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Luke 12:13-21

Luke 12:13-21 A woman in a chic yoga outfit with a tiny dog walked by our garage sale, which we were holding on the lawn of a posh little house only four blocks from the beach in Santa Monica. She lingered near us, even though we could tell she was completely uninterested in anything that was for sale.

“I live in a 6,000-square-foot house just a few blocks from here,” the woman told us, for reasons that escape me. Perhaps she just wanted to start some conversation or make a connection with a neighbor? Whatever the reason, she continued with her rather precise descriptions of her rather enormous houses. “We are in the process of building one that is 14,000 square feet.”

I was, as I usually am, kind of at a loss for words. I rarely have good spontaneous conversations with strangers. I say hello, they say good morning. But my friend Val, who was also there that morning, seems to have these sorts of conversations a lot. She is kind, but she’s also blunt. It is one of the things I love about her.

“See, I just don’t get that,” Val said. The woman looked a little bowled over.

I was still trying to wrap my tiny brain around 14,000 square feet.

“When you have money, what else do you do with it?” dog walker responded.

“Not buy a 14,000-square-foot house!” Val said. (See why I love Val?)

“I help people, too,” the woman said, bowled-overedly. “I feel so good when I help people. I contribute a lot to charity.”

She proceeded to list out her contributions, as if we were the IRS instead of trying to sell our old electronics for pennies on the dollar.

I don’t know if I imagined the bit of helplessness I thought I heard in the woman’s voice when she asked, “what else do you do with it?” It is entirely possible. But still, the question rang in my ears for the rest of the day.

This passage in Luke is a little bothersome to a lot of people in America, I think. It is titled, in many translations, “The Parable of the Rich Fool.” Now, that would be OK if the guy really was a rich fool as we like think of them, like if he spent all his money on things from the Sky Mall catalog or something. But to most of us relatively rich Americans, he just seems prudent. He’s had a good harvest, he’s doing exactly what we’re all taught to do: he’s investing and saving and thinking about his future. He doesn’t really sound like a rich fool, Jesus.

Perhaps the real problem lies in how Jesus prefaces his parable. He warns: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” And this type of greed might effectively be referred to as avarice.

Chaucer defines avarice as “to keep and withhold such things as one has when there is no need to do so.” Avarice is the clenched fist sort of greed, the one that holds on and holds back. The tense one.

We are not created to live in stress and anxiety. Our bodies pay for it: our stomachs clench, our muscles tense, our teeth grind. Interestingly, chronic teeth-grinding is referred to in the medical community as bruxism; the word comes from the Greek bryx, and it literally means a gnashing of the teeth. Dentists note that the primary cause of the condition is anxiety, and the number of extreme cases tends to rise when conditions are stressful, such as during a recession. If you’ll recall, many times in the bible hell is described as a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Anxiety is a sort of hell.

Our hearts suffer, too. Thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas equates fear with a “contraction” of the heart. He even uses the Greek term systole, which we will recognize from those squeezy blood pressure machines that are sometimes in the back of drug stores. When we perceive a threat, something we can’t control, we contract inwardly in order to protect ourselves. Scott Bader-Saye, in his book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, explains it this way: “By imagining some future evil, fear draws us in on ourselves so we ‘extend’ ourselves to ‘fewer things.’ This, in turn, becomes a hindrance to Christian discipleship, which calls us not to contract but to expand, not to limit ourselves to a few things but to open ourselves charitably and generously to many things, not to attack that which threatens us but to love even the enemy.” Perhaps what our congregations need to hear in this parable is about a generosity that forces us to open our hearts rather than to close them. They need to be reminded, as Bader-Saye notes, that one of the byproducts of a life lived in fear is accumulation. It is easier to trust a storage unit or a 401(k) than it is to trust God sometimes. They need to hear that money can’t save us or love us or grant us the kind of security that we all long for, even though it promises to; only God can do that. And they need to remember, above all, that God will. We need not fear.