For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8:9
Jesus said, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Interestingly enough, this past week, I learned about a business venture that seems completely recession proof. No, I’m not talking about liquor stores, funeral homes, or tax preparation services. This particular business has statistically proven to be one of the surest bets in real estate over the past half century. Recent reports have shown that this is nearly a $38 billion per year industry with no signs of slowing down, and what’s remarkable about it is its simplicity. All you need is a padlock, a roll-up door, and some square footage. Do you know what I’m talking about? Self-storage units. A news subtitle said it this way: “One in eleven Americans pays for space to store the material overflow of the American dream.” In other words, people pay money not just for stuff itself, but for a place to park that stuff. It’s a beautiful business model, because no matter whether the economy is booming or receding, whether we’re dealing with downsizing empty-nesters or up-starting millennials, the whole business is built on the unshakable truth that people love their stuff. It’s the reason the self-storage business is a success. People love their stuff. It’s the reason why, when people are looking for a house, two of the top items on their checklist are: large closets and extra space for storage. People love their stuff. It’s the reason why Jesus tells the parable he tells us in the gospel lesson today.
Now, I’m not here to make you feel unnecessarily guilty if you pay to rent a storage unit. Nor am I going to let anyone off the hook who doesn’t have a storage unit but does have a garage that looks like mine. Such is not the scope of this sermon. But we do need to think about why Jesus says what he says. “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” Why would he need to say that? Because greed is pretty sneaky. It’s not something we usually even think about when we’re confessing our sins, is it? The other ones, I’m more than aware of - pride, lust, anger, jealousy - but greed? That’s why Jesus points our attention to it today; because this low-lying, quiet attitude can lead us straight away from God and toward eternal destruction.
What prompted Jesus to say this and to tell his parable about the rich fool, was an inheritance dispute that someone in the crowd brought to him. Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” A man was fighting with his (presumably) older brother about the family inheritance. Back then, the oldest son in the family got an extra share of the estate, and in this case it seems like younger brother hadn’t gotten anything yet. So, who better to settle a dispute than Jesus? Jesus, knock some sense into my brother...or at least knock a few cents out of him for me! After all, if you’re going to win an argument, it never hurts to have Jesus on your side. But Jesus doesn’t go for it. In fact, quite the opposite. He uses this request to springboard into a teaching that goes deeper than just inheritance and stuff, and cuts right to the heart of what we’re all about, not just as 21st century Americans, but people of all time. Jesus gets at the real problem, which isn’t necessarily your stuff. It’s your attitude about it.
Here’s a fun project for you this afternoon - go home and count how many parables of Jesus deal with money and stuff, whether in illustration or application, and you might be surprised. A great deal of them do. And it’s not without reason – money can always get our attention, but Jesus’ point is that it should never get our attachment. Jesus said, “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ It seems unfair, doesn’t it? This rich man seems to have come by it honestly; the first century Israelite version of the modern American dream. He worked hard. He was faithful to his task. He put his mind and body to work and amassed quite a pile of wealth for himself. We don’t get the impression that this guy got rich by cheating others or any other dishonest means. Maybe that’s the point. The problem isn’t with riches. The problem isn’t with the rich being rich, because the rich think about staying rich and the poor wish they were rich. The problem is with the heart that beats inside this chest that thinks my security, my peace, my happiness are found in things that can be stored in barns rather than in the fact that my name is written in heaven.
That seems to have been the problem for this rich fool in the parable. To the man who thought he was so wise, God bursts on the scene and calls him “Fool.” To the guy who was looking forward to his many years of health and wealth, God tells him “this very night” is it. To the man who wanted to store my crops in my barn so I can enjoy all my good things, God says, “That’s all going to someone else.” Kind of like that man who was arguing about the inheritance with his brother - it never occurred to either of them that they were fighting over a dead guy’s stuff. And the morbid thought never popped into their mind - the day will come when two more people will be fighting over the stuff I called “mine.” It’s the reason why there are no trailer hitches on hearses, and the funeral clothes of a dead man have no pockets. You can’t take it with you, but even back in Jesus’ day, people wanted to amass as much as they could!
Isn’t this even more of a temptation today? We live in a consumer society where there is more stuff available for purchase than at any other time in human history. Contrary to popular rhetoric, it’s not like there’s “only so much wealth to go around.” Not only is there availability, but because of our great wealth (yes, you are wealthier than 99% of the people on the planet) we have access to much of it. Tell me this isn’t how it goes whenever you get an extra bump in income, a windfall in investments, or a crisp $20 bill in a birthday card – the very first thought is “how can I use this for myself?” I’m going to save up and use that money to add on to my house; to get a better car; to buy a faster phone; to have the next thing. None of those things are bad, in and of themselves, the trouble comes when we get trapped in thinking that these things are the be-all and end-all of our existence. Greed doesn’t deliver on what it promises. When we finally do get the thing we’re shooting for, how does it feel? Pretty good, but still a bit empty. Why? Because there’s always, always something else; another milestone; another trip; another thing. We know this, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference! We know the old saying, “Money can’t buy happiness,” but how do you respond to that? “Just let me take a crack at it and we’ll see.” Please don’t miss the point of Jesus’ parable: God doesn’t condemn earthly wealth – he blessed many of his people with it. What he does condemn is trusting in earthly wealth to deliver something that only God himself gives. We know, without question, that greed doesn’t work, but that doesn’t stop us! Isn’t that the muffled sermon that’s coming from your wallet right now? If you have more of me, you’ll be happy. With a little bit more of this, you’ll be safe. To what end? So I can build my barns and sit back and say, “Self, we’ve got it made!” Only to hear the Almighty God say, “You fool!” And that’s where the story ends.
There isn’t a whole lot of gospel in the gospel lesson today, is there? The parable is frightening and it cuts me down to size. The thought that this man was really in charge of his life and his stuff – it was an illusion, and God makes that clear. “Your life will be demanded of you.” And it has to be demanded, because he never would have given up his little slice of heaven on earth! The rich man would never have chosen to leave behind his stockpile of stuff, but he didn’t have a choice. But here’s the good news: Jesus did have a choice, and look what he chose to do. He owned everything, and he left it all behind for you. The One who flung the stars in the sky and held the deeps of the earth in his hand, became a baby in a manger, for you. This Jesus, who didn’t even have a place to lay his head, never once thought his life consisted in the abundance of his possessions, but always had his life’s purpose set squarely on saving you and me from our love of “stuff.” Until, one day, Jesus died with nothing in his hands but a couple of nails to pay for your greed and my trust in worldly wealth. Jesus warns us to be on our guard against greed, not because stuff itself is so bad, but because he knows that the heart inside this chest wants to seek an accumulation of earthly wealth at the expense of the heavenly blessings that Jesus has won for you. And when it comes to those heavenly blessings of Jesus, I can tell you, you’re going to need a bigger barn.
And this is the point, I think. It’s like Paul said in our lesson from Colossians, Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Do you see the point? A world that wants to determine its life’s worth by net worth can only and always be a world where Solomon screams out in frustration, “It’s all meaningless!” and God himself declares, “You fool!” But that’s not where you live, dear child of God. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. Everything that Jesus won by his death on the cross and resurrection is now yours - that doesn’t mean you’re going to have a bigger house, a new car every two years, and no college loans to pay back. If that’s what you have, great. Give thanks, that’s a great blessing! But that’s not your life. Your life is hidden with Christ in God. That means that you have forgiveness for every one of your sins, because Jesus died, you died; because he rose, you will, too. Your life is with Christ, which means that just as he’s already seated in victory in the heavenly realms, God already sees you sitting next to him. Your life is with Christ, which means that his promise goes with you - that you will never be forsaken and that his mercy is new every morning. With blessings like that, you’re gonna need a bigger barn!
As a dearly loved child of God, you are rich toward God, that is, you are filled with all of the good things that God gives you in Christ. You have a God who bankrupt heaven to make you his own, and now you can’t help but see your stuff in a different way. Your stuff doesn’t give meaning to your life. Your life with Jesus gives new meaning to your stuff. Now I can see that it’s not all about me, but serving the person next to me. I get to use what God has given - whether comparatively little or much - I get to use it in service to others – providing for family, supporting the work of the gospel, being a blessing to someone who needs help. You don’t have to try to hoard earthly treasure in a bigger building, because when it comes to the heavenly blessings of Jesus, you know the ones that last forever, your barn is already filled to overflowing. And Jesus just keeps giving and giving and giving. Jesus said as much: your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions. So, that raises the question: in what does my life consist? Your life doesn’t consist in the abundance of your possessions, but in the perfect completeness of your Savior and the grace he gives today, tomorrow, and every day into eternity. With blessings like that and a Savior like Jesus giving them, I can tell you, you’re going to need a bigger barn!
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.