“Then he told them a parable…”
Chilmark Community Church
July 31, 2016 Rev. Vicky Hanjian
This is the time of year in the lectionary cycle when we are on the road with Jesus as he moves about in Galilee – dining with friends, spending time with his inner circle of disciples, and teaching the ever expanding multitudes who gather around him wherever he goes.
In the verses just before the point where we pick up the story this morning, Jesus was teaching his disciples about what they might expect in the near future if they stay the course with him. He has just told them “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11) It is a pretty succinct lesson about where they are to put their trust as they venture out into the countryside on their own.
Another version of Jesus’ instructions about how the disciples are to conduct themselves appears in the 6th chapter of Mark where Jesus sends them out with instructions to take nothing for your journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts – wearing only sandals and a tunic – no change of underwear! In both instances, Jesus teaches his followers that they need to let go of their dependency on external resources. The disciples are sent out with only the strength of the message they bear and their confidence in the God whom their master serves. They are to find their sustenance in the hospitality of those whom they meet along the way.
We kind of have to picture Jesus trying to get these challenging and fundamental ideas across to his disciples while surrounded by a crowd of thousands so great that they trample one another. (12:12) Sort of like trying to have an important, intimate conversation in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
In the midst of this conversation with his disciples, a voice from the surrounding crowd shouts out “Rabbi! Tell my brother to share the family inheritance with me!” And Jesus’ attention shifts to responding to the question from the midst of the multitude. It seems as though the conversation with his disciples gets pushed to the back burner temporarily – – but maybe not really.
The man’s request was not an unusual one and the man was not terribly out of line in asking Jesus to intervene in his family situation. From many of the gospel stories, we know that Jesus was viewed as a rabbi. A rabbi was educated in the Torah, the law of God, and one of the functions of a rabbi was to interpret Jewish law and adjudicate disputes between people based on the law.
What is, perhaps, a little unusual, is Jesus response: “Who set me to be judge or arbitrator over you?” Jesus seems to resist the role of judge in response to the man’s request and gives a parable instead.
As we consider the parable, it is good to keep in mind who the listeners are. There is the man who asks the question – he has a personal vested interest in what Jesus has to say. There are the disciples – – the inner circle, who are learning what they need to know to carry out Jesus’ ministry – learning how to be in the world in the same manner as Jesus. And there is the multitude of thousands, trampling one another to get a closer spot to the teacher.
Keeping the whole audience in mind helps to take some of the pressure off the man who asks for Jesus’ intervention. We know nothing about this man except for what is revealed in his demand of Jesus. Is he grieving the loss of his parents. Does he feel left out of the will? Is he in pain – wondering if there is any blessing left for him? Is he feeling anguish, wondering if he is loved and valued? These are the kinds of issues that come up for surviving children as the will is being read. Traditionally, the eldest son received the inheritance – or at the least, received the bulk of it. If this younger son is the only intended audience for Jesus’ response then Jesus’ answer might come off as really insensitive to the complexity of the man’s request. So why give a parable that seems to be about greed?
The multitudes that crowd around Jesus are mostly are poor, uneducated, hungry and oppressed. Many of them are sick and in need of healing and they look to Jesus for a word of hope. They hunger and jostle for position closer to Jesus as the source of compassion, healing, and unconditional love. So – how does a parable that seems to be about greed help them?
And there are the disciples – – always on the road with Jesus; always learning lessons about self sacrifice and faithfulness; learning the intricacies of the life of service and compassion. What do they need to learn from the parable?
On first reading, the parable does indeed seem to be a teaching about greed. Greed is a strange thing and it is something none of us would wish to be accused of. It does terrible things to people. We are all subject to it to some degree in our modern culture.
Theologian Walter Brueggeman, says greed is born out of the idea of scarcity, and scarcity is born out of anxiety – and all three are acted upon in an abundant world. Abundance is denied, not trusted, forgotten in our culture.
Greed comes in all shapes and sizes. A really contemporary form is the greed for more “gigs” – – more access to everything the Internet can supply – – more storage space for all that information – – more apps so that more information is readily available – – leading to more need for greater storage space on our devices so that the information will be right at our finger tips when we need it.
I read recently that our ability to simply wonder about things is seriously hampered because we don’t have to wonder anymore – – we can go directly to our devices and find out about absolutely everything – – and our wondering imaginations and our curiosity do not have to be engaged or exercised at all. In many ways, this is a tremendous loss. We have almost literally become attached to our devices.
I am both amused and disturbed as I drive up Circuit Ave in OB and notice how few people in any age category are walking empty handed – – without their “stuff” as comedian George Carlin once so humorously described it. It seems as though almost everyone has a phone in their hand – – many with their phones in use while navigating their way through crowds of people and across moving traffic. Even two year olds in strollers have electronic devices to keep them amused as their parents continually consult their own smart phones while moving through the crowds. The attachment to their devices cuts them off from connection with the human beings around them – sometime putting them in actual physical danger of walking in front of a moving car.
I think it is important to notice that Jesus doesn’t say that wealth is inherently bad. The man in the parable was being a good steward of the abundance with which his crops blessed him. The practical thing was to build bigger barns in which to store and protect the grain. For a farmer to do any less would be foolish and irresponsible.
The parable illustrates Jesus’ primary concern – and that is for the state of the man’s relationship with God and therefore with his relationship with his fellow human beings. It is in the man’s dialogue with himself that we get to the crux of the parable. The farmer has fallen out of relationship. Listen again: The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘what should I do, I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said [to himself]:’I will pull down my barns and build larger ones…’ And I will say to my self: Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat , drink, be merry.’ There is no one else in the room. The farmer relates only to himself as he contemplates how to manage his wealth. The voice of God butts in on his inner dialogue and warns: “Fool, this very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared – – whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
So – therein lies the danger. The our attachment to the abundance of all that we have available to us may be the thing that keeps us furthest away from deep and meaningful relationship with the Holy One – – and with each other.
My grandson and I have been going off island each week for a variety of reasons. I love the trips because they give me a chance to be with him one to one. On each occasion, just as we have been dropped off at the boat, he has gone through a slight bit of panic as he realized he had forgotten his cell phone – – and Grandma doesn’t carry one, much less know how to use one.
This has provided a few “teachable moments” – and it has been fun to be able to say: “not to worry – if we need a phone we will ask for help – It’s the way we did it in the old days.” Being without the technology has allowed for us to find our way together – – to solve problems together by exploring what options are available to us – – to encounter a friendly stranger – – sometimes even an accommodating steamship authority employee more than willing to assist us by letting us use her phones. Momentarily stepping away from attachment to the abundance of convenience and the sense of security that the presence of a mobile phone might afford us, we discovered that talking with each other, engaging in people watching, interacting with the occasional stranger we encounter, enlisting the assistance of others, is all a lot more exciting and fun.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus sends his disciples out with only the clothes on their backs, their walking sticks, and the sandals on their feet. It’s kind of the equivalent of sending them out without their cell phones. They are forced to encounter strangers and in the process, perhaps, encounter the face of God.
They are made vulnerable to the kindness and hospitality of others as they take their Master’s message of lovingkindness and peace and justice into the countryside. Jesus sends them out with minimal equipment so that they are not attached to guarding or protecting anything that might get in the way of a close encounter with another. Jesus asks them to leave their “stuff” behind.
Now – this is not a sermon on the evils of cell phones any more than Jesus’ parable is a sermon on the evils of wealth. The abundance of technology we enjoy often helps to make our lives safer and easier in a lot of ways. Jesus is simply asking us to hear him more clearly – – and to understand that the more attachment we have to this abundance, however it manifests itself – money, land, technology – – even our abundance of talent and creativity and good works, the more we are tempted to place it at the center of our lives. When this happens, the holiness of life in relationship with God and with one another is in danger of becoming impoverished.
The farmer in the story stands to lose his soul in his attachment to his barns and his grain. His inner dialogue with himself is pretty barren. He has lost his connection to what is holy – the intimate relationship with the God and with the human community around him where the Presence of God may so often be met. That is a huge loss.
Perhaps we can hear the parable as a call to mindfulness – a mindfulness that insists that we pay attention to where our attachments lie – – a mindfulness that alerts us to when we are choosing a life that insulates us from “God encounters” with other human beings in favor of protecting what is ours – – a mindfulness that guides us to choose richness toward the Holy One and toward one another. It might just be as simple as that.
We live abundant lives. May we be blessed in our abundance to see the face of God in all the places where God chooses to meet us. May we hold our abundance loosely so that we can dance freely and unencumbered with the Holy One. AMEN