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Pentecost 9, August 1, 2004
A Sermon on Luke 12:13-21 (RCL) by David Zersen

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Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself, but is not rich toward God.” (NIV)


Two brothers are quibbling as brothers do, and they put their argument to the rabbi as was the custom. Their father had died and the elder brother got the inheritance. That was the way it was, but the younger wanted something too. Under normal circumstances in the society of the day, he would be required to hire himself out and earn a living like everyone else. Should he just forget about the inheritance? It wasn’t his to start with by the laws of his day. Unhappy with this reality, he decides to put the matter to Jesus anyway. Jesus’ response is not encouraging. He says, “Who made me a judge over property rights?” His concern is not his authority in the matter, but the unimportance of the issue in the face of much more important considerations. There are urgent matters at stake in this time and place, and these men are quibbling about who gets the property! God’s concern that you discover the purpose and meaning in your life wants to be heard. This is a time for decisions. Jesus sounds a somber note in this situation, but there is a grace note in the fact that he sounds it at all.

I. Improper priorities invite Jesus’ judgment.

Jesus tells the story of a rich fool to the quibbling brothers. There’s really only one point in the story. There was nothing wrong with the farmer building bigger barns to take care of his large crops. It probably made good sense. What was wrong was that he was unprepared for the fact that the night on which he made that decision also happened to be his last night on earth! It wasn’t that God was being unjust to him. It was simply that his time had come and he had given no thought to it and he had no relationship with the one with whom he was destined to spend eternity. What he has are investments for children who might squander them shamelessly, and an impressive legacy for those who might soon forget him. All this is said to the quibbling brothers to make the point that a person’s life does no consist in what he owns. Real life simply consists in a relationship with the one who gives life in the first place, and then also with those who share this kind of abundant life with you. Everything else is ultimately only death.
It was a judgment story and it must have hit the brothers between the eyes. It said, “Get your act together. Like the fool in the story, you’re fiddling around with your lives, piddling with issues which in the long run aren’t important. You’re possessed by possessions and you’re not rich toward God.” It’s a word none of us would like to hear addressed to us. We don’t like judgment. We like religious messages to be comforting, affirming, encouraging. We want to feel good about ourselves. The fact is, however, that like the brothers and the fool, we too play with life and often do a poor job at recognizing what’s most important. We would like to tell success stories about ourselves and our children. We love to tell how we or they have got it all together: The house, education, job, bank account, investments. We had a young man visiting us from Hanover Germany and he confided to me that our subdivision was just as he had pictured it would be from the movies: Well-manicured lawns, two cars in the driveway, nicely-kept private homes, children playing with their bicycles. It may be a great success story, yours and mine, but Jesus says it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if we aren’t rich toward God.

If you could have heard Jesus continue his conversation, he probably would have said something like this: “Life is a proving ground for the right decisions. In all of life’s circumstances, you are given the opportunities to choose between the unimportant and the important.” Over and over again in the imagery used in his language, he talked about separating sheep from goats, wise from foolish, hearers from doers of the word, children of light from children of darkness. To you and me who all to often want the soft life and the comforting word, there is in this parable a word of judgment: “In terms of the time you spend, the talents you share, the money you sacrifice, are you putting God first in your life? Are you prepared to meet him face to face?”

II. Jesus graciously leads us beyond judgment

The good news in all of this is that there is a measure of grace in that Jesus brings us this hard message at all. You parents know how it is at times with your children. You may criticize a lack of promptness or discipline in your children. You try to help them polish their social graces and they lash back, “You’re always on my case. You don’t care about me at all!” The truth of the matter (something we know in our heart of hearts), however, is that we say what we say because we do care. If we didn’t, we’d let them do whatever they want. Likewise, Jesus’ warning to the people of his time was a mark of his love for them as well as for us. The whole of life is an opportunity to draw closer to God and grow in his kind of life-style for us. If we miss that opportunity by allowing ourselves to be possessed by possessions, by committing ourselves to the things of this world, then we will have missed the point of life and we will stand empty-handed before God with no excuse.

The other piece of good news besides that Jesus loves us enough to warn us is that he shows us how to live the emancipated kind of life in which we are tied not to possessions but to our love for God. By his rich prayer life, his regular visits to the synagogue, his time spent caring for people, teaching people, loving people, Jesus demonstrated a freedom from the kind of life which commits so much time to amassing property, caring for property and disposing of property. In spending himself for us at the cross he surrendered the most important possession he had as a human being, his very self—and he did it in freedom. There is no more beautiful picture in all of history of the life perfectly lived than this free, self-giving, loving life of Jesus. We live in another time and place today and we are not about to surrender all that we have to walk in the marketplace with our toga and sleep on the ground-- nor does God ask that of us. We are, however, encouraged by Jesus to trust that the life he gave for us at the cross seeks to live within us and empower us. We are encouraged to claim the freedom he offers at the cross to live for God and for our fellows through the power of Jesus’ loving spirit living within us.

There is a question which the parable puts to us today. Perhaps we can find the time to consider it as we sit together at table or as we reflect while driving or working-out at the fitness center. What would fulfill me more, free mo more, establish me more as a person—acquiring more things, or sharing more of myself with others? I overheard two adult students talking in a class I taught this past week. They were assessing their priorities in life. One considered living and working in Austin, but then retiring in Dallas because she felt you could acquire a house with a basement and more square footage for the same money there. The other was more concerned about how her salary and vacation time could be improved by relocating to Virginia, based on information she had received. As with the farmer in the parable, there is nothing wrong with such reflection. The question is whether it forms the basis for one’s self-understanding in life, whether it preoccupies it above everything else? What is the essence of your own ongoing serious reflection? A new home-theatre system? The latest Chrysler sports car? A new deck? A remodeled family room? A vacation in Puerta Vallarta? Would that do it? Would that do it once and for all?

Or is it possible that you might become more fulfilled, because you were created to be fulfilled differently, as a person who shared more of yourself, willingly, freely, lovingly with your spouse, your children, your neighbor, your friend? Would you be more fulfilled if you shared more of your treasures to make a difference in someone’s life? I was struck by the billboard highlighting the Afro-American woman who spent her life as a single woman putting all of the classmates in her small high school through college! What a legacy! The big question is whether you are really freed and established in God’s unique kingdom by acquiring – or by giving yourself away? Perhaps that is the question to think about today—at the same time as you consider the one who asks the question. He is, on the one hand, the one who said, “You fool,” to the farmer in the parable. He is also the one who said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” from the cross. His love seeks to empower us and to free us. And, as we know from Jesus' imagery-filled language, we always have these choices? What would it be like never to realize that we have choices-- or not to understand that pure grace leads us to know what kinds of choices make us truly rich?

Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus
Concordia University at Austin
Austin, TX

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