Listen to the sermon here.
I am one of two sisters. My parents, wary of the tensions that can rise between sisters, treated us extremely fairly. If one of us got a Cabbage Patch doll for Christmas, we both got a Cabbage Patch doll for Christmas. When I was ten, I received a portable stereo. When my sister was ten, she received a portable stereo. When I graduated from college, they generously gave me a silver Honda Civic. When my sister graduated from college they gave her a silver Honda Civic. You get the idea!
Their experiment was a success. My sister and I have an extremely close, loving, supportive, non-competitive relationship. But, even in this story of an extremely loving, healthy family, I still felt jealousy. How you ask? How could I feel jealous when my sister received the exact same presents that I did? Well, you see, Marianne is my younger sister. When I received that stereo, it only had a tape player, because my father thought CDs were just a fad. My sister, four years younger, got the CD player. And while our Honda Civics looked identical, my younger sister’s Honda Civic had automatic windows and cruise control. While I was not caught up in a violent fit of jealousy, I could feel little pinpricks of covetousness for what my sister had. (In the end, of course, things all work out. Last year when we moved to New Jersey, I bought my sister’s 8 year old Honda Civic and now I have automatic windows and cruise control and she has the New York subway system!)
Competition between siblings is as old as the relationship between Cain and Abel. There is something about that first peer relationship that makes us just a little crazy. Especially if money is involved.
Our passage from the Gospel of Luke today is almost comic. Right before this brother interrupts Jesus, Jesus has been speaking to the crowd about really lofty, opaque, theological ideas. He has just said,
And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.
I picture Jesus saying those words in a booming voice and then looking around at the crowd meaningfully, hoping to see some nods of recognition. Instead he gets a guy saying, “Hey—make my brother share the family inheritence!”
In retrospect, Jesus’ response is incredibly kind. I would have been tempted to say, “Are you even listening to me, you jerk?”
Jesus, like a wise mother, does not take sides in the argument. He does not ask to hear the details. He does not ask the man to read the text of the will. He does not cluck his tongue in sympathy.
Instead, Jesus tells a parable about a perfectly nice farmer who had a very good harvest and wanted to build more barns to store the harvest in, so he could just relax and enjoy the rest of his life.
That basically sums up our lives, doesn’t it? We open retirement accounts and emergency savings accounts and 529s to save for our children’s education. We become priests in the Episcopal Church and think about that nice pension we’re going to get starting in 2035. Oh, well, maybe that part is just me. I’ll be honest with you, I already know what retirement community I want to join. Westminster-Canterbury rests in the hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can start out in a free standing home, then move to an apartment, then to assisted living and end up in the Alzheimer’s unit, if you need to. They have an art studio, a pool, a gym, a beauty parlor and a pretty tasty cafeteria. I have it all figured out. I’ll convince my best friends to move there and we’ll end our lives sitting on porches, telling stories, and playing bridge. My grandchildren, who will adore me and write me letters weekly, will visit three or four times a year. And then one day, when I feel that I’ve lived a good long life, I will die peacefully in my sleep. It’s going to be great!
Unfortunately for me, and the farmer, life isn’t that simple. The farmer is not portrayed as a villain and yet in the parable God yells at him! God says, ‘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.” God reminds the farmer that all our frantic preparation is really for naught.
I can save all the money I want to, but that won’t stop me from dying in a tragic car accident, or getting MS, or having my husband leave me out of the blue, or suddenly having to take care of a sick parent, or giving birth to a disabled child, or having my grandchildren ignore me for the last twenty years of my life.
Money is fantastic for some things. It can give us a roof over our head, and good food for every meal. It can buy us clothes that make us feel good about ourselves and vacations that help us discover the world. Money can pay for surgery, and special schools and therapy.
But ultimately, money can’t protect us. Money can’t protect us from illness, broken relationships, disappointments, natural disasters. Money can’t protect us from being held accountable by God. And money can’t protect us from death.
No matter how much we acquire, we all end up in the same place. And in that place, the currency we need is not money. The currency we need in that place, when we stand in the presence of God, is love. Love for God and love for our neighbor.
I have seen more than one family fall apart after the death of a rich relative. There is something about an inheritance that brings out the worst in people. That part of us that longs for the love and approval of the person who dies and the part of us that experiences greed, crash together in the worst of ways. The brother that asks Jesus to adjudicate his dispute is missing his father, is feeling slighted, and just wants some justice.
But Jesus knows that is not what the brother needs. The brother will not suddenly receive his father’s love and approval if the money becomes his. He will not finally feel equal to his brother. He will not be satisfied. What the brother really needs to work on is his own heart and internal life. The brother needs to get re-centered and focused on God.
Warren Buffet has famously informed his family that his vast fortune will be going to charity, not to them and I’m sure many of them were furious when they heard that news. But in the end, I think Mr. Buffet is doing them a huge favor. Without the money they will be forced to look into their own hearts. They will be forced to figure out what their gifts and talents are. They will be forced to work and be disciplined. They will be forced to rely on others. All these things are what help create a moral life, a life of love and respect for others.
The brother in our story today did not get the answer from Jesus for which he had hoped, but he got the answer he needed.
In the same way, when we ask God why we are unemployed, or why our best friend makes so much more than we do, or why our parent cut us out of their will, we are probably not that likely to get a direct answer from God. However, if we ask God questions about the God’s currency, I’m guessing we’ll hear a reply pretty soon. If we ask God how we can better love him. If we ask God, how we can serve the poor better. If we ask God how we can show our families that we would do anything for them. If we ask God where he wants us to serve him in this world. If we start asking these kinds of questions, we’ll be amazed at the answers we receive and the life they bring us.