Should there come a day when all your stuff is gone, will you know who you are, or more importantly, whose you are…
When Christie and I got married I moved into her apartment on College Drive in Baton Rouge. As a newlywed couple we were basically holding hands while moving boxes to our second floor loft. I unpacked a few of the small things I had acquired while in college—a laptop, some books, a pair of jeans, and a very large oil painting of my childhood hero, Mark McGwire, hitting his record-breaking homerun against the Cubs. I put my laptop in the corner, my books on the shelf, my only pair of jeans in the closet, and the painting of Mark McGwire over the mantle. At this point we had stopped holding hands. She looked at me with a confusingly dismissive “What-Are-You-Doing?” kind of look, a look that lasted longer than did the prominence of Big Mac’s accomplishment memorialized in our living room. So the painting was demoted to the spare bedroom closet, but we were moving in a couple of months, so it was fine…
“Stuff” tells a story of who we perceive ourselves to be—the kind of clothes we wear, the pictures we frame, the sticker we add to the car, the ringtone we think everyone will want to hear, etc. Expressing yourself through art and clothing and keepsakes, heirlooms is certainly fine until the line between who you are and what you have becomes indistinguishable. How do you tell your story without relying on stuff, or in other words, who are you without it?
A man approached Jesus and said, “Teacher, tell my brother to share his inheritance with me.” At first glance you might imagine that Jesus would say something like, “Of course I will talk to your brother. We should all share our wealth,” or “He didn’t earn it therefore he must share it with the rest of the family,” or you might imagine that Jesus would reply by quoting the law saying, “I’m sorry, but the Law is clear. The older brother gets a double portion of blessing.” Jesus dismisses the request saying, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” How’s that for a short conversation? Then Jesus says presumably to both brothers, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of stuff.” Jesus apparently received blank stares because he then told them a parable.
“The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” Let’s meander about here for a moment. The parable begins with the land. Who is it that produced the bounty? God. Who set Jesus to be judge? God. Maybe Jesus wasn’t dismissing the question at all. Maybe Jesus was hoping that when he asked who it was that set him above the brothers, the brothers would have turned their focus toward God and in so doing they would have resolved the issue accordingly. “The land of a rich man…” We are not talking about a pauper. This man was already wealthy, and now we hear that the land has abundantly produced. It sounds like the story about an older brother who inherited a double portion of a blessing. Are you beginning to see how the parable parallels what is happening in the brother’s life?
The man thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” What’s the problem with the man’s question? Let’s think back to what’s going on in the brother’s life. What has to happen in a family in order for them to be arguing over an inheritance in the first place? Someone has died. Someone has died and they are arguing over what to do with the abundance. There seems to be no mourning. There seems to be no celebration that they had received an inheritance. There was only bitterness and arguing and arbitration. Several chapters earlier in Luke we are told that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. Jesus is beginning the long road toward the cross, and in speaking to these apathetic brothers I wonder if Jesus pauses and thinks to himself, “Is this how my followers will deal with the abundance they receive after my death? “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Do you hear the lack of thanksgiving? Do you hear how many times “I” and “Me” dominate the action?
The man continues saying, “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.”
“Relax, eat, drink, and be merry,” is a quote from Ecclesiastes essentially saying that nothing much matters. So if you live a good life you live a good life. If you live a foolish life, then you live a foolish life. We all die. There is great wisdom in Ecclesiastes about the difference between being wise and being foolish, but ultimately, the author espouses, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” In other words, “It doesn’t matter because you will all die.” It almost seems that this is what Jesus is saying. The parable ends saying essentially that—“You fool. Your life is being asked of you this very night. What are you going to do with your stuff now?” If you are rich, great. If you are poor, great. It doesn’t matter because we will all die one day.
Except the only other time the phrase about eating and drinking and being merry is in 1 Corinthians 15 in which Paul says, “Behold I will tell you a mystery. We will not all die, but we will be changed. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The parable ends with God saying, “You fool, your life is being asked of you this very night. The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The English translation is a bit misleading. A more literal translation is “You fool, they are asking for your life,” meaning, “Your stuff has claimed your soul. Your stuff has consumed you. Stuff now owns you, what about the stuff you own? In other words, the man truly has nothing because everything has him. So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
You will come to discover that I am not a fan of a dualistic world, a world in which you either are selfish, self-centered, and give only to yourself or you are holy and pious and give to the work of God. Hear me, we can certainly be selfish, destructive even with our self-worship or self-loathing. We can also do great work for God around the world. Commitment Sunday for many congregations is certainly around the corner, and I am not going to tell you that the number you put down on that card is really how much you love Jesus; not because I don’t think giving is a sign of devotion because it is, but I’m tired of “stuff” being in charge. I’m tired of stuff being the measure of my devotion. I’m tired of stuff telling me whom to love. I’m tired of stuff being the only means of showing the world who I am. Listen to the language of the parable’s last words: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.” Do you hear the difference in language? There is a difference between storing up treasures and being rich. “Being rich” is a means of being full. Often we assume that money is involved because if we are being honest most would want to be full of wealth. In other words, the parables ends saying, “So it is with those who are empty because they only know stuff, and are not full toward the creator of it.”
My prayer for you this week is not that you put a really big number on your church’s pledge card. I’m not saying it shouldn’t happen, but I pray that you might grow in a fullness of God. I pray that you meditate on how The Well has brought you into connection with God’s fullness and grace and love. I pray that should there come a day when all of your “stuff” is gone, that you still know who you are and more importantly, whose you are.