Living With Abundance
Ecclesiastes 8: 8-16
August 2, 2015
Well, this is a doozy of a parable – one that causes us to question “What did he mean by that?” This is Jesus – speaking to his disciples apart from the crowd of thousands who are literally trampling on one another in their efforts to get close to Jesus.
And then – – an interruption – -seemingly out of the blue. A man emerges as an individual out of the crowd and asks Jesus to settle an inheritance dispute. We struggle with Jesus’ response. It almost seems out of character – lacking in understanding and compassion. He asks the man “Who makes me a judge or arbitrator over you?” We would rather that Jesus listened to the man’s complaint against his brother – – and give him advice for how to resolve it – – but Jesus does not answer him directly. He abruptly gives a terse teaching, presumably turning back to his disciples…and facing the crowd: “And he said to them ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
In a way, these words kind of set us up to understand the parable that follows as story warning us about the dangers of greed. But our Bible study last week took us in another direction – toward the question of how do we live with abundance?
The opening line of the parable reads “The land of a rich man produced abundantly” – – Apparently he was a reasonably good steward of his good land. He farmed it well and it produced a bumper crop that year. One almost wonders if he was surprised at the bounty as he talks to himself. “What am I going to do with this? I have no place to store this much food.” One might also wonder if he might also have had a bumper crop of zucchini or tomatoes or kale – we tend to ask the same questions as the height of the summer harvest comes on. What are we going to do with the abundance?
The farmer’s answer is to tear down his existing barn and build a bigger one. All week long I kept hearing the classic line from “JAWS” in the deep background: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat!” The farmer needed a bigger barn. So far, so good. He’s doing the prudent thing – taking care of the bounty – – making adequate storage so it doesn’t spoil or get wasted. Greed does not seem to be the issue. When the barn is built and all of the grain is safely under cover, he takes a few moments to sit back and relax – maybe he has the great feeling of satisfaction that comes when the last of the pickling cukes have been sealed in their jars and the tomatoes have all been turned into sauce for the winter, and the last of the beans have been blanched and placed in the freezer.
The Farmer kicks back in his rocking chair on the porch. Maybe a glass of wine and some good cheese (grape juice if he is a Methodist!). He rejoices – – talks to himself: “Soul – – – time to relax – – you have enough to last for many years – – Eat! Drink – Be merry!” Oooops! God appears in the story and puts another spin on the farmer’s deep satisfaction: “You fool! You won’t live through the night! When you are gone, who will own all that you have stashed away?”
But maybe the story isn’t about a greedy man – – maybe it’s about a person who just doesn’t know what to do with abundance. The version of the gospel that we read pictures God saying: “Fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” There are other translations that read “Fool! On this very night they
(all your possessions) are demanding your life from you.” Is it possible that the abundance the Farmer was celebrating was also the thing that put his soul in danger? Parables pose disturbing questions. What do we do with abundance?
There is a clue about a possible meaning hidden in plain sight in the parable. The farmer says to his Soul: “eat, drink and be merry”. – The way we most commonly hear it is “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die.” So familiar – where does it come from? We heard it in the reading from Ecclesiastes. The opening words of the book of Ecclesiastes are most often read as “vanity upon vanity, all is vanity” or “Utter futility! All is futile!” But the Hebrew word hevel that gets translated as vanity or futility also means “insubstantial” “impermanent”, even “vaporous”. The message of the book of Ecclesiastes is not that life is vain or futile, but rather that life is transient and impermanent. Ecclesiastes is a guidebook to living without permanence and security while still finding joy in living.1 So when Jesus includes the phrase “Eat, drink and be merry” in his parable, he drops a clue that says “dig here for treasure.”
There is nothing wrong with abundance. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with being wealthy. The farmer got into deep water when he thought he could hold on to his bounty and it would insure that his life would unfold in pleasant ways. He put his trust in his wealth for his well being. But, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, Death is the great leveler: rich and poor, powerful and powerless, wise and foolish, we all fear the advent of death because it destroys our illusions of permanence.2
So, perhaps Jesus wanted his friends to know that nothing is permanent – wanted them not to get too attached to things the way they are. Even his life among them was not permanent. Maybe he wanted them to know that it was the abundant grace of God that would keep their lives full and rich. But the grace of God cannot be stored up against the future either. It flows out to us beyond all measure, filling us with a sense of well-being, guiding us when we need it, healing us when we need it – -but it is continually moving – – never the same from moment to moment – never the same from person to person. We cannot save it up for the future. If we try to keep it for ourselves, it sort of shrivels and dies. The power of God’s love is often referred to as “Living Water” – – living water is water that moves – a downpour of rain – the oceans – the rivers –Jesus referred to himself as Living Water and reminded the woman at the well that whoever drank from him would never be thirsty again. We are the recipients of all that flowing, moving, thirst – quenching grace. Through the life and teaching of Jesus, God pours forth abundant spiritual wealth. We cannot contain it. We cannot limit it. We cannot store it up for the future. Indeed, we have to continually empty our barns. We pay it forward. For God’s love to work in the world, it has to reach us. We have to receive it. We need to let it flow through us. We extend generosity and hospitality to others out of our abundance. We offer compassion in place of judgment. We seek justice in place of power. When we obstruct the flow of grace – – perhaps like a farmer storing up his abundance in his barns instead of sharing it with others, we die. Not physically, perhaps – – but our spirits shrivel and dry up. We become smaller – dehydrated, if you will – than we are meant to be.
With the writer of Ecclesiastes, at the communion table, we come and share together in the symbols of the abundant, Life-giving, Life-saving generosity of God through Jesus. We eat – and we drink – and we are surely called to be joyful and merry, even in the face of all that is imperfect in the world. Our story ends differently from that of the rich farmer. When we share the abundance, we do indeed have life. Jesus said “I have come that you may have life and that your life may be abundant.” In communion, the barn doors are open wide – and all who want to come are welcome to join the party. May it always be so.
1 Ecclesiastes Annotated and Explained by Rabbi Rami Shapiro , Skylight Paths Publishing Woodstock, Vermont, 2010 p.2
2 Shapiro, p. 74