By Brett Younger
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
But he said to him, Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Then he told them a parable: The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.
Most of Jesus’ parables leave some wiggle room: “It might mean what it says, but it could also mean…” or “While the most obvious interpretation of the story is troubling, it’s possible to read this in a less disturbing way…” The problem with the parable of the rich fool is that there isn’t any room to negotiate.
One of Mark Twain’s best known quotations is, “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts that I do understand.”
This story is too easily understood. It’s about people who have food in the pantry they don’t need, clothes in their closet that they never wear, and more money than 95 percent of the world’s money. It’s about people with IRAs, annuities, and mutual funds. I wish there was another way to read it, but this story is about you and me.
A young man pushes through the crowd toward Jesus. He walks with urgency and purpose. He’s wearing a purple linen robe. As he passes the fire, the signet ring on his right hand gleams. Everyone’s eyes follow him.
Jesus asks, “May I help you?”
“Rabbi,” the young man’s voice is as imposing as his walk, “make my brother divide the inheritance with me. I want my share.”
“You are lucky enough to have an inheritance? I have nowhere to lay my head.”
The young man isn’t amused: “I’m not an heir yet. My brother refuses to comply. All the rabbis since Moses have insisted that if one of the sons wants it, the inheritance must be divided. All I want is what’s rightfully mine.”
Now Jesus isn’t amused: “Friend, who made me a judge between you and your brother?”
“Rabbi, I just want what is coming to me.” His voice is as logical as a ledger: “I’m not asking for what isn’t mine. I’m not asking you to be a judge. I just want you to tell my brother to follow the law.”
Everyone is impressed with the legitimacy of his claim—everyone except one.
The story is already on its way. “Once there was a rich farmer. He was well into his middle years—not like you. He was rounded from the good life, as fat as a banquet calf—not like you.
One evening, the foreman of his farm knocked at the door: ‘The wheat has sprouted in a strange way, tripling what we had expected.’
The farmer said, ‘I have to see this.’ He had a servant bring him a torch. He and the foreman went out into the fields. The blaze of the torch pushed back the darkness enough for the farmer to see that somehow the seed had multiplied.
The foreman said, ‘The earth is generous. You are the heir of a miracle.’
But the farmer didn’t hear him. Thinking to himself, having only himself to think to, he thought, ‘I need bigger barns to hold my wheat.’
The farmer commanded, ‘We have to build more barns to hold what’s rightfully mine.’
He hired carpenters to build special locks for the barns. When they came to his land and saw the incredible abundance of wheat, they told the farmer, ‘You are blessed.’
The farmer asked, ‘Will the locks be strong enough?’
There was no celebration on the final day of the harvest. As soon as the workers had finished, the farmer dismissed them. He wanted to secure the locks himself. When the last wooden bar slid into place, the farmer thought, ‘I will never be hungry.’
Jesus stares directly at the young man who thinks himself nothing like the farmer: “He never was hungry. That night he died. What will happen to all that was rightfully his? Whose inheritance will it be now?”
It seems likely that not long afterwards one of the disciples discreetly took Jesus aside and said: “You know that I’m a big fan of your parables. I think they’re great. But I hope you don’t mind if I offer just a little constructive criticism on this last one, the rich farmer who dies. You may not realize how people hear that. When you tell that story it sounds like you’re trying to make rich people feel guilty.
“People think that you’re insinuating that they’re somehow responsible for starving people. I know that money is a big issue for you, but if you want them to give, tell them it will feel good, make them happy, and contribute to their sense of fulfillment. You need to realize that when you make people feel guilty they also get angry.”
Jesus would have replied, “People who are storing grain while others starve should feel guilty until they share what they have.”
This story is so harsh. The rich man is a successful businessperson who worked hard and has been rewarded. He sets aside savings so that he can enjoy his retirement. What’s wrong with that?
Yet Jesus insists on calling the man a fool. Maybe Jesus thinks he’s a fool because only fools pretend not to see the people who need what they have. In the 46 Greek words in this parable the farmer refers to himself—I, my, or mine—12 times. When he realizes that he has more than enough the one thing that never enters his mind is to give some away.
It’s hard for people like us to see people who are starving. The gap between the rich and the hungry is increasing. We are in the 34 percent of the world’s population that uses 87 percent of the world’s resources. The poorest one fifth of the world—more than a billion people—receives about one and a half percent.
The Dow Jones is at an all-time high and we’re in the group that has trouble choosing which restaurant while others starve. We count calories, because we eat too much while others don’t get enough to stay alive.
Development and aid agencies report that about 27,000 people die every day from hunger-related diseases. Famine and wars cause about 10 percent of hunger deaths, and these tend to be the ones you hear about most often.
The majority of deaths from hunger are caused by chronic malnutrition. Families facing extreme poverty are unable to get enough food to eat. Three-fourths of the deaths are children under the age of five. During this hour of worship over 800 children will die. That’s too horrible to imagine.
On the United Nations hunger web site, they used to begin with a map of the world with countries lighting up one at a time—India, Mexico, China, Thailand, Russia, India again, Romania, Indonesia. When a country lit up it represented someone in that country dying of hunger. It happened every 3.6 seconds.
They received complaints until they took the map down and replaced it with merchandise you can purchase. The map was too depressing. It was hard to watch those lights coming on and think about all that we have. Should we be spending money the way we do while children starve? The rock star Bono said, “Where you live in the world should not determine whether you live.” But it does.
We are appropriately appalled by violence aimed at children in schools. We should be just as angry at the violence of hunger. What’s more violent than children starving to death? What are we going to do to help?
Feeling guilty won’t do anybody any good if it leaves us feeling helpless. Thinking “that’s so sad” doesn’t help, but deciding, “I can’t let that happen to my sister, my brother” will lead us to make a difference.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN says that the world already produces enough food to provide everyone with at least 2,700 calories per person per day. We need to reduce poverty through shared economic development. We can help people in poor countries train for jobs where they can make enough money to survive. We can provide information, seeds, and tools that make farming more productive.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry.” Did Jesus believe that it was possible for everyone to have enough? Some scholars argue that Jesus is insisting that no one should go hungry, because his followers shouldn’t allow it to happen. We should hear the cries of the poor and not turn a deaf ear. We should share our resources and not hoard them.
We should simplify our lifestyles and not ignore the hungry. We should become advocates for the oppressed, creating a world built upon economic and social justice. Why did Jesus think his disciples would do this? Perhaps Jesus believed they would see the sacrifices he made to help others and follow suit.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached, “To allow the hungry person to remain hungry would be blasphemy against God and one’s neighbor, for what is nearest to God is precisely the need of one’s neighbor. It is for the love of Christ, which belongs as much to the hungry person as to myself, that I share my bread with him.”
So what should we do? Praying honestly is a good start. “God, show me how I can help” is a prayer God always answers. God will lead us to take some of the grain out of our barns and share it with people who need it. Our hunger offering won’t make a difference for everyone who is hungry, but it will make a life-saving difference for a few of God’s children.
Jesus ends his gruesome parable with the death of the farmer. Maybe he thinks that reminding us that we’re going to die will push us to get on with things that matter. A grim Spanish proverb says, “There are no pockets in a shroud.”
Luke doesn’t tell us how the people who heard Jesus’ parable responded. It’s such a difficult story that we tend to assume that most people tried to explain it away or just ignored it, and that’s probably true.
But it’s also possible that there was in the crowd a man who had a barn filled with grain who was considering building a new barn. His accountant told him that he should look for places to put his wealth. The rich man was used to thinking only of himself, but when Jesus told this parable, he decided he didn’t want Jesus’ story of the rich man to be his story. He looked at his bank statement and knew that he had money he could give away and never miss it, but he wanted to give enough to miss it. He wanted to stop buying luxuries for himself and start living generously for others.
And so he did. He gave money to buy a grinder to grind meal, provide livestock, and feed homeless children. His accountant didn’t like it. He assumed his rich employer was now less rich, but the rich man knew his accountant was wrong. In learning to give, he became richer than ever before.
We can imagine a better ending to the story. Imagine hungry children in Romania sitting down to a nutritious meal at the only school that will allow them to attend. Imagine the members of the Kinigi Church in the Congo sharing grain with the mothers of malnourished children. Imagine a farmer in Thailand listening to a missionary explain how these new seeds will enable the farmer to feed his family. Imagine a homeless child in Russia getting medical attention from a caring doctor. Imagine a family in Indonesia walking to church to receive the gift of a goat that will make the difference between life and death.
There are far more important questions for us to ask than “How much do we have stored away?” We need to ask: How much do we have in common with the rich fool? Will we share what we’ve been given? How can we miss this opportunity to help God’s children?
Brett Younger is a pastor in Fort Worth, Texas. This sermon was printed in a special worship resource issue of Hunger News & Hope (Volume 9 No 1, Summer 2007) called “Bread for All.”