Greed, Worry, and a Fearless Life
When my grandfather was dying, after my grandmother had already passed away, my mom and her sisters began labeling things in his house. This was different than the labels they had put up before. The previous labels were to help my grandfather out, help him remember things: “here is where you put your laundry.” “Here is where you keep your glasses.” Each cupboard in the kitchen had photos of a different one of his grandchildren’s families, a family tree of smiling faces surrounding him whenever he went to get a cup of coffee or a bowl of cereal, each face labeled, “David's daughter, Megan.” “Kara’s son, Owen.” His living legacy plastered around him in photo paper and scotch tape.
But the kind of labeling my mom and aunts began doing towards the end was another kind. See, my grandfather was a depression-era pack rat. What the farmer in the parable had planned to do, my grandfather actually did, he built additional buildings to store his accumulated possessions. And the buildings even had names – Bo’s abode (where my aunt’s fiancé stayed before they were married), “Dot’s mink” (the building my grandfather built my grandmother, Dorothy, in lieu of the mink coat she had asked for), the “carriage house,” (because a “barn” filled with junk was simply not classy enough). And at the end, every building was full to overflowing with stuff. Cool stuff, stuff that we grandkids liked looking at: 1920s shoe shine kits, hat boxes, hand-me down magic supplies from my great grandfather, the magician’s, collection. He had saved tools and silverware and bottles, furniture and lamps, records and old jewelry. You name it, you could find it in one of his buildings. And the house itself held the most sentimental and treasured items.
And towards the end the ladies started labeling things. “This sideboard goes to Holly.” “This china is for Carole’s daughter, Kristen.” They did so with the utmost effort at fairness, but also with fierce attachment to certain items, so there were inevitable quarrels and compromises. We grandkids were just excited to see where money may be hidden. My grandfather had a habit of taping envelopes with wads of cash in them behind furniture and under floorboards. His house was a treasure hunter’s dream, and he had spent a lifetime filling it.
But as he lay in a nursing home, dying, his family was dividing up his legacy, splitting up his stuff, cleaning out his barns so they could be sold to someone else who would tear them down to build a bigger, fancier place of their own.
And I think about my grandfather, all those years, collecting and saving, storing up just in case you might need something, tucking away dollar bills as a kind of stealthy safeguard, a secret armament against the unknown. But then you die anyway, and who’s will all that stuff be? Well, quite practically, the kids will take what they want and get rid of the rest. And it’s gone. Just like that. Just like you.
“Jesus, help us sort out the family inheritance. Jesus, make him give me my fair share. Jesus, my dad would have wanted me to have this, I always said that one was mine. Jesus, tell him to share!” quarreled the brothers.
“No.” Jesus answers. “I am not your judge or mediator.”
And then he takes things in an interesting direction. He turns to the crowd and begins to talk about greed, the insatiable desire for more and more. “Your life does not consist in the accumulation of possessions,” Jesus says.
Really? It doesn’t? That’s not what I’ve been taught.
I’ve been taught that it’s up to me to look after me. And more stuff, more money, makes me more secure. It is a fool indeed, who does not save, but just flies by the seat of her pants in today’s world. The job market is a scary place to be stranded, families often cannot afford to take care of aging parents, or take back in grown adults who have lost their way, or their job, or their home. This is a definite fend for yourself kind of world we live in, and being foolish would be to ignore the facts.
So when Jesus tells the story about the farmer with the windfall crop, I think the guy’s plan to build bigger barns sounds pretty reasonable, prudent, far-sighted. And I can even relate to what he says to his soul, which I think is the heart of this story. With a satisfied and relieved smile he leans back, closes his eyes and murmurs, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years. Relax, eat, drink, be content.”
Aaahhh. Wouldn’t that be nice?
In our house we have something we call the “Mystical 2000.” This is an arbitrary amount of money, sometimes it could be $20,000, but the mystical 2000 is the amount we are just shy of, to feel secure. The roof is getting old, if only we had just $2000 more, we could be ok if in one of our big summer rainstorms the roof begins to leak.
The car’s warranty has run out, and so has the computer’s, if we just had $2000 more we could have that buffer for the inevitable breakdown of an essential daily gadget that we cannot survive without.
And you can play this fun game in any scenario – if we had $2000 more each month, think how much we could save up for Owen and Maisy’s college and regularly put away for retirement! If we had $2000 more a month, maybe we’d take vacations more often, pay down student loans, and think how much more generous we would be with others!
Like the grass is always greener scenario, we imagine the our mystical 2000 could make us feel safe, confident, protected. And ironically, no matter how much things have changed in our lives, through student housing and having children and owning a home and working two jobs, making far more than we did way back when, the mystical 2000 remains the same.
In our parable today, the farmer has his mystical 2000. The excess has come, and now his big problem is to figure out how to store it. See, if he can store it up he can finally relax, if he can tuck it all away, this bounty could sustain him for years to come. He can eat, drink and be merry, because this money will keep him from dying!
Well, isn’t that the gyst of it, really?
We want not to worry. We want not to fear. We want to feel secure, safe. We want to pretend that death - and all its frightening foreshadows - is never coming, and maybe we can fend it off if we dig our heals in hard enough, hedge our bets well enough, buffer ourselves and posture and pad our lives with enough, we can be safe from the unknown, we can anticipate and fend off the bad things. Maybe we can control how things will go and keep ourselves from suffering.
We don’t really, in our core, believe this is possible, but much of the time we act like it is. Because we don’t want to feel afraid. And if we let ourselves see how vulnerable we really are, how little control we actually have, the terror could swallow us up.
So it becomes a real quest, how indeed, should we store up that extra insurance so that we can finally stop worrying?
I once had a kind and brilliant theology professor who said that all sin boiled down to two things: Self-preservation and self-determination.
Self-preservation means that it is up to me to look out for me, I will uphold my safety, my security, my very life at any cost, even if it means dehumanizing others or myself to do so. I will preserve my self.
Self-determination means that I, and nobody else, will decide who I am. I will be who I want, go where I want, do what I want, no matter what impact it has on anybody else. I will determine myself.
Both of these deny my creator and overlook my fellow human being. Both of these degrade my self as being made in the image of God and part of God’s creation. And when I am in this mode, it doesn’t matter who God is, it doesn’t matter who my neighbor is, it doesn’t matter who I am or was called to be, what matters is that I never am vulnerable, never unprotected, never weak or exposed. I am only ok when I have that mystical 2000, but it always remains just out of reach, so I will keep striving, keep accumulating, keep fighting towards it until I am certain that I am absolutely secure. And then my life is driven by fear and by worry. And I am alone in the running of it.
Worry is a terrible thing. A terrible and frightening affair.
Whenever my five year old, Owen, is overtired, he lays in bed and worries and cannot fall asleep. His mind begins to churn out his fears. He fixates on them and they grow, larger and larger, pressing in on him so he cannot possibly relax enough to sleep. Worry about school, worry about T-ball, worry about something looming on the horizon that is filled with unknown.
And being a kid, he doesn’t have a whole lot of control over his environment; he hasn’t yet learned all the tricks that we grown-ups have to keep worry at bay. He doesn’t know about life insurance and savings accounts, living wills and homeowner’s coverage and extra large barns filled with surplus wheat. So he has to rely on his mom and dad.
And we come in the room and we listen to his worry. And then we remind him what’s real.
“You are loved, you are known, you are not alone. You don’t need to worry.
Fear is not in charge of you, God is. You are our kid, and we are your family. God has given us to each other, to love each other and remind each other that we belong to God.
And some of these things are scary, and some of them are outside your control. But you’re not in this alone, and God knows just what you need. And letting yourself worry, letting fear be in charge, can’t really change a thing. All it does is make you scared and keep you from really living and enjoying your life, which is a gift from God who made you and loves you and will never let you go.”
And this is a little like what Jesus said to his disciples, after the disgruntled brothers have wandered off to find someone else to sort out their money problems, and the crowd dwindles away having been chastised about greed and reminded that death gets us all in the end (and no one can know when that end will be), Jesus turns to his disciples and he says,
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.
Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?
Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!
And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
We can’t do anything about death, which comes for us all. And with the very biggest barns and most clever safety measures, we cannot prevent suffering or protect ourselves from pain or loss.
But, nevertheless, we do not need to worry.
Nevertheless, we are invited to live generously, freely, joyfully, rich toward God;
we are invited to live without fear.
Because our life is a gift from God, God’s own treasure. It’s not up to us to protect ourselves, preserve ourselves or determine ourselves. We belong to God. God who made us and loves us and will not let us go. God who came and suffered death right alongside us, for us, so that we are not alone, and so that death would not get the last word after all.
Our treasure, our legacy, our true wealth, is our life, secure and made alive in Christ.
Our life is a gift of love meant to be used and shared, meant to be lived fully and fearlessly in this passing world, and one day forever in joy when God’s kingdom is all in all.