Sunday 18 • 31 Jul 2016

Hosea 11:1-11
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Rev. Chris Udy

The parable Jesus tells
in our reading from the Gospel for today
is not a comfortable story -
it’s one of that group of passages in Luke's Gospel
where the commitment to live as Jesus lived -
and living in Australia’s most affluent city -
comes into conflict.
There's not one of us
that this story doesn't apply to,
and most of us
are probably much richer
than the rich man in the parable
could ever have imagined.

But this story is not meant to condemn us.
The person who told the story is Jesus -
and the reason he tells stories
is not to trap people, but to set them free.
So we need to look at what the parable says,
and find the freedom in it.

There are really two stories in the passage.
The first is about two brothers
who have a dispute over their inheritance.
You can imagine the background.
The brothers had probably been
in competition all their lives,
over everything from their share of the food
to the best way to run the farm.
The competition had been fierce and serious -
the older brother frightened
that his younger brother
would steal his position in the family
and his father's affection,
the younger feeling
that he was growing in his brother's shadow,
and that whenever good things were given out,
he got less than he deserved.

When their father died,
the older brother received more from the will
than the younger brother thought was fair -
but by now the issue wasn't the land,
or the money, or the belongings.
Those things are just symbols -
and both brothers had interpreted
their share in the inheritance
as a sign of their father's respect and love.

By now it was too late
to change things much at all.
Dad was gone,
and all that was left to fight for
were the symbols -
so the younger brother set off
to find someone in authority -
someone a bit like his Father -
to put things right -
to tell him he was OK.

A rabbi - a teacher
- a man with authority -
came into town,
and the man sought him out -
"Teacher" - he said - "tell my brother
to divide the inheritance with me!".
But Jesus refused.
He said
"Who made me a judge between you two?"
and he told a parable
about the foolishness of greed.

The second story is that parable.

There was a man
whose land produced a good harvest.
The work he did was successful
and the return he had from his work
was more than he needed to live.
His good harvest had given him a choice.
Since he had received more than he needed,
he could either share his good fortune,
and give some of his excess to someone else,
or he could keep the extra return he had received,
and store it up for himself,
just in case tomorrow's harvest
wasn't as good as today's.

Wealth is choice -
that’s what it means to be wealthy -
but the rich man never considered his choice -
he never recognised his freedom.
All he saw was his problem:
having more than he could use -
and his automatic reaction
was to keep what he had for himself,
to make certain
that his future would be comfortable and secure.

For a long time, when I read that parable,
I had the impression
that the man then set to work
to build his barns –
investing a lot of his good fortune
and taking on a long and messy building project
to protect his excess -
and I always saw a kind of irony in that:
the rich man invested all that effort for nothing.
But that's not what the parable says.

The man didn't even begin his building project.
All he had done was make his decision -
and as he sat back
feeling pleased with himself,
God said "You fool!
This very night
your life will be demanded from you.
Who then will get
what you have prepared for yourself?"

The parable Jesus tells
is not only about affluence
or about working on futile projects -
it’s about choices.
The focus is not on what the man owns,
but on that point of decision
where the man had power
to choose what would happen
with the extra resources he had been given.

The tragedy of the parable
is that the rich man never saw his choice.
He never even considered the possibility
of doing something other
than protecting and preserving what he had
for himself and himself only.
The irony of the parable
is that when he thought he was choosing
a secure and comfortable future -
he was in fact choosing
a future of loneliness and isolation.
This man is so alone that he talks to his soul.

Christian attitudes to possessions and wealth
are based on two affirmations:

The first is that everything this world has -
everything it produces and everything it contains,
is a gift to us from God.
God made it; God gave it to us to enjoy,
and God expects us to use it wisely and justly.

All through the Old Testament
there's a kind of horror
at the idea that some of God's people
could sit getting slack and lazy
as they consumed more of God's provision
than they needed,
while others of God's people
were dying of starvation,
or left without shelter.
The prophets taught Israel to react to affluence
with the kind of discomfort we feel
when we see pictures on TV at tea-time
of children dying of hunger in the Sudan -
and the reason for the anger of the prophets
was that selfishness and greed aren't necessary.
God had always provided
everything his people needed,
and God would keep doing that -
God was faithful, reliable,
even when God’s people weren't.

If the prophets came back now,
many things would have changed.
Despite some people
who seem to enjoy telling us
how poorly the world is doing,
and who have a highly romantic view of history,
the world really is a much better place than it was.
We are learning to understand
that finding a just balance
for the world's resources
isn't just a nice idea -
but that every inequality in the world affects us.
Sometimes we try to live
as if the problems don't exist,
or as if we have no power to find solutions
but we know we're fooling ourselves,
and when we understand
that the world’s destructive divisions
are not as much about race, or religion, or culture
as they are about centuries of exploitation
of the very poor by the obscenely rich,
then we know we'll never really be satisfied,
and our work will never really be complete,
until all of God's children
live with dignity and with hope.

But if the prophets did come back now,
they could still speak with confidence
about one thing.
It’s still true
that poverty and inequality in the world
are not problems of production,
but of distribution.
God's gift is as generous today
as it always has been,
and there is much more than enough
for everyone in the world
to eat well,
to drink clean water,
to live in adequate shelter,
and to be educated
to make a contribution to the world's life.

There is much more than enough.

But many people make the choice
of the rich man in the parable -
some don't even see the options
that their wealth provides them,
and that's sad -
but others know the good they could do,
and choose to reject the options they can see -
and that goes beyond sadness to culpability.

So - that's first affirmation -
that everything the world has is a gift from God -
a gift to be enjoyed, and to be shared.

The second affirmation
is that life before dying is not all there is.
Christian faith is built on the conviction
that dying and rising is the way that life works,
and that dying opens the door
to a new dimension of life,
where the vision of God’s realm
has found fulfilment.

Building on that understanding,
Christian faith also says
that some things in this life
continue beyond death,
and that what we are building now
will continue long after we die.

First, our relationship with God begins now,
and continues beyond death.
Through prayer and worship
and the life of the Spirit,
something of God's nature is planted in us,
and all that shares God’s nature never dies.

And as other people
also share in God’s nature and Spirit,
our relationships with people
have eternal significance.
It makes no sense to treat people like things,
and indulge in throw away relationships,
because people continue with us -
the good and the evil we do stays with us,
so we might as well start learning
how to get on with them.

Responsibility continues beyond death.
We will be answerable
for the way we live -
we are accountable,
and we will examined
for our use of God’s gifts.

Putting all that together
leads us to a very simple conclusion.
Since God and other people continue with us,
it makes sense to invest in them.
Since the material things we have
are fragile and perishing:
bodies, clothes, houses, cars,
money, possessions - everything, -
it makes sense to use these transitory things
to build up those aspects of life that will continue.

Jesus told his parable as a warning
to the man who was fighting his brother
for a bigger share of the inheritance.
The man’s connection with his brother
would continue
long after both had gone to join their father -
and choosing to squabble for an inheritance
was a very short sighted decision.

The parable was remembered and retold
and passed on
because generation after generation of Christians
have come to understand
that our awareness of freedom comes
when we discover that we have a choice.

We live in a society that’s losing freedom,
because people no longer see
that they have a choice.
The values that they are presented with
are the values of the market place.
Politics is no longer about a vision for community,
but about economic management
and financial power.
Schools and universities are less and less
places of exploration and learning -
they offer training and a ticket to get a job.
Insurers and health care providers
are told to maximise profitability -
and people with chronic illness are a real bother.
Even churches sell themselves
with promises of miracles for wealth or healing.

But when the value of a life
is reduced to a dollar amount,
everything reduces into numbers;
options and choices disappear -
and everyone is trapped.

Jesus offers us freedom.
He says we can make choices
about how to use the richness of our harvest.
We can live by values that affirm
there's something more important than survival.
In Christ we can choose to trust
that God continues to bless the earth
to give us enough and more than we need,
so we can see our affluence as an invitation
to build relationships that have eternal quality.
We can trust that God’s generosity
is as fundamental to God’s nature
as God’s demand for justice -
and we can live by our conviction
that life is to be measured in ways
that can't be described with numbers.

Knowing that we have choices
will then change us -
we'll get frustrated with building barns
and putting up walls and fences,
and we'll exercise our freedom
to live as generously as God does.
It might start small -
maybe by contributing to ‘Simple Love’
or the ‘Give Hope Winter Appeal’,
or making a donation to the Christmas Bowl
or supporting Lent Event,
but over time
and as our appreciation of our freedom grows,
we'll discover that life is better
when we live with open hands,
when we set a longer table
and share nourishment and time
to build friendships that will last for eternity.