Luke 12: 13-21
With the parable set for today’s lectionary readings, Luke strikes again, with what appears to be another blow to the well off. And indeed, this parable really does go right to the heart of modern consumerism and Western habits.
Just to recap, Jesus is telling the story of a wealthy farmer who has done well with his harvest, and even though he has an adequate amount, he decides he wants still more, so builds bigger barns to store more grain and goods. Just as he is congratulating himself on his prosperity and comfortable future, God appears to inform him that it has all been for nought. This is the only parable in Luke in which God directly addresses a character, saying: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (12:20).
Therefore, concludes Jesus, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Who do you align yourself with in this parable? As a gut reaction, I am really not too keen on this wealthy farmer who is congratulating himself on his huge harvest, and who is planning to pull down his barns to build bigger ones. I am not a fan of his hoarding for his own benefit and selfish pleasure. I know that in first century Jewish culture he should have been providing some of that harvest for the benefit of his poorer neighbours, to protect them from famine.
Yet how much of our lives is devoted to acquiring stuff? How much does advertising try and convince us that our lives would be better with a new gadget laden car, or to own a bigger or more fashionable home in a better area? I don’t think I have ever seen as many ads for luxury cruises than in recent months, which try and convince me life begins with a cruise in luxurious or exotic holiday destinations. Where my every need will be met so I can truly live. And many ads attempt to convince me I need to buy lots of new clothes and a new set of accessories every season, not to mention the latest get fit or labour-saving device for the home.
Slogans such as “shop until you drop”, “spoil yourself”, “you’re worth it”, and indulge in “retail therapy” abound. Google searches threw up About 3,240,000 results (0.47 seconds) for “you’re worth it”. It threw up about 3,010,000 results (0.42 seconds) for “spoil yourself”. All this seems to imply we live in a world where material goods and self-indulgence will make us happier, healthier, better looking, possibly younger and more relaxed people.
What’s really frightening is that we are just a bit too close for comfort to the portrait of the wealthy farmer. After all, he is not a bad person. Luke doesn’t say he gained his money dishonestly, or that he cheats his servants, or even that he is particularly avaricious. The wealthy farmer is a person a lot like us. He has worked hard for his harvest and his money and wants to ensure his future and his retirement. His sin, if I can use that word, is not so much he has accumulated wealth as that he has put all of his faith in his wealth. He believes money can secure his future as an individual, and that he doesn’t need others or even God to help preserve him from want in his old age. If we are honest, we should be admitting that many of us have thought in similar ways to this farmer. ‘If I only I had more money, if only my mortgage was paid off, if only my car was newer, or my house bigger, I would be happier and my life would be better.
For example, Australians have the second biggest houses in the world, having been overtaken recently by the USA. Analysis by the CommSec of figures commissioned from the ABS shows the average new home is 189.8 square metres, down 2.7 per cent over the past year. However, this is a bit artificial as people are buying more apartments due to huge house prices. Australian detached houses that do get built are the biggest they have ever been. The average new house in 2016-17 was 233.3 square metres, 11 per cent bigger than 20 years ago.
The Wall Street Journal lists that the median size of a new home in the U.S. is 229 square metres, up 61% from just 40 years ago and up 11% in the last 10 years.
At just 15 m2 a person in Hong Kong has just a quarter of the floor space of the average Australian or American. Around six people occupy the same floor space in Africa and the Middle East as two would in the Australia.
(from The Urban developer)
Our consumeristic society strives to create an illusion that money and things guarantee our happiness, health and security. It silkily implies that we can be quarantined from everyday vulnerabilities and needs. It downplays the fact that we are vulnerable mortals who are ultimately dependent on others and God for our physical and mental well-being, which is why we have societies, communities and churches. French essayist, Michael de Montaigne said, “It’s not the want, but rather abundance that creates avarice.”
If we cannot even see over the piles of possessions we have (or wished we had), what is that saying about where meaning actually exists in our lives?
Our society, based on the civil religion of capitalism, perceives greed as good and consumerism as desirable. Here in Australia, according to the news and our politicians, our happiness always seems to be dependent on the economy. But is this true?
In the Christian scheme of things, greed is a bad word, and money does not save. So why do we act like this is our real belief when advertisements entice us to acquire more?
In a blog on the website “working Preacher”. Professor David Lose says:
I know I don’t have enough stuff because I live in a world that regularly tells me that I don’t have enough – stuff, that is. ‘Television commercials, posters, magazines, the internet and all the rest tell me that I’m insufficient, incomplete, and not quite right on my own, but they also promise me that if I only buy this product or that – everything from toothpaste, a new laptop, wrinkle cream, or a better car – then I’ll be complete. Our culture unequivocally equates consumption with satisfaction, possessions with happiness, and material wealth with the good life. Ours is a ‘love stuff‘ world. Trappings really do trap us.
Professor Lose is bang on the money. Like him, we know that this isn’t a description of life in ‘all its fullness;’ like him we don’t really believe possessions or material wealth is the true measure of happiness. Even if we wanted to ignore all the warnings on greed and accumulating riches in the bible, research that measures happiness shows that the wealthiest countries of the world are not at the top of the table. I also know that I have a lot more stuff now than I did thirty years ago, but it hasn’t made me happier or healthier. I know I own a lot more clothes than my grandmother did, who managed with a couple of older housework and gardening dresses, two second best and one best dress.
When we moved house the first time, we hired a small truck from Kennard’s to take our things to our new home. Seventeen years later, when we moved from Sydney to Wauchope, we required two large trucks and the removalist said it was the biggest move he had done in the Synod. We know theoretically that money and stuff won’t really make us happy, yet at times we still secretly believe that we will be the exception and that new thing is all we need to be fulfilled and content.
In the parable, Jesus says, ” be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” Not just ‘beware’ or ‘keep an eye out’ but “be on your guard.” The Greek word used here and translated “being on your guard” is phulasso. It means to guard or watch, have an eye upon, to guard a person (or thing) that he may remain safe lest he suffer violence, be despoiled, etc. to keep from being snatched away, preserve safe and unimpaired, to guard from being lost or perishing, to guard one’s self from a thing. It is an active watchfulness such as that of a shepherd guarding sheep against predators, or a watchman on the wall of a city upon whom the city’s safety depends against possible invaders. Greed, like a wolf or an enemy army, is to be recognised and repelled at every opportunity.
But Jesus does not stop there. He says we should also be “rich toward God”. Note that the accumulation of treasure for oneself and being rich toward God aren’t just thought bubbles in this story, but actions. Jesus is talking about what we do in our lives, about how we live out our faith, how we treat others and our environment, about how we honour God. Are we storing things up for ourselves, and primarily being consumers? Or are we using whatever we have actively to promote the values and principles of God’s kingdom in the world? Richness toward God is measured by our outward actions, and by what we share, not by our accumulating things and what we keep for ourselves.
The rich farmer also made the mistake of thinking that he really possessed his great wealth although Jesus seems to be saying that the real situation was that it possessed him. And ‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God’ concludes Jesus.
For those of us whose lives are characterised by abundance, this teaching is a hard one. For those of us who have abundance, yet still seek to be disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, what should we do? Why is Jesus so negative about what we could call the Australian dream of a suburban house, hills hoist and a backyard?
I am sure Jesus doesn’t really want us to give everything away and have nothing. But he is saying that greed and acquisitiveness are harmful and are not what we should ultimately invest in, beyond reasonably meeting our needs, and maybe some of our wants.
For many of us in the Western world, this is a struggle. Australia is an affluent country, where most of us are fortunate enough to live comfortably or even luxuriously by world standards. Our over-consumption is shown in the 64 million tonnes of rubbish we throw out every year, burying mountains of good food, clothing and electronics in landfill as we pursue the latest fashions and false dreams.
Ultimately, it is about choosing the priorities by which we will live. John van de Laar, on his website Sacredise, says:
The challenge is to recognise the powerful, and often destructive, role that money plays in global affairs, and to challenge our world leaders, our business leaders and ourselves to embrace a financial ethic of sharing and giving, over accumulating and ‘protecting’. Ultimately, in a world where economic performance is measured quarterly, it will be difficult to begin to embrace an eternal view of wealth, but if the voices of Christ-followers remain silent on this difficult, prophetic, Gospel call, all hope of a more just and equitable world is lost. … But, if we will allow the Gospel to challenge us and change us, we will find our hands opening, our trust moving from wealth to God, and our lives shifting from accumulation and protection, to sharing and giving.
A Simple Choice by John van de Laar
It’s a simple choice, really, one that should be easy.
Do we create need – building our lives around a void
that we feed and feed, but is never satisfied;
storing more than we will ever use, to silence our fear,
while ignoring the cries of those we have left empty?
Do we create plenty – finding satisfaction in enough,
finding joy in what can’t be owned and life in what is not for sale;
seeking to share life and joy and food and wealth,
so that these blessings are multiplied, and celebrated.
Teach us, Jesus, in our homes and families,
our communities and neighbourhoods, our countries and continents,
to always make the simple choice to create plenty
wherever and however we may. Amen.
Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine
Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018.
Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister.More from Rev Elizabeth Raine