In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a story about a rich man who has so much grain he doesn’t know what to do with it. He has to think and think. And then he has an idea! What’s his idea?… (discuss)
What else could he have done?… (There was money in those days, but our whole system for turning stuff into money and then keeping the money wasn’t developed yet. There were things like banks but they weren’t as safe or reliable; a lot of people would just keep their money themselves, but there were a lot of problems with thieves, too. So, “sell it and have money instead” might not have been as good an option… Anyway, that’s not what Jesus is doing with this story. The man has more than enough; turning it into money and putting it in a bank is kinda just a more sophisticated way to build a bigger barn.)
Why might he have not wanted to give it away? (Some ideas: It might encourage people to be dependent; Maybe they don’t deserve it; they should work for their own money; maybe he doesn’t know any poor people; maybe he’s afraid of the poor people he does know…)
So the man decides to build bigger barns! To keep his surplus, and use it to enjoy himself. Good plan! But then… he dies! His death isn’t a punishment. It’s just a thing that happens: people die. Rich people, poor people. For this man, his wealth had become the whole meaning of his life.. but as they say: You can’t take it with you.
So, Jesus tells his friends, don’t be preoccupied by the things you think you need. There’s more to life than food, and more to the body than clothing. He points to the ravens: they don’t work in the fields, but they seem to find enough to eat. And to the lilies: they don’t spin or sew, but their clothing is more beautiful than anything any human could create.
Jesus says, Don’t chase after stuff. Chase after the Kingdom – God’s kingdom of mercy and justice, righteousness and peace. Keep your focus on what matters, and other things will fall into place.
Now, let it be noted that Jesus was prone to wandering the countryside with nothing but the clothes on his back. So his notion of having what you need might not line up with ours. But Jesus was not an ascetic. An ascetic is someone who practices severe self-discipline, abstaining from most material comforts – with minimal shelter or no shelter; very simple clothing – even intentionally uncomfortable clothing; and likewise very simple food, and often some fasting.
Asceticism is found in many religious and spiritual traditions around the world. John the Baptist is one familiar example for Christians. He lived in the wilderness outside Jerusalem, wearing a camel hide instead of woven garments like most people of the time, and eating what he could scavenge, including wild honey and grasshoppers.
That was not Jesus’ jam. During the three years of his public mission, he was dependent on the kindness of strangers. He definitely traveled light. But he would absolutely enjoy a good meal when it came his way. People complained about this. People said, “John the Baptist didn’t eat or drink, and we thought that was weird – but now this Jesus fellow seems like a glutton and a drunkard, who hangs around with tax collectors because they put on lavish feasts with money stolen from the rest of us!” When a woman pours expensive oil over Jesus’ feet, an act of devotion, some of his own disciples complain – because it would have been better to sell the ointment and give it to the poor; we don’t need these bodily indulgences anyway!
But Jesus, God made human, likes the world. He likes things like good food, good wine, and sweet-smelling oil. He doesn’t think that stuff is bad, inherently flawed or sinful. He does, however, think that we humans are prone to letting that stuff become far, far too important to us, letting it take over our days and our hearts. He asks questions about wealth: What are you doing with it? Who is it benefiting? Who’s it hurting? What would happen if you had less? And who’s in charge here, really – you or your money? You or your stuff?
Your life does not consist in abundance of possessions. The Greek word translated “abundance” here really means “too much.” Excess. Overflow. Surplus. Superfluity. Like in the story: the man has more grain than his barns can hold.
I have a friend in another state who sometimes helps families clear out people’s homes after a death. She was telling me recently about how heartbreaking it can be to see how much stuff people have just accumulated. Not to enjoy; just to have. One woman kept the tags on every garment in her closet until she wore them. She could see how much each item had cost, tally her personal worth in name-brand clothing. As Jesus says elsewhere, Wherever you keep your treasure, that’s where your heart will be, too.
It’s understandable; we tell women that their appearance and wardrobe are a big part of how people will judge them. We also tell women that shopping is an acceptable way to handle stress, anger, or pain. We normalize it, make it cute, with words like “retail therapy” and “shopaholic.”
It’s not just a lady thing; men are subject to the same forces, the same manipulation of our desires, though it may manifest in different ways. It’s also not a rich-people thing; some people who are wealthy are incredibly level-headed and generous with their resources, and some people who don’t have much are especially vulnerable to the pull of possessions.
Now, at the risk of sounding like a presidential candidate in a debate: I am not anti-capitalist. Capitalism can absolutely be a force for good. But it is simply objective fact that capitalism works by continuing to generate desire. If we don’t keep buying stuff, the machine grinds to a halt. Marketing, commercials, ads, are an integral part of the thing.
That word I mentioned earlier that means excess, surplus, more than enough – one of the things advanced capitalism does is make it really hard to identify that point. Because “enough” might mean we stay home from the mall and close the Amazon window in our browser. So marketing is always one step ahead of our desires – if you outpace the proverbial Joneses, there will be someone wealthier to measure yourself against.
In today’s lessons, both Gospel and Epistle warn against greed. Greed is an unpleasant word. None of us want to think of ourselves as greedy. For some reason we mostly use the word “greed” in relation to food, but Jesus, whom his critics called a glutton, doesn’t seem to have any harsh words for people who enjoy a good meal. His concern is for people whose desire for wealth and material things has grown beyond their control, started to run their lives.
The Epistle, this passage from the letter to the church in Colossae, says something really smart about it. It says that greed is a kind of idolatry. Idolatry – the great sin of the Hebrew Bible. It means worshipping something other than God. Putting something else at the center of your life and your heart – which is a double error: turning away from God, and also trusting in a thing, an inanimate object, which does not care about you.
There are some wonderful, darkly ironic passages in the Hebrew Bible criticizing people who are literally practicing idolatry. The prophet Isaiah describes a man cutting down a tree; he takes the wood and uses half of it to make a fire, to bake bread and roast some meat; with the rest of it he fashions a statue of a god, and bows down to it and worships it, saying, “Save me, for you are my god!” Isaiah says, This man is deluded; he can’t save himself and say, “Isn’t this object in my hand a lie?” (Isaiah 44)
This is one of the endemic diseases of capitalism: it is so, so easy to let things that are just things become the center of our lives, the focus of our attention. They can’t answer or prayers. They don’t care what happens to us. They don’t love us back. No, not even the really *nice* things.
Managing, mastering, our material desires is hard. It was hard in Jesus’ time. I honestly believe it’s harder in ours. Keeping our relationships with money and stuff in line with our values and intentions is one of the fundamental daily disciplines for Christians under late capitalism. (One of the appeals of asceticism has always been that some people find it easier to opt out entirely, and own NOTHING, than to stay in the system and keep making ethical and balanced choices!)
So, what’s the good news, Miranda? Because this sounds HARD and discouraging!
I find it to be good news that Jesus sees and names this disease that is endemic in our nation. That he says, keenly but kindly: You can’t let stuff run your life. He speaks into something that so many of us wrestle with, whether it’s a manageable matter of budgeting and priorities, or a true addiction.
I think it’s good news that God has compassion on our struggles with our impulses and desires, our misplaced priorities.Hosea, the source of our first lesson today, is a complicated book; but this is a beautiful passage. God speaking through the prophet describes Godself as a mother, raising a child in love, nurturing them, pointing them in the right direction. But people, even people we love very much, don’t always make good choices… and sometimes make very bad ones indeed. But God says to God’s child, God’s people: I can’t forget you; I keep loving you; I keep longing for you to come back. My heart and my womb ache for you. Come home. You will always be welcome.
And I think there’s good news in today’s Epistle, though we almost missed it. The assigned lesson for this Sunday actually stops at verse 11 – that verse about how there are no fundamental differences among us in Christ. That’s good, important stuff!
But the next paragraph is this beautiful word to the church about how to share our lives as people of faith. And it’s not in the Sunday lectionary! It’s a recommended text for weddings – we used it at ours – but this is not just advice for couples; in fact that feels like missing the point in a big way. The first Christians understood churches as households – a group of people in a long-term relationship of care, who celebrate and grieve, raise children and care for elders, deal with conflicts and discern next steps, all together, as a body.
The stuff that’s hard about daily life, then or now – we’re not supposed to be able to figure it out and manage it, all on our own. We’re supposed to have a loving, trustworthy household of faith, to wonder together, to find our direction and encourage one another. To share stories and struggles, ideas and hopes, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved; to bear with one another, and forgive one another when forgiveness is needed; to teach and admonish one another, in wisdom and with love; and to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God, with gratitude in our hearts, as thankful people, who can look to the lilies and the ravens, and know deeply that what we need is here.