer.

All we have and all we are come from you, O God, so hear our thanks and praise on this day. But especially hear the thanks we offer with this bread and cup. Through these we remember and celebrate the offering of the Christ himself for a broken and troubled creation.

Send your Spirit upon us, and upon these gifts, that all might be filled with the presence of the Christ, given and shared with all.

And so we pray together now the prayer of disciples: Our Father... Amen.