Colossians 3:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Luke 12:13-21
As you know, we are in the midst of a community book read. The premise of David Brook’s The Second Mountain is that the common pattern in life is to become adult and begin climbing the mountain that we are expected to scale. Brooks says, “On the first mountain, we all have to perform certain life tasks: establish an identity, separate from our parents, cultivate our talents, build a secure ego, and try to make a mark in the world. People climbing that first mountain spend a lot of time thinking about reputation management. They are always keeping score. How do I measure up? Where do I rank?”[i]
The rich man in Jesus’ parable today seems to be firmly on the climb up that first mountain. The first clue is that he speaks in the first person—it’s all about himself. And Jesus says, and David Brooks agrees, that this self-centered focus is the problem. Of course, self-centeredness is a polite way to say what Jesus says more directly: the rich fool is greedy.
Greed. Is there anything more reviled, and yet more basic to what it means to be human? Which of us has not been greedy at some point in our lives? At one time or another we have all felt that we don’t have enough, and we want and deserve more.
Of course, greed is a negative term—it’s not just desire, but selfish desire. Inherent in the idea of greed is taking more than our fair share, or going to any lengths to acquire whatever it is we hunger for.
And greed seems to have become part of our world today. One commentator said this: “Greed, envy, sloth, pride and gluttony: these are not vices anymore. No, these are marketing tools. Lust is our way of life. Envy is just a nudge towards another sale. Even in our relationships we consume each other, each of us looking for what we can get out of the other. Our appetites are often satisfied at the expense of those around us. In a dog-eat-dog world we lose part of our humanity.”[ii]
So as a society—and as individuals—we would do well to listen to the voice of Jesus as it comes to us in today’s passage from Luke. Jesus tells us to be on “guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” A large crowd has gathered to hear Jesus speak, and one of them calls to him with a request that he make a ruling in the case of a family feud. It was not unusual in Jesus’ day for such a request to be made; what the man was really asking was for this rabbi to give an interpretation of the inheritance laws in the Torah.
But of course this rabbi, this Jesus rarely answers a question directly. Instead of addressing the issue the man raised, Jesus goes to the root of the question, and he launches into the parable of the rich fool, a man who is more focused on accumulating wealth than on the ways of God.
We can hardly be surprised by this story from the writer of the Gospel of Luke; again and again we read in Luke that having wealth, or position or status is inherently negative. Start with the Magnificat in chapter 1, which we just heard sung so gloriously: “He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.” Or the sermon on the plain in chapter 6, where Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Or the parable of the wedding banquet in chapter 14, where we read that, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Or most clearly in chapter 16, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, where upon death the poor man Lazarus is “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham,” while the rich man, presumably only because of his wealth and conspicuous consumption, is sent to “Hades, where he was…tormented.”
Through all these stories, it seems clear that those who already have a great deal can most easily fall into the sin of greed. It can be easy to believe that what once was enough is never enough, or that more is only to be hoarded.[iii] But I think that the real issue that Jesus is raising in this parable is the egotism of the rich man. As theologian Audrey West has said, “Greed is a problem primarily because its focus on the self keeps people from being ‘rich toward God’ and rich toward others.[iv]
Notice again the language of the rich man: lots of “me” and “my.” He is so busy worrying about his wealth that it never occurs to him that there might another option beside building bigger barns—or that this largesse might have come from the hand of God, and not himself alone. In the best capitalistic tradition, he believes that this abundance is all due to the sweat of his own brow, and so is rightfully his alone.
As I read his words I think about the work of farming. If the harvest was greater than the man expected, it stands to reason there was much more work to be done in the fields before the harvest. I think we can safely assume that this man was not the one doing the weeding or watering or harvesting from sunup to sundown. Yet he is quick to claim the bounty as his alone.
And there’s something else—notice that he sees all these extra crops primarily as first a burden for himself, and then an opportunity to get richer, rather than first as a gift from God and secondly as an opportunity to help others. To be generous with this overrun of crops would not have required the man take anything out of his own pockets—it only required not pocketing the overage. But he didn’t see it that way.
But in the parable God is quick to tell him that these foolish and greedy actions have cost him his salvation. In storing up treasures for himself, he has forgotten to reap the easy harvest that would have come from helping others, and thus being rich toward God.
How easily we can be distracted by things! My fancy smart watch died this week, and subsequently I spent far too much time surfing and researching and speculating about how I might replace it. I found myself caught up in my sadly ever-present fascination with gadgets. And for me, it is not just the object, but the quest for the object that preoccupies me. In the end it seems that these things take up far too much space in my mind and my heart. It’s not just about the number of things I have, the size of the pile—it’s about how they leave so little room for God.
Jesus is calling us today to look outside ourselves, beyond our abundance, and to really see how we have not been rich toward God and God’s people. We have so much; if we only converted some of that time we waste on lusting for more to working toward the good of others, imagine the riches we could shower on the world.
But there’s another point here that is worthy of consideration: Note that God says to the man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” Jesus is calling our attention to our deaths.
Again, that’s not surprising. Throughout the middle part of the book of Luke, Jesus is focused on his journey to Jerusalem, where he knows his own death awaits. Through all of the encounters recorded along this journey, Jesus again and again points toward ultimate matters—toward living our best life now, as we know that our time on earth is coming to an end.
You see, it’s not just about the selfishness of greed—it’s about the missed opportunities that greed creates. Jesus knows his time is running short, and that he has little time left to teach the ways of God. And so he wants to remind us that a focus inward subsumes any focus on the world around us. As long as we are thinking about the more we want, we are unable to see the need around us. And so we are unable to help hasten the coming of the kingdom of God.
Jesus calls us to find ways to take the bounty that God has showered on us, and return some of it to the creator. Being rich toward God for us is about caring for all of God’s creation. And through all of these Lukan encounters on the road to Jerusalem that have consumed our attention through the summer Jesus has showed us the way: “Being rich toward God entails using one’s resources for the benefit of ones neighbor in need, as the Samaritan did. Being rich toward God includes intentionally listening to Jesus’ word, as Mary did. Being rich toward God consists of prayerfully trusting that God will provide for the needs of life.[v]
That brings me back to David Brooks. After he explains his concept of the first mountain, he talks about his own experience of the valley below it, when he realized that he had found the quest only for self-fulfillment to be empty and unsatisfying. For Brooks, that realization led him to the second mountain, which he says is, “about shedding the ego and losing the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition,” he says, “the second mountain is about contribution. On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational intimate, and relentless.”[vi]
God calls us to live our lives fully with an outward focus; to turn away from our human desire to greedily keep everything for ourselves and instead turn toward God, knowing that true abundance lies in lives lived after the example of Christ. That happiness comes not from our possessions, but from our kindness.
So, where do you find yourself today? I suspect most of us are somewhere in the valley between the two mountains. That’s the human condition, I think. Our goal, as Jesus outlines it, is to look forward and not back; to be less focused on self and on things, and more focused on others and on God.
I conclude this morning with a prayer I believe I have prayed with you before. It is a Puritan prayer that meets us in that valley. Let us pray.
Lord, High and Holy, Meek and Lowly,
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness,
thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow,
thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty,
thy glory in my valley. Amen.
[i] Brooks, David. The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. New York: Random House, 2019. p. xii.
[iii] West, Audrey, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. p. 310.
[v] Carlson, Richard P. in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. p. 315.
[vi] Brooks, David, op cit. p. xvi.