Luke 12: 13-31
St Andrews Indooroopilly August 2019
Today’s passage from Luke is one of a number of passages that centre on Jesus’ attitude to wealth, possessions and human self sufficiency. The passage is part of the `great addition’ – the material from chapter 9 through to chapter 18 that is found only in Luke, and not in the other canonical gospels.
And that, obviously, raises an interesting question. Since the material isn’t in the other gospels, did Luke just make it up, to serve a particular teaching need in his community? Or did he have access to some other source of material, and is he giving us a reliable insight into Jesus’ teaching on a challenging topic?
This material may not be found in the other canonical gospels. But it is found in one other, early Christian document of great importance: the gospel of Thomas.
As is typical, the account in the Gospel of Thomas is shorter and more cryptic. Jesus doesn’t explain. Instead of the moral instruction at the end of the story of the rich Farmer, in Thomas’s account Jesus simply says “Let those who have ears, hear”.
The Gospel of Thomas is not of course, part of the canon of our scriptures, but it is an extremely useful resource for helping us to understand more about the history of the early church, and the origin of our scriptures.
What we can see is that Luke is very probably drawing on an older source. It is not material that he just made up – even if he did edit the material. I
think Luke is giving us insight into Jesus’ attitude to wealth, and he is doing so through his access to documents and traditions arising from the very earliest years of the Church. That means that I sit up, take notice and listen to this passage carefully. In it, I think we can hear the authentic voice of Jesus – tidied up and sanitized by Luke, no doubt, but still present and still challenging.
With this in mind, let’s look more closely at this particular passage. First we have Jesus declining to act as arbiter of an inheritance. The man’s request to Jesus might seem reasonable – even fair. He is asking a trusted third party to mediate. But what is really happening here? He asks Jesus ‘Tell my brother’’ – he is already anticipating that Jesus will decide in his favour. He is not looking for reconciliation; he is looking to reclaim what he sees as his rights. He has no doubts as to the legitimacy of his claims. This man doesn’t want his relationship with his brother restored, he want his money.
But Jesus sees into him, he sees the anger and the wanting burning in this man’s core. Jesus sees the corrosive impact this has on the man’s relationships, on his family. And he simply does not get involved. This isn’t what he is here to do. Instead he rebukes the man:
Take care, be on your guard against all kind of greed.
Jesus is saying that this man’s priorities are wrong. He has privileged possessions over relationships, and that priority is incompatible with the kingdom of God.
The story of the rich farmer drives the point home. The attitude to the farmer is clearly negative,
God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you
What is it that this man has done wrong, and how does it relate to the preceding verses? There is no suggestion that the rich farmer has lied or cheated his way into his fortune. He has simply been lucky, or even perhaps a good manager. So why is he censured? Certainly he is preoccupied with his wealth, and the secure retirement it will bring him:
And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.
This, I think is the man’s error. His sense of who he is, his security is based on what he owns. Owning much,. He feels safe and secure. But in fact his life will end this night. His security is an illusion, and empty dream.
And this is the human condition. We are all in this situation. We consult our financial planners; we worry about our superannuation. We all want to have ample goods laid up for many years, so that we may take our ease, eat, drink and be merry – and with any luck take the occasional international tour. I want this. If the alternative is scraping by unable to buy a cup of coffee or a bottle of shiraz, if the alternative is being too poor to visit my grown up children, I don’t want that.
But ultimately, our value, our unique significance, our identity do not depend on what we have. Our security depends on whose we are.
The people who compile our lectionary stopped early. Because the next verses in this chapter transform this story from being a stern warning, into a comforting promise. Our Lord goes on to say, in one of my favorite passages:
Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you —you of little faith!
This was the rich farmer’s mistake. He trusted in his own resources and his wealth, rather than in his relationship with the Father.
There is a danger in taking this passage out of context. Far too often, the Church has supported the rich and powerful by telling the poor and powerless that earthly wealth does not matter. The radical American propagandist and song writer Joe Hill mocked this in his song ‘The Preacher and the Slave’:
Long-haired preachers come out every night, Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right; But when asked how ’bout something to eat They will answer in voices so sweet You will eat, by and by, In that glorious land above the sky; Work and pray, live on hay, You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
But if we look at the context of the passage, that self serving Gospel of the Republican Jesus cannot be supported. At the end of this chapter we read:
Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
This passage is a warning to those who have, not a palliative to those who have not. To accept the fullness of God’s care for us, to accept the values of the Kingdom of Heaven, to accept the primacy of relationship over possession is to accept God’s radical demand for our generosity.
That injunction is every bit as confronting to me as it was to Our Lord’s first listeners. As Thomas says, let those that have ears, hear. And may I be amongst them. Amen.