16 And he told them this parable: ‘The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, “What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.”
18 ‘Then he said, “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’”
20 ‘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?”
21 ‘This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich towards God.’
This story has such contemporary resonances for us. It’s the story of a man who builds his whole future security on the basis of a once-off windfall and ends up a fool.
We know it’s a once-off windfall because his farm is not set up to cope with the abundance. This super-abundant harvest was one he couldn’t cope with. How sad then that faced with plenty he reacts with stress and anxiety and is only aware of what he does not have, “What shall I do? I have no…” Even as he struggles to gather the huge harvest he grows aware of what he does not have—barns sufficient to store the crop.
So on the basis of a fortunate event he re-tools his business, perhaps re-mortgages the house, tears down the buildings which had served him (and presumably generations of his family) very well, and builds bigger in order to store the surplus.
He thinks that now all his future concerns have been taken care of because of his good fortune. But the stress tore down his body much as he had foolishly torn down his buildings, and someone else gets to benefit from his good fortune.
What sparked the telling of this story is a response Jesus makes to a man whose family is being torn apart by a dispute over money (Luke 12:13). Jesus refuses to intervene but tells the man “Be careful. Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions.” (Luke 12:15).
Like I said, this is an incredibly contemporary story.
Healthy human life is composed of a complex and often delightful web of connections and friendships. Greed destroys that web. And there is perhaps nothing so divisive as money. When we seek to substitute stuff for human connection, believing that life consists in the abundance of things, then we’re fools. Funnily enough, we can do the same with friendships. We can use the company of people like stepping stones on to the next level, leaving behind those who helped us rise. Using friendships as capital to help us grow. Jesus says we are fools.
The parable invites us to imagine what alternatives might have been open to the rich man. What alternatives did he have that would have nurtured the web of connections around him.
He could have been wise enough to recognise what it is to have enough. This was a family farm which had probably been in his family for generations. The land has its limits and every so often it exceeds them, but to expect the excess every year is to exhaust the land and make it ultimately unproductive both for him and future generations. That year’s special excess could have excited gratitude from him and not anxiety over what he lacked.
He could have been generous enough to share his excess with those who weren’t quite so fortunate. Those whose farms are smaller, or whose land might not be so good, or those who made poor choices that year. In this way he could have nurtured the connections and relationships which sustain life and which draw the best out of people.
Instead his good fortune turned him in on himself, focussed him on the absences in his life, created in him an arrogant sense of personal control over the future, and ultimately removed him from the community.
The best stories are the ones which make us want to be better people. They hold up good examples for us to follow, and warnings of lifestyles and choices to avoid. My all-time favourite novel is called Jayber Crow, by Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry. I read it again recently for the fourth time. There’s a character in the story who is just like the rich farmer in the parable, updated and made more contemporary. Thankfully too there are countless characters who inspire me to be better.
What fictional characters, in books or films, inspire you to be a better person, or warn you against bad choices. Why not return to that film or book this week. Or get a copy of Jayber Crow (I could lend it to you if you promise to return it!).
Finally, this reflection will appear on the Ballycrochan Presbyterian Church facebook page, why not go over there and leave your recommendations of books or films in the comments.
This morning I offer you a poem as an instrument of quiet meditation. The poem is “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry which draws us away from the the worry and stress of our lives into peace and quiet where God is. It has many of the themes of our parable, stress and anxiety and dread for the future, but calls us to another way of being in the world. A way that acknowledges the goodness that we have been given and the grace that is all round us.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.