I wanna be a billionaire so freaking bad / Buy all of the things I never had / I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine / Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen
Bruno Mars’ song captures the spirit of the age. We want to be rich. We think it is the solution to all of our problems. More stuff. More ability to get stuff. The latest this, the upgraded that, the new model of those. It permeates our existence, the need to have, to own. To have and to hold.
I can hear you rolling your eyes already. I’m still writing and you won’t see this for a while, yet I can see your sighs. This again. This old argument, this warning that we’ve heard a thousand times. Yeah, we know. And it’s not that we disagree, you say. We know it is true, we know the stories of the suddenly rich whose lives go off the rails spectacularly. Someone should have told Bruno that. Maybe he wouldn’t have been so freaking desperate. We aren’t desperate. We know better. We know that stuff isn’t salvation. We know that it’s the love of money tat gets us in trouble. So, we just use it. We aren’t defined by it. It’s a necessary part of living in the world we have. Besides we do good stuff with it.
And not a single tummy around me would know what hungry was / Eating good, sleeping soundly / I know we all have a similar dream / Go in your pocket pull out your wallet, put it in the air and sing // I wanna be a billionaire so freaking bad / Buy all of the things I never had / Uh, I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine / Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen.
Yeah, we know better. And yet when it comes time to give it up we find that surprisingly difficult. I know I haven’t used that, read that, worn that, in a very long time. But I just might want to someday soon! And when we have to be away for an extended period of time, we come back and discover we missed our stuff. The unimportant, non-defining stuff. Still we missed it. My chair I like to sit in, the table I like to eat at, the shelves of books and closets of clothes. No big deal, except that I know I’m home because here is my stuff. The late comedian George Carlin said home is just a place to keep our stuff. Except when we run out of room and have to rent storage space. One of the fastest growing business in our country, storage facilities. We’ve got too much stuff.
Luke 12:13-21 Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." 14 But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" 15 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."
16 Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' 18 Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' 20 But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
Does anybody else find Jesus’ answer to the guy in the crowd a little problematic? “Friend, who set me to be a judge over you?” Well, I thought you did. Or God did. I kinda thought that was the plan here, Jesus the judge. Now he’s saying that He isn’t that judge. That seems odd.
Some say it means He isn’t going to judge our stuff. That He is only interested in the spiritual stuff, I mean, the spiritual matters. He only judges our souls, He isn’t concerned with our real lives, our mundane, day to day, who gets the stuff lives. Which doesn’t really make sense to me at all. I mean, given all that He talks about in the Gospels, it seems that one of His main points is our lives are whole. We can’t compartmentalize our life of faith from our life in the world. In fact if we try to do that, and we do, we are only fooling ourselves. Jesus tells us that it is our doing that matters, all of our doing. What we do behind closed doors, that’s what matters. Family doors, office doors, legal doors, commercial doors. All those doors matter to Him. Why would he now say, “hey, don’t look at me, kid. Sort out your family stuff on your own!”
Unless that isn’t what is going on here. Jesus isn’t really dodging the issue. Maybe it wasn’t a “leave me out of this” question. Maybe it was a real question. Who set me to be a judge over you? And the guy in the crowd, who is us, by the way, was supposed to say, I did. I do. You are the measure by which I want to live my life. You are the arbiter to determine what is of value. Whatever you say, I’ll go with. To which Jesus might have said, “Really?” And the guy would have nodded his head and said “Really!” And Jesus might have smiled and said, “OK then, let them have it.” And the guy in the crowd might have said, “Can I change my earlier answer?”
Don’t assume by this conversation that Jesus doesn’t care about the stuff. Or rather that Jesus doesn’t care about our attitude toward the stuff. He cares deeply. He cares for our very souls, He cares for our well-being, our satisfaction, our ability and desire to cling to Him above everything else. Our heart to serve, our compassion, our eyes to see beyond the horizon of our own making. And He knows that the stuff of this life can get in the way of all of that. And we get turned upside down and inside out by greed.
Beware of all kinds of greed. All kinds. Why in the world would He say it that way? Probably because He knows how good we are at convincing ourselves that our kind isn’t all that bad. Isn’t really greed. It is prudence. It is right thinking, self preservation, it is being wise as serpents in a difficult world. He’ll understand that, surely.
He tells this story about a farmer. A farmer who makes good. Has a bumper crop. It presented him with the problem of what to do with it all. It was more, he had more than he could hold. So, he has to figure out what to do. Since there isn’t a storage place in his town, he does the smart thing and creates his own. Did you know that in Fort Wayne there is a storage facility called “Infinite Storage”? Wow, infinite. That’s kind of amazing.
Anyone else telling this story would have made the farmer the hero. He was blessed, in the theology of the day, blessed by God. Someone who has that kind of income, that kind of abundance, must be one of God’s very favorite people. He would have been written up in Forbes Magazine and interviewed by Oprah. But Jesus seems to have a problem with him. Doesn’t Jesus like success?
Where does the story turn, for Jesus? Is it at the beginning? “The land of a rich man produced abundantly”? Some say yes, that’s the problem. To be rich is by definition to make someone else poor. Wealth is a zero sum game, winners and losers. This guy was a winner, others were losers. Too bad for them. That’s the problem, the game is rigged. Well, maybe. But I don’t think that’s where the problem rises. I think it is later. After a dizzying succession of personal pronouns. This is a self-centered rich farmer. Me, my, mine, he said too many times in this little story. And the only one who benefits is himself. You fool, says God. What makes you think you are immortal? What makes you think it’s all about you? Now that you’re gone, who will get the stuff?
We’re about to begin the sorting out phase of mourning and caring for parents. Lots of stuff to go through, and that will be a question we’ll have to ask. Who wants this? All this stuff, old and new, useful and not, whose will it be? It makes me tired just thinking about it. There is an odd little translation problem in this passage. In verse 20 when God is revealing the foolishness of the rich man, there is a phrase we’ve translated as “your life is being demanded of you.” A passive tense. But the verb is actually a plural active tense. They are demanding your life from you. “They”? The stuff. That’s what I think. The stuff eats your life away. Drains you. Occupies your thinking, makes you worry. That’s why Jesus keeps warning us about stuff. It kills us. We think it gives us life, but it doesn’t. Only He can do that. “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly. And the stuff? Whose will it be?