07/31/22 – Riches and Rebellion

RICHES AND REBELLION

July 31, 2022
8th Sunday after Pentecost
Hos. 11:1-11; Ps. 107:1-9,43; Col. 3:1-11; Lk.12:13-21
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

In the course of reading biblical commentaries to prepare this sermon, I came across a joke that both tickled my funny bone and put a knife to my heart. The joke begins with this question: “Why did God tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac when he was 12 years old?” The answer: “Because if he’d waited till, he was 13 it wouldn’t have been a sacrifice.” Ha ha, ouch!

If you have been a parent who has suffered through your child’s teenage years, you know the anguish of teenage rebellion. Last week the poetry of the book of Hosea, employed the imagery and symbolism of a marriage to describe God’s displeasure at Israel, as the unfaithful spouse who betrayed God’s trust. This week, God’s relationship with Israel is portrayed as the relationship between a father and a defiant adolescent son. It could have been a mother and daughter, except this was a patriarchal society. God, as the exasperated parent, begins the reprimand by reminding Israel, of God’s loving nurturance, protection and instruction, from the time Israel was but an infant people, newly liberated from slavery in Egypt. Through every stumble, God picked up young Israel and set him on the path to maturity as a nation. But, as adolescents often do, Israel, also known as Ephraim, decided he know longer needed God’s help and guidance, and could manage better on his own. Israel had become self-absorbed and sought fulfillment in the worldly treasures of power, prestige, and wealth. In other words, Israel committed the sin of worshipping other gods.

Israel, the northern kingdom of the nation God raised up from the Hebrew people freed from Egypt, had now made an alliance with the very nation that had once enslaved them and with the Assyrians, who God had warned them not to align. In seeking to preserve their nationalistic goals through military alliances, Israel was chasing after other gods. Like a parent that looks on in fear and sorrow, God saw Israel making the mistakes that would lead them to a kind of slavery all over again. God would not enable Israel’s self-destructive behavior; the son must suffer the consequences. But, as much as the father suffered from punishing Israel, the father could not bring himself to cut off his son forever. He remembered his love for his firstborn child and vowed to one day allow the son to return home like the generous father and the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable. God chose relationship over obedience. Eventually, the exiles did return home, but remained under the control of foreign nations. In fact, it was not until 1948 that Israel was once again a nation, and even then, the borders were not the same.

A model of gratitude, unlike Israel in the Hosea passage, the psalmist reminds Israel of God’s saving actions in times of trouble, which is their assurance that God will remain loyal to the covenant in the future. The author of the letter to the Colossian congregation informs them that the saving grace bestowed upon them at their baptisms, comes with the obligation to act in an ethical manner. In what is much like a recitation of the Ten Commandments, the author commends the congregations to, “5Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly (Col.3:5)

In our consumer-driven, individualistic society we are much more tolerant of the greed of the affluent than the poor’s desire for the basic necessities of life, such as food, shelter and healthcare. The affluent take these for granted and consider them merely their due. How self-righteous are those that insist that poverty is the consequence of laziness when it is far easier to be idle when one is rich than poor, and their idleness is far more enjoyable. Admitting that many of the poor are working very hard, but have not had the advantages of generations of privilege, hurts our self-esteem and demands the unwelcome challenge to share. My husband, Tom, had a wise accountant who told his clients: “Don’t complain about paying taxes, it means you’re making money.” It also means that we are sharing the benefits we receive from the things taxes are used for with others. Can you imagine the state of our nation if education, law enforcement, infrastructure and so on, were dependent on voluntary contributions from generous people who chose to share their personal wealth for the good of all?

The author of Colossians points out that with baptism they have been promised life in Christ, so to follow earthly gods leads to spiritual death. Greed, the author warns, is worshiping the god of materialism. Greed leads one to choose a worldly god rather than the God who has chosen us. The gift of baptism, the author notes, comes with the expectation the baptized will follow God alone, thereby leading ethical lives.  Like putting on the baptismal robes of that time to symbolize new life in Christ, when we put on Christ, we set ourselves apart from self-centered, worldly lives and follow Christ’s way of obedience to God and love for one another. But the pursuit of wealth separates us from one another by neglect for others’ needs and the formation of a destructive socioeconomic hierarchy in our communities. Colossian’s author summarizes the transformative change that occurs when one becomes God-centered rather than I-centered: “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

In our reading from Luke, Jesus is asked to settle a dispute between a man and his brother over inheritance. Being the mediator in disagreements was one of the roles of a rabbi. The Torah has specific instructions for the distribution of one’s estate after death (Num. 27:1-11 Deut. 21:15- 17). Of course, laws do not foresee every possible application and situation that might arise, so mediation was often needed. Rabbis were seen as the wisest and most knowledgeable concerning Jewish law. But Jesus refused to be drawn into a legal dispute because he knew the real problem was the brothers’ estrangement from one another. With their desire to have something they had lived without before; these two brothers had lost each other – they were no longer brothers but enemies. The winner or loser of the inheritance gambit was insignificant – the relationship was the gift “from above” that was being squandered. Furthermore, estrangement from God was an even greater threat for the brother who pled his case. And so, Jesus told him a parable as the means to confront him with a truth he needed to hear.

Jesus tells the parable we know by the title, “The Rich Fool.” You notice immediately the wealthy landowner’s repeated use of the pronoun I. He anguishes over the decision of what to do with his unexpected abundant harvest: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then 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. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

Let’s look at what the rich farmer did not do. He did not thank God for his abundant harvest. The right amount of rain and sunshine that allowed for that abundant harvest was not due to anything the farmer did. And how did he have so much land that he could produce such a large harvest? Land was most often inherited. It would be reasonable to assume that he had the advantage of having more land to farm than his neighbors, thus allowing him to have bigger harvests than others.  Did he think about those with no land who must labor in the fields of the wealthy? Did he think about the widows and orphans who were dependent on gleaning the few fallen grains not collected in the harvesting to make their bread? No. His thoughts were only about himself, not even a mention of family or friends. ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’   This dilemma would have been scandalous to the Jewish audience. The Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, is quite clear that one’s surplus is to be shared with those in the community who have less than they need.

The Rich Fool doesn’t ask God for guidance in prayer, he decides what is best for himself. He doesn’t give thanks to God for the blessing of the land’s bountiful harvest. Think about the corporations who used their huge government tax breaks, our elected leaders gave them a few years ago, to buy back their own stock thus making more money for the stockholders – people who have enough surplus income to buy stocks. No new jobs created; no wage increases for the workers. The huge deficit created affected all who live from paycheck to paycheck, more than half of the population.

On Friday, the bill voted to allocate money for the healthcare of veterans who were exposed to toxic air from burn pits was quashed by 25 senators, who used the rationale that it would increase the federal deficit, due to a procedural issue. Where was the concern for the budget when wealthy corporations and multi-millionaires were given a large tax cut, with no strings attached? When the hoarding of a nation’s wealth for the benefit of those who are already rich, our country repeats the sins the prophets, like Hosea, accused 8th century Israel. When our relationship with our neighbors in need is sacrificed for higher profits for the wealthy, we are chasing after the worldly gods of material wealth and political power rather than living in obedience to God, from whom all blessings flow. I am reminded of the words of the philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir: “One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.” I am heartened by the indignation expressed over the Senate’s action on Friday. When enough people care about the welfare of those in need, their indignation can bring about change to a system that does not prioritize life for all.

With the parable of the Rich Food, Jesus does not condemn wealth, but the accumulation of wealth solely for the purpose of serving one’s own desires. The Rich Fool’s lack of gratitude and his indifference to others is the sin to which Jesus points. Jesus said nothing negative about the farmer’s abundant harvest. Jesus does not tell us the farmer cheated others or exploited his workers. The Bible does not say it is evil to be rich. My mentor used to say: “The bible tells us it is okay to be rich, but it’s not okay to be greedy.” Jesus does not even say there is anything wrong with storing some of his grain in case the next harvest is less than expected? Saving for a rainy day is prudent financial planning. Joseph saved his own family and all of Egypt by convincing the king that some of each harvest that was more than the people needed should be stored in the event of several years of poor harvests. The difference is, Joseph was caring for a community, not only himself.

The rich farmer thought he could control his life by hoarding his wealth as if his possessions equaled life.  He had it all figured out – he could lead a life of security and pleasure with all his stored wealth in his big barns. What he could not control was how long his life was to be. On the day his storehouses were completed and filled, he died, and they were no longer of use to him. I once heard a wise investment counselor comment: “There’s nothing sadder than a dead rich person.” Like the prophets of ancient Israel, Jesus reminds his disciples that there will be consequences, even eternal consequences, to the Rich Fool’s selfish choices.

Like the rich fool, in our culture, we have a problem with deciding what is enough and what is surplus. If we listen to the voices of Madison Avenue and social media, wealth can buy anything; and we can never have enough because there is always one more possession that will make our lives even better. At the root of greed is fear. It is a fear of scarcity, and we are easily manipulated by that fear. But we also fear not being loved and seek to replace relationships, which can give us love, with things that cannot love us in return.

When the Rich Fool died, he might have left a legacy of people whose lives were saved or improved by his generosity, but he missed that opportunity. Instead of spending time building his barns, he might have spent his time building relationships with people who would care that he had lived and died. He might have, unknowingly, made the world more like the kingdom of God before he met his Maker, from whom nothing is hidden.

What we give to others is our defense against a world that would make us all merely consumers and the most vulnerable in society commodities to be consumed. The amount of ourselves we give to others creates the space we have available for God to enter our being. May your generosity be the legacy you leave the world and your open heart be filled with what is truly valuable now and for eternity.

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
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