Parable of the Rich Man (Luke 12:16-21)

Here are the notes from today’s service – written before I was reminded it was to be an all-age one!

The backdrop to today’s parable is one that has a definite contemporary ring to it.
It’s a story of the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots.
It’s about two brothers. Chances are there were more of them than that. In a world without contraception, there were problem a number of brothers and sisters, each with their own families to support.
Their Dad has died. As was the custom, his land would have been left to the eldest child, or at least that largest portion of it. That’s the way it would have worked.

Now I don’t doubt that that would cause problems if it happened today. It isn’t particularly fair. No doubt tempers would flare as siblings rowed over their place in their father’s affections and grab what they can.

For the First Century brothers, however, the squabble was more serious than that. You see, it wasn’t just a case of which Dad loved the most, or who was lucky enough to get the fine piece of porcelain that had been his pride and joy. No it was a matter of survival.

Remember as we’ve touched upon already in our look at the parables, most of the land was held by the wealthy few, bringing them comfort and riches, and leaving the overwhelming majority to scrape a living as peasants of the scraps that were left. A bit like trying to buy a house in Broxbourne – unless you inherit one you’ve got no chance, unless you are unusually well off! For these peasants, the only way of getting land for themselves was to inherit it. The catch is, for each peasant landowner who died, there were more than one child waiting to inherit. The land that was available for the common man was decreasing by the generation.

The eldest son had inherited. He had land, he probably wasn’t secure, not enough land or money for that, but at least he stood a chance of supporting his family now. The other son? He had nothing. No land, no money, no chance… No wonder he wants Jesus to speak up on his behalf. Of course the catch is that if he managed to persuade his brother to hand over some of the land, would that really make a difference? Or would they both end up below without enough…

Of course their real argument is not with each other, its with the wealthy, those who in their greed to have lots, have preventing them from having anything.

Maybe their argument is also with God. After all he had promised the land to them, and now, here they are having it taken away from them, piece by piece. What was he going to do about this injustice…

Does their story sound familiar? Think of these situations that are regularly in the news:
· Multi-nationals like Tesco squeezing out the humble family run high street shop. The same few chains run the high street in every town. No one else gets a look in…
· A major TV deal has just been brokered for Premiership football clubs, giving them enormous bonuses for simply being in the league. Even the losers get something like £30M. What chance have clubs in lower divisions got…
· There are constantly complaints about ‘fat cat’ directors awarding themselves enormous bonuses, whilst their work force face cut backs and we foot the bill…
· The West have 70%+ of the world’s wealth, leaving the poorest to scramble over the remaining pennies.

Seeing Jesus, the younger brother calls out, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” What’s he doing here? Trying to get Jesus to put religious pressure on his good Jewish brother? Seeking the moral high-ground?

Of course Jesus is no fool. He sees that to get involved in this one is to ask for trouble. If he sides with the younger brother, he’s endangering both of them and their families. If he sides with the older brother, where’s his compassion for the younger one and his family. This is a no win situation. He’s not daft, he realises that he’s being used, he’s simply a tool here. It’s not his responsibility to deal with this family dispute. It’s not his place, his business, sensibly he backs out of getting drawn in, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”

He goes further, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

What is he saying here? Is he saying that the younger brother is being greedy? I don’t think so; to desire enough to survive is not wrong. But having said that, these words are a true warning to all, poor and rich. Greed is a danger for those who have. That is clear. But it is also a danger to those who have not. Over my visits to Sierra Leone I have seen that. The troubles of that nation have in so many ways been caused by the greed and corruption of the powerful, enslaving again its people, but also, those that have not are enslaved by the desire to have what they have seen we have, and the wealth shown off by their leaders. This greed robs them of the ability to see and think straight, the ability to go out and work hard, to live the honest life. Greed is a curse to those who have and those who have not.

Some say that faith and politics don’t mix. They clearly haven’t read what comes next. Having dodged getting embroiled in a family feud, Jesus turns his attention to the root of the problem, and tells a simple story…

16And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18″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. 19And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ‘
20″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?’
21″This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”

Ouch! I am sure that all of those who heard this knew exactly whom Jesus was talking about here. This wasn’t a tale to warn either of these two brothers about the perils of greed. Jesus is talking about the wealthy of the country. Those who had bought up the land and abandoned the poor to scrabble over the scraps. He was talking to those who had hoarded wealth and kept it to themselves, when on their doorsteps were the hungry, the sick, and the desperate. He was talking about the Jewish leaders who were more interested in their own status than the welfare of their people. He was talking about the Roman leaders who had come and taken their inheritance away from them.

Some people ask the question, ‘why did Jesus die?’ Our answer is that he died for our sins, so that we could be forgiven and reconciled to God. He died that we might become children of God and inherit eternal life. And of course he did.

But that isn’t the only reason he died. Why was he arrested and crucified by the Romans? Why was it that the Jewish religious leaders were so riled by him that they demanded his demise? It was stories like this that killed Jesus. His was an age that didn’t practise freedom of speech or democracy. If you challenged the powers that be in this kind of way, then you were literally putting your life on the line. And yet here is Jesus, deciding to side with the poor and unjustly oppressed. Crucifixion was the sentence for revolutionaries, for treason, and it is because of his public stance that he ended up on the cross.

Jesus died because he claimed that those who selfishly hoarded wealth when those around them were suffering were fools. The word he used here ‘fool’ sounds quite harmless in English doesn’t it. Calling someone a fool today won’t get you locked up. But to his contemporaries, his word for fool was a grave slight. A fool was someone who lived his or her life without reference to God.

Listen to his warning to this ‘fool’. Already life is not so good. No family or friends are mentioned. Is he already alone? Is he lonely? His desire is to save up enough to feel secure, and then he will eat, drink and be merry. To be honest, this sounds to me to be an empty life… This man thinks he has everything! He thinks he is secure! And then God turns up and takes away his life, leaving his possessions for others to enjoy. A lifetime of accumulation in order to enjoy in the future. He had so much, but never enjoyed what he had, and now it’s gone.

Is this a parable without hope? It sounds bleak doesn’t it? And yet, even in this passage there is a hint of redemption. To the oppressed, Jesus is saying that ultimately the reign of tyrants and oppressors come to an end. Death is God’s ultimate tool of justice, God remains in charge, no matter how big we might think we are. The riches of the wealthy man are no longer his, they are redistributed. The simple fact that there were good crops reminds us of God’s provision.

It is also a warning, a warning to those that have and that want, that they live in reference to God. To do that means to share what we given, and not to hold on to it and hoard it. The fate of this certain rich man doesn’t need to be the fate of all rich people. There are other stories in the Bible where the landowners are generous and the employers caring.

*****

Let me finish by telling a story…

St. Somewhere was a good church to be in. Whilst others around it suffered, it was dynamic, vibrant even. God had blessed it, and it had grown. It was good being God’s children.

St. Somewhere was renown for its worship. With a top-notch band and fine speakers, it worked hard to make the services stimulating and pleasurable, always seeking to get better. As a family they felt proud that they could put on a good show, that they were slick, well organised. The midweek meetings were times of intimacy with God, and the prayer meetings on fire!

Of course they couldn’t take all this for granted and so the people of St. Somewhere put lots of effort into getting it just how they wanted it. There were debates about seating arrangements, about who should do what and how everything should be organized. Committees were set up, minutes taken. Occasionally they would fall out, disagree about the best way, but this was inevitable, as these were important matters that they were dealing with and they felt deeply about them.

Outside St Somewhere on the wall sat two non-Christians. Jesus looked upon them and considered all that their lives lacked. Turning to his Father he asked, ‘Who is going to pass on to them the inheritance that you have so freely given…’

*****

“Watch out! ” says Jesus, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” What makes a full and successful life? It is not wealth. Not possessions. Not structures. It’s our relationships with each other. It’s how we treat one another. Loving each other is loving God.

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