By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
It would be nice if everyone came to church on Sunday morning, not only in their best clothes, but also on their best behavior… not to mention with their best mood. Your week went well, you got a good sleep the night before, and all is just peachy keen. When someone asks you how you’re doing and you respond by saying, “Fine, just fine,” you really mean it. Life is fine, life is good, and you’ve come to church hitting on all cylinders.
But that’s not the way life is, usually, and when you come to church you bring your life with you. The arthritis in your joints is kicking up again, and you can’t remember where you put your glasses. The kids have run you ragged all week and once again you ran out of money before you got through paying the bills. You need a new car, but you’re upside down on your payments for the one you’ve got, so you know you’re stuck with it for at least another year or two.
And because of all this, and then some, you come to church… well, sometimes you come in a snit. You don’t want to be here with a bad mood hanging over you, but still, it’s better than staying home and having to nurse your misery all by yourself. What do they say about misery? It does indeed love company.
They weren’t in church, but one day Jesus was confronted by a man who was in a really bad mood. It was inevitable, I suppose. Even though Jesus did not identify himself as a counselor, it was natural for people to be drawn to him and his magnificent personality. And didn’t he say, “Come to me, all you who are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest”? That sounds like an invitation to me.
And so, on the basis of his insight and wisdom, his caring spirit and nature, people were drawn to Jesus… not only for healing, not only teaching, and not only for the miracles he could perform. They came to Jesus for help in solving their problems.
“Teacher,” a man blurts out to Jesus in the middle of one of his lessons, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Notice he doesn’t use the magic word, please. Janet and I have had our grandsons, Alex and Matthew, for a couple of days, and they’ll be here this week. Alex is eight and Matt is five, and they’ve come a long way in learning how and when to use the magic word… especially when they really want something. But some people never get it. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
His very comment gives us some insight into his situation. Obviously, this man is one of the younger sons in the family. If he had been the oldest, he would be the one receiving the inheritance, and would no doubt have a younger brother complaining about his unwillingness to share the family’s goods.
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The custom in that day was that the inheritance was left to the eldest brother. All of it. It may not seem fair, but that’s the way it was. If any of the younger brothers received anything, it would be through the generosity of the oldest. Evidently, in this situation, the eldest brother does not feel so inclined.
That is still true to a certain extent, the part about the pecking order of a family. When Janet’s mother died, her older sister Carolyn, who is an attorney, served as the executrix of the estate. She did a great deal of work, and determined how and when the estate would be divided. Needless to say, she got advice from her younger siblings, but the final responsibility of it still fell to her.
There is responsibility in being the oldest, but there is power as well. I’ve comforted myself over the years with the understanding that the oldest may have the influence and power, but the youngest are the most loved!
The man who calls out to Jesus from the crowd has no influence or power in his family’s situation and he wants Jesus to do something about it. Why Jesus? Why not hire a lawyer? Because the man wants an arbitrator, not an attorney. He knows he has no legal rights. He’s appealing to Jesus on a moral and ethical basis, and that’s right up Jesus’ alley, isn’t it?
Jesus doesn’t waste any time in responding, does he? “Friend, who gave me the authority to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”
When someone is visiting our church and wants to know something about who we are, the kind of congregation we are, and whether they want to become a part of it, they often ask about professions. I tell them that for some reason, which I can’t entirely explain, my experience is that there are two professions represented the most in our church. One of them is lawyers. We do have a number of lawyers around here.
You could say that’s because there are so many attorneys in our town that it’s inevitable for this particular profession to be highly represented in our church. But then I tell them that the second highest number of professionals sitting in these pews is librarians. Go figure!
My guess is, that if you were to question our resident attorneys about the cases with which they deal, especially when some form of arbitration is involved, the problems that have led up to the need for such arbitration are generally based on greed. And greed comes from a lack of moral or spiritual or ethical understanding of what is right and what is wrong. So, while Jesus quickly responds to the man’s request in the negative, he doesn’t just leave it there. He follows it up with a story about a greedy farmer. It is generally called the parable of the “rich fool.”
The most interesting thing about this story may not be the story itself; it may just be its context. It is but the first in a series of stories that reveal how all of us tend to forget who the earth belongs to and how we ought to live on it. This story in the twelfth chapter of Luke’s gospel is followed by the very famous one in chapter fifteen about the young man who claims his father’s inheritance and squanders it on loose living, only to return in shame, begging that he be allowed to live out the remainder of his days as a servant. You know him as the prodigal son.
In chapter sixteen there are two stories which continue to track this theme. One is a rather strange one. It is about a wicked steward who realizes his master is about to cast him out of his house because of his treachery. So, he scurries about, making amends as fast as he can, not so much because he is truly sorry about his behavior, but because he is a survivor, a very shrewd survivor. The other story is about the rich man who dies and wakes up in hell because he so crassly ignored the poor sick man who lay outside his gate begging for help.
In chapter seventeen, in one of his lesser known parables, Jesus talks about the uppity servants who come into the master’s house after plowing or keeping sheep. They expect their master, the owner of the farm, to prepare a hot meal for them since they have been toiling in the fields all day. Jesus asks whether the owner would not say to the servants, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink” (vv. 7-10). Jesus is no doubt addressing himself to the religious establishment, those in his presence who have forgotten their place before God and expect God to treat them more royally than they deserve, just because they are religious leaders.
The story of the pounds or wages is in chapter nineteen. In this parable Jesus tells of the nobleman who goes on a long journey, and while he is away he entrusts his servants with a pound each, or about three months’ wages. “Do business with these until I come back,” he says to them. When he returns he calls them in for an accounting. One servant has taken his talent and multiplied it ten-fold. Another has increased his one pound to five. But the third servant has taken his and wrapped it up in a cloth for safekeeping. The master is so angry at this lazy servant that he takes the one pound from him and gives it to the one who has increased his to ten. Now the lazy servant he has none.
Then Jesus tells the parable in chapter twenty of the vineyard owner who leases his property to tenants. When the crops come in and he sends a servant to collect his portion, the tenants beat the servant and throw him outside the gate. Another slave is sent and they do the same to him. Finally, the owner of the property, thinking they will treat his son with more respect, sends him. This time the tenants kill the owner’s son. “What will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” Jesus asks. And before anyone can answer, Jesus answers his own question. “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
And finally, in chapter twenty-one, there is a positive story, one of my favorites in all of scripture. And it isn’t a parable either; it really happened. Jesus and his disciples are in the temple watching as people come by and give their offerings. Eventually, a poor widow comes to the temple offering plate and drops in two tiny coins. And Jesus praises her to high heaven. You would have thought she had paid for the temple upkeep all by herself. “This poor widow has put in more than all the others,” Jesus tells his disciples, “for they have given out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Now, look at the pattern woven by these stories of Jesus. This is not just an interesting but useless exercise in biblical hermeneutics. It is not by accident that Luke strings these stories together as he does. There is a definite purpose in his doing so.
Everywhere Jesus went he saw people who were greedy and selfish, people who had forgotten that God owns the world, people who did not realize that all of us are his servants and therefore are to live sensitively, caringly, and generously with others. And when Jesus does find one who is a worthy steward of God’s benevolent grace, she turns out to be the most unlikely of them all. And, she is not a character in one of his parables. Jesus, with his discerning and loving eyes, sees her great sacrifice and praises her for her tremendous generosity.
For a study in contrast, let’s go back to our parable we read earlier. The farmer in Jesus’ story is most fortunate. His lands have produced abundantly to the point that all his barns are full. “What should he do?” he asks himself. The only logical answer he can muster is to tear down his barns and build larger ones. That way he can take early retirement, pay off his credit card balances — not to mention his hefty mortgage — send the kids to the best colleges, join the country club, and live the good life.
What the farmer does not consider, and obviously has no way of knowing, is that God has a claim on his life… that very night. Then to whom would the farm and the crops and the massive barns belong? That’s the way it is, Jesus says, with those who live only unto themselves and are not thoughtful of God, and God’s creation, when it comes to the things they possess. Life ends, if not soon, eventually. Where will they be then?
The point of Jesus’ parable seems simple and straightforward enough. Do not let greed take you over. Easily enough, it will become your goal in life. Give it free reign, and it will become the god you serve. Understand that your life is not measured by how much stuff you have. You are not to be possessed by your possessions.
It is a pretty simple concept, isn’t it? Then why is it so hard for us to learn?
I try not to do this very often… throw a Greek lesson at you. But sometimes it’s worth the effort. The Greek word used here for fool is aphron. It comes from the word phrones, which means “mind” or “thought.” Putting the a or alpha in front of the word forms a negative. If phrones is “mind” or” thought,” aphron means “no mind, no thought.”1
This man is a fool because he gives no mind to God, has literally no thought of God. A fool is one who never thinks about God, never considers that God is the giver of all good things, who has no desire to repay God for his bounty by sharing it with others. A fool builds bigger barns for crops that will decay and come to nothingness.
This story of the rich farmer is found only in the Gospel of Luke. When Luke recounts one of Jesus’ parables, he likes to tell us the point of the story at the beginning. This time he does it by recording what Jesus said. The point is pure and simple: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” The greatest failure in life is the failure to see the distinction between what we have and what we are.
So, what was your mood when you came to church this morning? If it was not what you know it should be, or you want it to be, it might just be because you’ve slipped into the trap of thinking that your value in God’s eyes is based on what you have and not on who you are. The chances are, if you came to church in a bad mood, it is because of something you thought you owned, but in reality it owns you.
So, would you like a new lease on life? Remember that above all else, you are a child of God, the One who gives you all you have and all you are. Keep that in mind, and it might just make all the difference.
It is the most valuable lesson in all the world, O Lord… that you love us not because of what we have, but because finally and fully you are a God of love. Love us even when we do not say “please” and “thank you.” In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1George Mason, “The Danger of a Good Economy,” (Wilshire Baptist Church website: unpublished sermon, August 2, 1998.
Copyright 2007, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.