The Person with the Most Stuff Doesn’t Win
I don’t know if you have noticed, but it seems our news if full of terrible statistics these days. Just this week, AP had an article telling us that about 80% of Americans have experienced job loss or work jobs that don’t make ends meet. 80% of people in this country are living closer and closer to the poverty line. Our own local paper reported that Grays Harbor continues to have the highest unemployment in the state. Which is no surprise to most of us, of course, as the harbor has struggled for a long time. Life seems to get more and more precarious for so many of us.
In the church, sometimes we have talked about a Jesus who is only interested in our souls or in spiritual things. It is easy to think that Jesus does not have much to do with these statistics. But the Jesus of Luke’s gospel is deeply interested in our everyday lives. In Luke, Jesus opens his ministry with these words;
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18)
I want to set you free, Jesus says. Not just your souls, but your hearts and minds. Not just your souls, but your bodies too. The bodies of prisoners who are in jail. The bodies of farmers and workers who work hard but can’t always pay the bills or feed their families. Bodies that are sick and suffering. Jesus cares about all of these things. He says he comes to set us free as whole people, healing our bodies and our souls, setting our bodies and our souls free.
And so, if that is true, it is unsurprising that Jesus in the gospel of Luke talks a lot about money, about wealth, and about how we should live in relation to it.
Our gospel begins with a man stepping out of the vast crowd around Jesus. Now, this is a time in Jesus’ ministry when he is becoming quite popular and huge crowds are gathering around him. He has gone from village to village and he has sent out disciples to preach for him. Now, he is standing in the Galilean countryside and the text tells us that so many people had gathered that they were basically trampling each other. So, this man comes forward. “Jesus, I need help. My father just died and my brother is not giving me my fair share. Can you help me get my land, my inheritance?”
But Jesus, in response, steps away a bit. “Am I your judge?” Or, in essence, Am I you attorney?
Instead of stepping in, Jesus tells a story, like he so often does. A rich man, a foolish man, so like the man standing in front of him, accumulates large amounts of land and in order to store his crops, he builds larger and larger barns. Now there are two things to keep in mind when reading this story.
First, biblical scholars tell us that at least 90% of people in the Roman Empire—and probably more in northern Palestine where Jesus was standing—were living in poverty. They were living at or below subsistence level, barely making it. Second, part of the reason people were so poor was because of how land was owned. This is an agrarian society and most of the land would have been in the hands of local powerbrokers and elites. So that means that the majority of people working the land were working land that was not theirs and they were not seeing the benefit of their labor. The rich man in the story was certainly one of these local powerbrokers and, when he builds bigger and bigger barns, we have to remember that the people who actually cared for and harvested those crops are not seeing the benefit of them.
Jesus is speaking in this context and the people listening would have known that this is the way things worked. But Jesus goes to the heart of the matter and addresses the rich man’s attitude. This rich man has decided to live his life by the words; “Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die.” “Enjoy life while you got it.” “Focus on number one.” He thinks that his wealth has given him happiness and contentment.
Until the night he dies. Jesus says of him; “You fool, tonight your life, or your soul in some translations, is required of you…” You can’t, after all, take it with ya.
I like the translation “your soul.” Because Jesus is also saying that this poor foolish rich man has put his soul at risk. That is, for all of his good intentions and hopes to live the good life, he has damaged his soul. Because your soul cannot thrive when you are only looking out for yourself. You soul doesn’t thrive on things, on stuff. In other words, to put it bluntly, greed is bad for your soul.
I like to imagine what Jesus’ parables would have been like if he were speaking to us in our own time. Perhaps, if Jesus were talking to us in this town fifty years ago when timber was still king, he would have started his parable by saying; “There was a man who owned thousands and thousands of acres of timber and never had enough and lived in a big house on the hill…” Or right now, maybe Jesus would have said; “There was a man who ran a multinational corporation and built factories or big box stores all over the world…”
Now, most of us probably will never see the wealth that the rich man had, with his enormous barns. Most of us don’t control people’s lives. A lot of us, like most of the people listening to Jesus, are struggling to get by. Every day, though, we are told through tv, through marketing, through our culture, that greed is good. So much of our thinking about money in our culture starts with the premise that greed is good. That the person with the most stuff wins. That bigger is better. You know that commercial that plays over and over, the one for AT & T? The guy with all the little kids around him? Every one of those commercials say the same thing—bigger is better. You can never have enough.
What if the key to changing the dismal statistics we hear in the news begins with US? Begins with us learning to live a new way?
Begins with us reaching out to our neighbors, to each other. Begins with us living lives of sharing and mutuality and relationship. Begins with our elders sharing their wisdom. Begins with us living and loving in community.
This weekend, I was struck by an example of that when I visited the Paddle to Quinault celebration. Every year, Native American tribes here in the Pacific Northwest journey around the peninsula by canoe and host a large celebration when they land. They are reviving an ancient tribal tradition of potlatch. A culture where a person demonstrated their wealth by how much they gave, not how much they had. This is a different way of living. And, as I watched people share their traditions and share food and share places to stay when I visited, as I was blessed to be welcomed as a non-tribal member of the wider community, I was struck by what our society could learn.
We, like Jesus did, live in small communities struggling with poverty and hunger and joblessness. We, like Jesus did, live in communities that have often been at the short end of the economic stick. The freedom Jesus preaches is for us too. We are called to follow Jesus to a new way of life.
And so many of us are doing just that. I was walking the streets of Aberdeen a few days ago, as is becoming my habit, and I met a man who probably had very little. But he told me, with a big grin on his face; “I try to help as many people as I can out here.” I think Jesus would have said, “Go, and do likewise.” Amen.