catacomb painting depicting Jesus as Teacher
An early catacomb painting depicting Jesus as Teacher

Today was the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, and the sermon treated some themes in the gospel of the day, Luke 12:13-21. The discussion of the text(s) and the sermon are available, for those interested,

“Wisdom and Riches” – a sermon for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The gospel of the day is Luke 12:13-21, which is on page 74 in the NT section in our pew Bibles. It’s an incredibly rich text, wrapped around a story Jesus tells while he is on his last trip to Jerusalem … but before looking at that gospel, it will be a good idea for us to have in our memory something that Jesus and his disciples and his listeners would almost certainly have had in their memories, and that is a little sound-bite from the prophet Isaiah. [which btw is on page 659 in the OT section]

Now, in this text, Isaiah was talking about something that happened pretty near the end of the life of the southern kingdom of Judah, when King Sennacherib of Assyria decided to attack the kingdom of Judah, the southern kingdom, and King Hezekiah and his advisors, with God’s help, just manage to avoid being completely destroyed – these are the same Assyrians who actually did defeat the northern kingdom of Israel and deport many of its inhabitants a few years before. This is just a reprieve for the southern kingdom, unfortunately, because as we will see in a minute, the people don’t seem to have the right attitude about God’s promises and help; anyway, here’s a part of Isaiah’s oracle about the valley of “vision” – that’s an ironic name for Jerusalem, because it can also mean the valley of “darkness” or obscurity. This is Isaiah 22: 5, and then 8-14:

Isaiah 22:5; 8-14

For the Lord God of hosts has a day of tumult and trampling and confusion in the valley of vision, a battering down of walls and a cry for help to the mountains. … He has taken away the covering of Judah. On that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that there were many breaches in the city of David, and you collected the waters of the lower pool. You counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to him who did it, or have regard for him who planned it long ago.

In that day the Lord God of hosts called to weeping and mourning, to baldness and putting on sackcloth; but instead there was joy and festivity, killing oxen and slaughtering sheep, eating meat and drinking wine. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” The Lord of hosts has revealed himself in my ears: Surely this iniquity will not be forgiven you until you die, says the Lord God of hosts.

So, what’s the story there? As a matter of fact, God had promised to save Jerusalem this time around … but to be on the safe side, the 8th century BCE equivalent of the army corps of engineers came up with very sound plans for the defense of the city, which they carried out, which would have been OK, except that they didn’t take any account of God when they did it, they didn’t honor their covenant relationship with God … ; and then the people who had hunkered down in Jerusalem took a basically devil-may-care attitude – they party like there’s no tomorrow … which, under the circumstances, doesn’t seem totally unreasonable, except that God says, actually, under the circumstances, I was expecting you to spend some quality time with meI was expecting you to honor that covenant relationship we have, what happened to that?

Jesus and his disciples and the people who are following the Jesus tour would have known this story; they would have heard these words before, so part of the instant meaning of those words “let us eat and drink and be merry” etc. would be … “uh-oh that’s what the people of Jerusalem in Hezekiah’s day said when they made the mistake of not turning to God when they should have been thinking about the relationship.” Now we know that, too.

So, back to Luke, here we get a picture of Jesus traveling to Jerusalem, and the crowds around him are getting bigger and bigger and bigger – Jesus is getting so popular that Luke says in v. 1 of this chapter that people were actually trampling each other, like in the mosh pit of a rock concert, … and in the reading of the day, Luke shares something of what Jesus’ audience was hearing – so let’s listen for the word of God in:

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Fellow, 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; rest yourself, 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.”

What made the rich man in Jesus’ story a “fool”? What kept him from being “rich toward God”? Maybe we already know … but let’s take a look at how we got there …

We can almost picture this scene …

We know it starts out with a lot of pushing and shoving … thousands of people, Luke says, trampling one another, jostling for position to be able to see and hear Jesus.

I’m afraid I can relate to this … I’ve been in crowds where I’ve tried to squeeze my way forward so I can get a better view or can hear better … has anyone else done this? Because otherwise, what’s the point of going and being there, if we can’t hear or see, right? It’s only natural to try to look out for ourselves in a situation like that … so let’s have in mind this natural kind of pushing and shoving in a crowd in which each individual is just trying to get into the best position possible …

And now one of the members of this pushy anxious crowd says to Jesus –since it’s a crowd, he may actually shout this at Jesus – “hey, tell my brother to split the inheritance with me!”

And from the way he says this, there are some things we know, and some important things we don’t know. We know that he’s asking a question about law – Jesus is a teacher, it makes perfect sense to ask a teacher to give an answer to a question about law, God’s Torah, God’s instruction;

we also know the matter has something to do with real estate; from the word he uses, we know he’s not talking about Dad’s cufflinks or even about Dad’s money in the bank, he’s talking about real productive property, he’s probably talking about “the farm.”

What we don’t know is the whole story behind this question – and I think we can bet there is one. We don’t know whether this questioner is a first-born son who has been done out of his rightful inheritance because Dad left the land to the son of his second wife, the one he got along with better. That’s against the law, and a teacher of the law would say that. But then again maybe this guy is the black sheep younger brother who has never worked a day in his life and has no right to that property in the first place and is just hoping Jesus – because we know how Jesus is – will say something about being kind or whatever, to help his case. If we had been in that crowd, of course, we probably would know, and we would have an opinion … in fact, if this crowd is anything like crowds these days, there would probably be several opinions, and maybe even a few people willing to start a fight about them … but from where we sit in a 21st century pew, we can’t know the whole story, we can only imagine … and we do imagine, because we do know that those kind of questions get asked every day in our own century, and they are not trivial questions, either, how those questions get answered determine whether some real people are going to have livelihoods, incomes, places to live, and they point to some kind of breakdown in the human relationships around those possessions or that property – we can’t always hold people back from this, try as we might – they point to people falling out of covenant with one another.

Jesus’ response to this question is odd, come to think about it.

For one thing, he addresses this man in a strange way … literally, he calls him “person,” “human being.” He emphasizes the man’s humanity, something this man would share with any other human being.

For another, it’s a little ironic when he says “who made me a judge or decider over you?” Because, again, from where we sit in a 21st century church pew, with some good old Christian theology in our minds, we might want to say … well, God did. Who but you is a judge and a divider over human beings, in the end? (that might be getting a little ahead of the story, though …)

And then, it sounds like he accuses someone of being greedy … at least, he says, “look out, be on guard against all kinds of greed” – and I still don’t know which brother he’s saying is the greedy one here …

So this talk about all kinds of greed makes me a little nervous, because … I have to ask …

How many kinds of greed are there? Do I … I don’t do any of them, do I? I think of greedy people as ones who want what isn’t theirs. So people like me, who just want what’s theirs – we would be – not  greedy, surely? If I just want to keep what’s mine, I don’t need to think of myself as any kind of greedy, surely. Greedy people are people who always want the biggest or the best share of things – like, if there’s a choice between a bigger piece of cake and a smaller one, I was brought up to take the smaller one. But if I just happened to end up with the biggest or the best share of something, or if I had earned it somehow, it wouldn’t be any kind of greedy to say “This is mine, I’m keeping this” … surely?

This question makes me uncomfortable, frankly, and just when I’m feeling like I’d like to move along …

Jesus lets us off the hook by telling a story, a parable …

Notice he is still not telling either of the brothers what to do, but … there’s a chance that this particular story could give at least one of those brothers some idea about what to do …

Because it’s a story about a man and some real estate … and in this story, the man is rich, and the real estate is … huge. He has a land – and from the word Jesus uses, we know, he doesn’t just have a little farm, he has a district, he has a territory. He is in charge of something big. And this land produces abundantly … if it were a country, it would have a big GNP.

Jesus doesn’t say a word about why the land produces so abundantly.

He doesn’t say “the land produced abundantly because the man was wise – that is, practical and industrious.” We might say that, if we had recently been taking some classes at UofL business school, or if we had been studying the Greek philosophers like Aristotle;

but Jesus probably doesn’t have to say that, because everyone listening to him just assumes this man is wise, in the sense of being practical, being prudent, because … well, because he’s rich, and having been brought up in the ancient world, and knowing the book of Proverbs, everyone in the audience knows that riches come from wisdom, wisdom is a treasure, wisdom is as good as money in the bank, wisdom causes people do well – and wise people deserve to do well.

Jesus also doesn’t say “God blessed the man” with all that abundance.

Again, he probably doesn’t need to, he can count on his listeners assuming that all that abundance shows that God is favoring this man …

We might have to say it, in our world; we might have to remind ourselves that all that abundance must have come from God, and hopefully we would try to make one of our first thoughts be to thank God and praise God for good outcomes, and to get in the habit of honoring our covenant with God by asking Wow, God, now what? What do you want us to do with this?

That isn’t what the rich man in this story does, of course … his first instinct is to turn this windfall into a problem … all of a sudden he doesn’t have enough – he doesn’t have enough room, enough space, what to do?? So he thinks to himself … as if he is all alone in this huge territory of his … he comes up with a plan … to tear down his deficient barns and build new, bigger barns … that will solve the problem

… and he starts talking to his soul … I don’t know how often we talk to our souls … so if people start talking to their souls in a story, I think I would know that something is about to happen …

And what this man tells his soul, which everyone knows is immortal, everyone, the Hebrews, the Greeks, we; his soul, which he is supposed to love God with all of, the way he is supposed to love God with all of his heart and all of his strength, which is to say, with all of his substance, and all of his mind, along with loving his neighbor as himself – what he tells his soul is: hey, take it easy, you’ve got plenty to last for a long time, eat, drink … uh-oh we’ve heard that before … you’re set for tomorrow …

But God, who can no longer be ignored, says, “you fool,”

… actually, God says something more like “you impractical, imprudent, irrational person with poor judgment, disordered priorities, and a faulty understanding of what the situation requires” … but that doesn’t have quite the punch in English as it does in Greek …

God says, “you fool …”

… so everyone in the audience does a double take, because the idea of a rich fool just does not compute in their world …

God says, “you fool …” you have gotten it just as wrong as those other fools back in Jerusalem in the 8th century … You are supposed to be in a covenant relationship with me. What happened to loving me with all your heart and all your soul and all your substance and all your mind? What happened to giving credit where credit is due? What happened to saying thank you once in a while, to recognizing that you didn’t do this all yourself? What happened to spending some quality time with me, talking this problem over and listening and paying attention to the signs of what my purposes and plans are? What happened to loving your neighbor as yourself … or even thinking about your neighbor, ever? Or even noticing that you have a neighbor? What else do you think wisdom means – besides discerning what God wants from you, in this situation – whatever situation you’re in?” Because from the perspective of eternity, your time in this world, however long in calendar years, is always going to look like “tonight”.

I think Jesus is saying that the rich man had become a fool, the opposite of practical, when he forgot about the covenant relationship with God. He could have honored that covenant relationship, by directing his love toward God, and toward his neighbors, instead of toward his stuff – if he had done that, he would have been genuinely practical, genuinely wise, and genuinely rich.

I think Jesus is telling the brothers, through this story, those brothers who are squabbling about the inheritance, that they are being the opposite of practical, by pursuing a dispute about property, which they will inevitably have to pass on to others in a short time, and squandering their relationship with one another in the process. The practical solution the wise solution to their dilemma will be the one they work out together from within their covenant relationship with one another.

This is not only a story for the ancient world. Nine years ago, on the first Wednesday in August, the people of Christ Church Philadelphia started setting up for their annual month of weekly communion services followed by a picnic on the North Garden lawn. They were in the middle of a building project, so space was a little tight, but these services usually had an attendance of about 35 people, maybe by the end of the month they’d get up to 50 or so. They’d planned accordingly. And then, people started showing up … here are the pastor’s words:

By 7:00pm we had welcomed 65 people into the North Garden.

We were shocked, anxious, and nervous…who are all these people, where are they coming from, will we have enough food? Well as the numbers swelled the answers began to surface. More than 35 of the people were homeless. I imagine they came from as far as the word spread out in the short span of time. And we had enough food to guarantee at least one hotdog or hamburger to anyone who wanted it.

The truth of the matter is that the situation was just plain awkward; seating for only about 35 in an already cramped space due to the scaffolding and construction around the church; almost instantly without warning becoming the minority in your own back yard. And if you have ever had the experience of being in the minority you know the feeling of being pushed to the margins (conscious and unconsciously). Between both the feelings of being hospitable folks and being in the minority, whether or not we were aware of it; we, the Christ Church people, quickly gave our limited seating over to our unexpected guests. …

Somehow, what happened here last Wednesday evening seemed like an experience of being rich toward God…literally extending our Eucharistic table from the front of this building to right outside that door to 65 children of God eating hamburgers and hotdogs in the sweltering heat. It also felt like something of what biblical justice might be in a world where the issues of poverty, homelessness, hunger, war, violence, and social inequities seems to loom too large to get involved and make a difference.”

I suspect Christ Church’s experience seemed like an experience of being rich toward God, because it was also an example of the practical wisdom that builds those riches: the wisdom of faithfulness to the covenant relationship with God and the neighbor, the wisdom of putting into practice the priorities that structure that covenant relationship, revealed by the Word of God, by Jesus Christ – We already know what those are: … Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength – all that you have and are – and love your neighbor as yourself.

May we go and do likewise.