Proper 13, Year C,
Hosea 11:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21:
What would Jesus do? WWJD was a popular question that, for any lack of better word, became branded early in the 1990s. Wearing bracelets or necklaces with WWJD inscribed on them was supposed to remind us to live our lives like Christ. Or at least to ask ourselves what would Jesus do in this circumstance.
Today we have a man who is asking this question but instead of having to wonder what Jesus might do, he is fortunate enough to ask him directly. “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,” he says. According to law, the sons were to divide the assets of the estate, including land, money, debts, and any other property. The eldest son would get an extra share compared to the other sons. So, in this case, if there were two sons the eldest would get two thirds of the estate and the younger would get one third. This extra share was to help the eldest son take care of his mother and any unwed sisters he might have.
As often the case, we do not get a lot of insight into the question being posed. We don’t know if the elder brother wasn’t dividing the assets at all, or if he just wasn’t doing it fairly. If the younger brother was not practicing the faith, or an apostate, he may not have a legal claim to his share. So what would Jesus do in this situation?
If we didn’t have the rest of this text, I think many of us would have thought Jesus would arbitrate the situation. After all, in other parts of the New Testament this is what we are called to do. It is said, if there are disagreements, they should be brought to us and judged from a faith point of view and not the world’s point of view. (1 Cor 6:1-11). There could be others who might not think that Jesus would actually arbitrate the dispute. They might think he would give the older brother some wisdom such as, “do what is right.” After all, this phrase is in many of the gospel and epistle letters. In either case, we know this is not what Jesus did.
Predicting Jesus isn’t easy. Just a few weeks ago we read of the disagreement between Martha and Mary. Again we could have asked, “What would Jesus do?” I don’t know how many of us would have thought that Jesus would so clearly side with Mary, who was sitting at his feet, and against Martha; busying herself with house work. At least for my logical mind, and even in the simplest of circumstances, it is hard to predict what Jesus would do.
With regard to the man asking for Jesus’s help in his estate dispute, Jesus says, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" Jesus doesn’t just throw up his hands; he tells us a parable. Jesus seems to know this person’s motivation comes from greed. In the parable the rich man builds new barns to store his abundant grain and other possessions. The man does this so he will be able to live a relaxed life, with knowledge of his security. He can eat, and drink, and be merry. The man says to himself, “I’ll be living the American dream!”
On face value, this sounds like a condemnation against our IRA’s and 401K’s. Possibly it is, but clearly there is more to it than that. I think the key to this parable is found near the end in which it says, that we have to be rich toward God. This man was storing excess stuff, not only grain but possessions. What good are things if they are just stored away? It is obvious that we have too much stuff in our lives. One of the fastest growing sectors of business is in self-storage units. There is more square-footage in self-storage units across the country than in office space in New York City actually all of New York State. I have heard financial advice that says we shouldn’t rent storage units long term. Storage units are great between moves or for certain business reason. But generally speaking if you rent one year after year, you are probably paying more for rent than what the stuff inside is worth. Judging from this parable affluent people throughout history have been storing too much stuff.
The man also stores grain. He is using this storage as a retirement account. Back then, as today, there are expectations for people of faith when it comes to income and assets. This man was expected to give the first fruits of his labors to God through the “Church.” These would have been given to the temple in taxes, donations, and sacrifices. He would also have been expected to be generous with his neighbors, especially those in need. This points to a theological problem. This man is not supposed to store grain for himself if there are people around who are hungry and in need. Christ says the poor will always be with us, in part this is a indictment against our lack of generosity. It is clear in this story that this man wasn’t generous to God. And we need to remember that being generous to your neighbor is also being generous to God.
If we look at what this man was planning to do in his retirement. He was planning on living the easy life. Sitting around with the guys and talking about days gone by. But again our faith calls us to do…to be active. We are not called to just eat, drink, and be merry. Christ calls us into the world to help and serve the world. It is clear that this man wanted his wealth so he could separate himself from the world around him.
If we take ourselves back in time, to the first Century, when the letter to the Colossians was written, we will find that we are near the peak of the Roman civilization. Think about how proud the Romans citizens may have been of their nationality. They were the world power, and controlled most of the known western world. Greek was the common language of the people, spoken for commerce and trade, unifying the Roman world with those around them. Rome, from their perspective was the source of economics, power, and politics. If you were born a free Roman, you lived life better than many others. If you lived as an elite Roman, you lived better than most others in the world. In many ways, this is very similar to us in America in which we live in a country with great influence on the economy and politics of the world. Our language is generally the world’s language of commerce. Many even think of our country as setting the standard for the rest of the world.
Paul is speaking to a group of Roman people. He speaks of many things including greed which he equates to idolatry. He even tells them that there is no Greek or Jew, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free. For the proud Roman people, this had to be difficult to hear. It would have to be similar to me saying that there are no Americans. There are no Middle Eastern or Europeans. There are no Mexicans, blacks or whites. But Christ is all and in all. These words are not simply a call of unity but a call to neighbor. In essence, there is no point to being greedy if we are all on equal standing in God. This is a call to remind you who your neighbors are and to be generous with them.
The world is a bigger place than it was to the people of Christ’s day. We have at least four more continents than they knew of and we have mapped every mile of them, at least by satellite. But in other ways the world is much smaller. Through technology we can communicate and visit people all over the world with in second or hours. But this smallness or connectivity we have with each other does not bridge the divide between the haves and the have nots. Whether we look at our country vs. Haiti; or the people in this parish vs those who live across the street and down the block there is a big difference not only in income, but in health care, and justice.
We cannot be the same; we cannot be equal financially, or economically. Nor do I think this is what God is asking of us. But when it comes to basic human needs and civil rights, we are mandated to call them neighbor, to see them as equals as God sees each of us equally. We are expected to help others out of generosity, especially if we have excess. We are called to give God what is God’s and trust in that work. This does take a certain amount of faith. It may mean that you are uncertain that you will have enough for the future. But the truth is when will we ever be certain that we have enough for the future? For all we know we may already have more than enough.