12:13 Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."
12:14 But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?"
12:15 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."
12:16 Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly.
12:17 And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?'
12:18 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.
12:19 And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'
12:20 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?'
12:21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
A friend emailed me earlier this week with the news that her Aunt had just died, and that within hours after her death the whole family already was in an uproar around her Aunt’s will. The cousins were fighting, and it seemed that things could get ugly.
“Someone in the crowd said to Jesus…”
I sent my friend a copy of the opening line from this week’s gospel lesson. She said it made her laugh for five minutes.
"Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."
My guess is that this was the younger brother who came to Jesus, for it was practice among the Hebrews for the oldest brother to get twice as much as other heirs. The man who came to Jesus wanted a bigger slice of the pie, and he wanted Jesus to step in and argue on this behalf, no, he wanted Jesus to make his brother give him more money than the law allows.
Jesus wisely refuses to get in the middle of this family spat, but he does share his opinion on the relationship people have with their “stuff.” He tells a parable about the rich fool, whose is so focused on his “stuff” that there is no room left for anything else, much less relationships with people or with God. You might boil down this parable by saying “You can’t take it with you.” But there is more going on here.
Once again, Jesus is poking at us, by challenging the relationship we have with stuff.
An unknown author writes about “stuff,” reminiscent of George Carlin’s routine:
(There was a rich man, who had a lot of stuff…)
“Every Fall I start stirring in my stuff. There is closet stuff, drawer stuff, attic stuff, and basement stuff. I separate the good stuff from the bad stuff, then I stuff the bad stuff anywhere the stuff is not too crowded until I can decide if I will need the bad stuff.
“When the Lord calls me home, my children will want the good stuff, but the bad stuff, stuffed wherever there is room among all the other stuff, will be stuffed in bags and taken to the dump where all the other people’s stuff has been taken. Whenever we have company, they always bring bags and bags of stuff. Whenever I visit my son, he always moves his stuff so I will have room for my stuff. My daughter-in-law always clears a drawer of her stuff so that I will have room for my stuff. Their stuff and my stuff- It would be so much easier to use their stuff and leave my stuff at home with the rest of my stuff.
"This Fall I had an extra closet built so I would have a place for all the stuff too good to throw away and too bad to keep with my good stuff. You may not have this problem, but I seem to spend a lot of time with my stuff, food stuff, cleaning stuff, medicine stuff, clothes stuff, and outside stuff. Whatever would life be like if we didn’t have all this stuff?"
Jesus says there was a rich man, who had a lot of stuff, and he tore down his barns and built bigger barns for his stuff, the good stuff and the bad stuff, the stuff he used to make himself smell better and the stuff to make his hair look good and the stuff to make him look younger, and the stuff to make him healthier…He built bigger barns to put the stuff to read, the stuff to play with, the stuff to entertain himself, and the stuff to eat. In the big barns the man put good stuff, bad stuff, little stuff, big stuff, useful stuff, junky stuff, stuff he might never get around to using but wasn’t ready to let go of and stuff he couldn’t even remember why he bought in the first place.
And God said to the rich fool: “Who’s going to get all of this stuff? What good is it going to do you?”
“Master, tell my brother to divide the family stuff with me.”
Shock waves caused by a death can reverberate through a family for generations. Often this shock wave shows up in conflict over the inheritance, where the focus of the fight is on the “stuff.”
When my great-grandmother’s husband died, he left her with three small children she had to struggle to provide for. She cared for her father-in-law for years, and on his death-bed he said, “Carrie, I’m sorry I didn’t leave you and the children anything in my will.” My grandfather, her youngest, spent his adult life working so that he could buy back the family property which was not left to him. And years later, when he died, his children squabbled over the sale of that house and land. Even now, I drive by my grandparent’s house when I go to Virginia and look longingly at that property that is no longer in the family. Our family was impacted for four generations by the intensity around that inheritance.
I’ll bet that many of you don’t have to look very far to find a story dangling from your family tree about conflict around an inheritance.
“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
I’ve heard it said that then someone in a family makes a move to get more of the inheritance, that it is their last chance to grab all the love for themselves. The issue of inheritance can be a very hot topic in families. It may look like it is about stuff, but the fight is really about love.
Jesus suggests that our focus on stuff, whether it is stuff we have earned or stuff that has been handed down to us, is a focus that distracts from our focus on God. Stewardship, he suggests, is about letting go of our attachment to stuff to make space for God. Stewardship requires that we confess that we have used “stuff” to fill the God-shaped space in our lives.
A recent news story reported that Sam Simon, the writer/producer who co-created “The Simpsons,” is dying. When told five months ago that he had terminal colon cancer and that he had 3-6 months to live, Simon began giving his sizeable fortune away to charitable causes he believes in. He can’t take it with him, so he is being a generous steward of what he has. He says this generosity brings him joy that his possessions can’t provide.
“What does it mean to be rich toward God,” my friend writes, quoting the end of the passage that dares to get into the mess of a family feud over inheritance. I suspect it means being generous, like Sam Simon, realizing that we can use our stuff in ways that makes the world a better place, rather than hording it to give us false security.
What does it mean to be rich toward God? I suspect it means being good stewards, willing to spend less time managing our stuff and more time being present to God-in-relationships. Why do we get obsessed with stuff? Because we worry that we don’t have enough love.
“Now, when we leave all our stuff and go to Heaven, whatever happens to all our stuff won’t matter. We will have the good stuff God has prepared for us in heaven,” writes the anonymous author.
But while we are still on earth, we are asked to be stewards of our stuff in generous and thoughtful ways, guarding against letting our stuff rule our lives, split our families, damage our relationships, or drive a wedge between God and us.
So come to this table, where we can learn how to be generous with each other as God has been with us. AMEN.