Sometimes it can be tricky to determine where a Gospel narrative ends and a new one begins. It seems that chapter 11 of the Gospel of Luke flows directly into chapter 12, as if they were a part of the same narrative.
In Luke chapter 11 we find Jesus teaching a large crowd. In verse 37 Jesus is invited to dine with some Pharisees and lawyers and they were amazed that Jesus did not wash his hands before dinner.
Did he deliberately not wash his hands to make a point? To provoke a response? Given the prominence of the cleanliness laws in the prevailing culture at the time and the strict adherence to it as a religious rite of the people, it seems likely that Jesus was aware he was setting the stage for a confrontation.
To the Pharisees, Jesus said, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? …woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God… you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places.”
That is some hard hitting stuff! Who among us can withstand such a stinging rebuke? It is easy to spot the parallel between Jesus calling the Pharisees fools (aphrones) in chapter 11:40 and God calling the farmer a fool (Aphron) in chapter 12:20 . But Jesus was not finished; to the lawyers he said,
“Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.” Referencing God’s Wisdom Jesus said “you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”
If Jesus wasn’t being clear, he concludes with a condemnation of the whole generation of Pharisees and lawyers; Jesus charged them with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world.” Is there a greater denunciation that could be handed down? This incident marks a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. A point from which there is no return.
Perhaps it is no surprise then that Luke’s Gospel tells us that the Pharisees and the lawyers became very hostile to Jesus and began to look for ways to trip him up.
Immediately following this confrontation Jesus returns to the large crowd and has a sit down with his disciples, marking the beginning of chapter 12. He warns them about the yeast of the Pharisees, the rising of their lust for vengeance. He warns the disciples that they too will face the coming wrath, and to keep the faith. Try to imagine how frightened you might be if Jesus came and told you these things. The Pharisees and scribes, feeling bitterly offended, followed him outside and cross-examined him on everything he was saying.
So there is a snapshot of the context for today’s reading; Jesus at the centre of tension, surrounded by the hostility of the Pharisees and lawyers on one side, the conflicted disciples, torn between faith and fear, on another side, and the adoring crowds on yet another side.
We don’t know who it was who called from the crowd, the one who called out ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me;’ to which Jesus replied ‘who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’
Given the context, I wonder if it was a Pharisee or scribe, one who would seek to trip up Jesus. Was the comment meant as a challenge? Perhaps if the statement came in earnest from an honest follower, Jesus’ reply would not have been so pointed. In any case, it seems like an oddly timed demand on Jesus, and Jesus does not take the bait. Instead, Jesus takes the opportunity to teach the crowd about the seduction of wealth, material abundance, and spiritual barrenness, the very things of which he had just accused the Pharisees and lawyers.
At first read, it is difficult to say exactly what the rich landowner in Jesus’ parable was doing that was so wrong. It doesn’t really seem as if the farmer is particularly greedy, nothing noted about ill-gotten gains. It seems the farmer had gained his wealth through preparation and hard work. The land of the rich man had produced abundantly; so much so that he was caught unprepared by how great the yield was. He didn’t know what to do; building bigger barns seemed like a practical solution to his conundrum. Can we fault the man for thinking about saving his excess crops? After all, one never knew what to expect from the land from year to year.
Esteemed Lutheran Theologian David Lose points out that the internal conversation the landowner is having with himself is centered on the self; Lose writes, “notice the farmer’s consistent focus throughout… ‘what should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ “Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul....’
(Quote)The relentless use of the first person pronouns "I" and "my" betray a preoccupation with self. There is no thought to using the abundance to help others, no expression of gratitude for his good fortune, no recognition of God at all. The farmer has fallen prey to worshiping the most popular of gods: the Unholy Trinity of "me, myself, and I." This leads to, and is most likely caused by, a second mistake. He is not foolish because he makes provision for the future; he is foolish because he believes that by his wealth he can secure his future: "Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry. (End Quote).
And yet his very life is exhausted that very night; by the Grace of God the fields produced abundantly, symbolizing the abundant life the farmer was about to fulfill. This parable of Jesus strikes at the heart of the illusion that through productivity and ambition alone we can spare ourselves from the frailty of the human experience.
How many of us find ourselves at the mercy of an economic system that leaves many people feeling vulnerable and unfulfilled. A generational employment crisis confronts our youth; poverty among seniors is a widespread concern; there has been sustained downward pressure on job security, wages and benefits. Many are being left behind and many are drowning in debt. Our system thrives on the instant gratification of materialism and consumerism, making credit readily available with crushing interest rates, feeding into the false promises of the market, leading more and more people around the world into increasingly unstable life situations.
Statistics Canada reports that in the first quarter of 2016, the average household debt ratio in Canada was at 165.3%. This means that for every dollar of disposable income, the average Canadian owes $1.65, the highest in the G7. That is not including national or provincial debt… that is strictly personal debt. I’m sure that most, if not all of us, know someone, or have experienced for ourselves what it feels like to constantly live under that kind of financial pressure. Even with a determined effort, it can be difficult to get out from under that kind of pressure. It does us no good for those of us to simply blame people for their own failure succeed in today’s economic order. It is a very thin line between abundance and scarcity. Many people who are just staying afloat, living paycheck to paycheck, are one unexpected crisis away from serious trouble. One illness, one loss of job, one accident away.
Wealth can certainly generate security and comfort, yet Jesus reminds us that it is often the poorest of the poor who often demonstrate the most generosity of spirit and gratitude for what God has freely given. Right relationship with God and neighbour give us the confidence to know that we are worthy of God’s love and honour. It provides us with the dignity and meaning we all seek. It places our relative wealth in perspective and teaches us to be generous with it toward others.
Curiously, the farmer said to his “soul;” “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” He addressed his Soul but all of the things he listed were provisions for the body. The wealthy man failed to recognize his absolute dependence on God’s gifts, the natural order of creation. He also demonstrated a lack of gratitude for what God had done for him and all of the people who depended on that farm for livelihood and survival.
The Gospel of Luke provides more examples than any other Gospel of the pitfalls of the relationship between faith and money. There must be some reason why this teaching was so prominent. Why is it, do you suppose, that Luke and his community were so concerned with the seduction of wealth and the temptations of material wealth? In what ways do these lessons serve as important reminders to us here and now?