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Luke 12:13-21

Preachers will need courage to take an honest look at Luke 12 over the next couple of weeks. Everyone in the vicinity of Jesus finds a sufficiently difficult challenge, disciples most of all. Where that challenge lies might depend on where readers/listeners find themselves in relation to Jesus.

Although the audiences within the Luke 12 don’t seem to know who Jesus is addressing at any given time (see 12:41), Luke makes a special point of identifying the particular audiences for readers. Before our reading picks up, Jesus is speaking to his disciples in the presence of thousands of members of the crowd (12:1). Our passage is a detour as a man from the crowd interrupts Jesus’ quite heavy teaching to his disciples to make an entirely unrelated request that Jesus take his side in an inheritance dispute he is having with his brother. Jesus briefly addresses (dismisses) the man from the crowd, then addresses the crowd with a word about greed and the parable of the rich fool, and finally, masterfully turns this disruption back toward his disciples and the teaching that was interrupted before the interjection (do not worry…). [1]

These notes about audience, which stand out once you notice them, might have more to do with what we are able to hear than who Jesus is aiming his voice toward. Everyone hears all of the words, but the message that gets through to each group is different. In short, the interrupting man hears, “I have not come to give you what you think you deserve.” The crowd hears, “Don’t try to hold onto what you have in abundance.”  And the disciples hear, “Give away even what you might consider necessary to live.” [2]

Part of Jesus’ address to the disciples appears in next week’s lection, but the lectionary unfortunately omits verses 22-31, effectively splitting what should be one pericope into two distinct pieces with a gap in between. It could be helpful for preachers to re-connect them for their congregations. The parable of the rich fool is plenty to cover in one sermon, but as challenging as it is, it’s helpful to recognize that it’s still a lesser teaching directed at the crowds. Disciples of Jesus have an even higher calling. And, it’s helpful to see the high calling from next week’s teaching to the disciples, which should include his instruction not to worry about survival in the omitted verses, in connection to this week’s warning about putting your hope and confidence in material possessions. [3]

The parable of the rich fool is quite troubling for most of us, if we read it honestly. This man’s land produces abundantly (note that it is the land that produces, not the man), and the man finds himself with a bigger harvest than he can store in his barns. So, he pulls down his barns and builds larger ones so that he can keep this abundant harvest for himself, trusting that these new barns full of crops will give him the ability to sit back and relax, eat, drink, and be merry because it will provide for him for many years.

Most of us should find ourselves caught in the trap that Jesus has set for us here. This rich man is doing what almost all of us would advise our friends and family to do. He has come into some extra income, and he is finding a way to save for the future. Beyond just the “a penny saved is a penny earned” wisdom that we’ve all been taught by people wiser than us, what he is doing makes good economic sense. He has had a bumper crop, and he is likely not the only one. His neighbors, others in his region, have probably all had a good year with weather and bugs, so the grain supply is probably high, which means the price of grain is probably low. By hanging onto his grain and planning to sell it in future years, he can probably sell it at a higher price than if he sold it in a flooded market. His decisions are, by almost all accounts, wise. Even his declaration to himself, that he will be able to “eat, drink, and be merry,” is a famous refrain from Ecclesiastes in the wisdom literature. [4]

But Jesus snaps this trap shut with a surprise ending. As this rich man is congratulating himself on his wisdom and success, God breaks in, saying “You fool!” God tells him that his life is being demanded of him “this very night,” and all of the work he has done to amass these things has been useless. “Whose will they be?” God asks him. It doesn’t matter what material goods you have stored up for your future if you are going to die today. [5] And Jesus says, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” 

The wisdom that it takes to navigate this fallen world successfully is not the wisdom that will prepare you for the coming kingdom of God. How many of us, like the rich man in this parable, spend our time and energy developing a wisdom that will only lead us to trust in things that are passing away? In the church, we claim to put our lives in the hands of Christ, but how many of us make our life decisions, our career decisions, our financial decisions with the goal of providing ourselves with comfort and security? What is the difference between a barn full of wheat and a savings account? Sometimes our measly savings accounts aren’t economically advantageous enough to store our accumulated wealth, so we invest in mutual funds, real estate, and other bigger, “wiser” storehouses for our money… How can we become “rich toward God” instead? Even more challenging is the notion that this is the softer teaching for the crowds. Jesus will call upon his disciples not only to stop hoarding up wealth, but to give away what seems necessary for life. He sends them out with nothing but the clothes on their backs. He tells them to be like the birds, the lilies, and the grass. All of these things live quite fickle lives and die young, you might notice, but they all seem to reproduce rapidly, even in death, and quickly fill the world with new life every spring. Jesus’ followers are not called to build long, comfortable lives for themselves. They are called to follow Jesus to the cross, trusting God for life that cannot be thwarted, even by death.

This is difficult to hear. It’s difficult to preach (more than a little bit because most of us preachers are at best “the crowd” in this one). It’s difficult to face it and not try to find a work-around. But the calling of Jesus in Luke is not for the faint of heart. It is not for those who would cling to their lives and their stuff. Luke is convinced that nothing we possess, nothing we plan, can possibly give us life. But Jesus can. The call of discipleship in Luke is a call to leave everything, everything, behind and follow Jesus. And by God’s grace, we might just do it one of these days.  _________________________ [1] See Luke 12:11, then Luke 12:22-31 [2] This part is beyond the lectionary text, in Luke 12:22-34 [3] Especially Luke 12:32-34. Contrast, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (12:21) with “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (12:34) and the preceding verses.  [4] This could be Jesus correcting a misreading of Ecclesiastes, which actually seems to challenge the idea that you can store up wealth for yourself and live comfortably. The addition of “relax” here is clearly problematic. Ecclesiastes teaches that it is best to “enjoy your work,” sometimes even replacing “be merry” with “enjoy your work” in the “eat, drink, and …” refrain.  [5] If you ever have a chance, trace the money in Luke/Acts. Almost everyone who is wealthy or even holds onto money ends up dead. For Luke, money is actually a threat to your life.