How many families have been torn apart in the fight over distribution of an inheritance? I went to check and there are entire websites dedicated to massive inheritance battles over millions of dollars. Lawsuits, divorces, even violence and murder have been part of these epic disagreements over equitable distribution of wealth.
You don’t have to be fabulously wealthy to experience conflict in the division of an inheritance. I’ve seen families broken apart for less than $20,000 or siblings who no longer speak with one another because one took possession of an item that couldn’t be shared. The conflict is passed on to the next generation, creating a permanent rift.
No wonder Jesus didn’t want to wade into the middle of a brother’s beef over the family inheritance! He was familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures was well aware of the history of conflicts between siblings like Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau and Joseph with his 11 brothers.
Instead of judging between the two, Jesus tells a story about someone else who had received an abundance, the parable of the rich fool. Unlike many of Jesus’s parables, this one has a pretty clear meaning. He sums up the point at the end by saying, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”
And yet, this is not an outright rejection of wealth, not a condemnation of the well-to-do. If it were that simple, I could preach a moralizing sermon condemning those of us who have relatively healthy bank accounts and telling you all to give more to the church and we’d be done for the morning!
But, as usual with Jesus, there’s more nuance here. He calls many of our assumptions into question and the parable works on those who are fabulously wealthy AND everyone else.
It begins with privilege, with unmerited, unearned assets. Those who benefit from an inheritance are not entitled to it. It’s a gift. It’s based on the decision of the giver. When my mother-in-law died, she willed an equal distribution of her very limited means to each of her four sons regardless of who had visited her most often or given her the most assistance or had the most children. I think what she valued most was the ongoing relationship between her boys. She wanted the brothers to love one another and get along with each other.
In the parable of Jesus, it’s not an inheritance that is unearned, it’s the great wealth of the rich fool. Did you notice how it’s described? “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” Not, the rich man was super smart and hard-working and pulled himself up by his own bootstraps to make a fortune. No, he is fortunate to have a very productive piece of land that grew more than he could possibly use himself, more than he could even store in the barns he had. He was blessed with a huge abundance that he could never use up in his own lifetime.
We see this principle in practice all the time. Those who have access to good health care and nutrition as a child, safe living conditions, racial privilege, a good education and family stability have enormous advantages when it comes to economic security and greater wealth. We didn’t earn it nor do we deserve it more than others, but we have benefited from these privileges.
Some have the opposite experience. No matter how hard they try, how smart they are or what they hope and dream for, they find themselves shut out from opportunities and resources that would help them. This chasm between the rich and poor only seems to increase with greater accumulation of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people. The rich are isolated from the poor, not exposed to their suffering.
In the parable the rich fool has no one to talk to except himself. He is cut off from others and he doesn’t acknowledge God. He only talks to himself in his dialogue, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” It never occurs to him to share even one small portion of his crops with those in need. He doesn’t see the poor. He doesn’t have relationships with those who are suffering. He is concerned only with his own affairs.
He is pleased with himself. He feels secure and comfortable. He doesn’t need anyone else in his life. And he has no thought for God, either to give thanks for this good fortune or to pray for those who are without. He’s sure he’s got everything under control.
That’s what makes him foolish in the eyes of God. The rich man was blind to his own fate, blind to the needy, blind to the presence and power of God. In his focus on acquiring more and more, he lost sight of what was truly valuable, his relationships with God and others, the joy of life, meaning and purpose. He thought he was an owner, when really, he was simply a steward of these resources.
This is a pretty important passage for us to pay attention to at St. Luke’s. Ours is a rich inheritance. We benefit from the land, buildings and possessions of those who went before us. We worship, work, live and serve on property that was acquired by others and that is now very valuable monetarily. We’re not the owners, but we’re called to steward this inheritance wisely.
Our inheritance is so much greater than property and possessions. We have a rich history of the work of God’s Spirit guiding, inspiring and energizing the people of this congregation to love and serve others in remarkable ways. This congregation has raised up people of faith who make a difference in a variety of fields from ordained ministry and nonprofits to law and technology. Ours is a “sending” congregation where numbers of young people have gotten established and then moved on to share their gifts with others.
Matt Roney and Nora, who I married in 2019 are headed off to seminary next month to study for the priesthood. Sara Bates, our former Edible Hope Program Director is working with people on Medicaid through a non-profit in Wenatchee. Former teens are now off to college. Mother Hillary finished her curacy and is full-time at the hospital. Many of our regular Edible Hope guests are now in permanent housing and able to focus on more than simply surviving.
We have much to be grateful for and the responsibility to be faithful with the resources we are given. So the fact that we are about to embark on a large building project may seem contradictory to the message in Jesus’s parable. Wait, aren’t we just building larger and larger structures to ensure our own security?
This is something we have to address head on and even to make clear in any of the legal documents that guide our development and its management over the next 100 years of the ground lease. We are relinquishing some of the value of our property and our control over much of the space in order to build safe and secure dwellings for those who might otherwise never be able to have a stable home. We are also creating space for our congregation and future congregations to worship God and serve others, to do well by doing good, to be a blessing for generations yet to come.
Our church space will be reduced but it will be more efficient and cost far less to operate. We want our congregation to be focused on what is truly important rather than spending so much energy caring for and maintaining a large piece of property with 8 buildings in need of lots of attention. We will be able to host affordable child care programs, meals, and services for our neighbors in our space. We will be able to provide a solid foundation for the Edible Hope Kitchen to continue feeding and caring for the most vulnerable. And we will provide affordable homes for hundreds and thousands of people for years to come.
We will be rich. Rich in the people who find food and shelter here. Rich in those who discover a deeper walk with God and a renewed sense of purpose. Rich in relationships that include all our neighbors in an inclusive, diverse, beloved community. We have chosen to give up a great deal of the value of this property in order to receive the blessing and treasure of relationships with our neighbors.
St. Augustine reflected on this same parable back in the fourth century. As he considered the foolishness of the rich man, he acknowledged his blindness. Augustine said, “The rich man did not realize that the bellies of the poor are much safer storerooms than his barns.”
Regular prayer, worship and service is a great corrective to the blindness that comes with acquiring greater resources. It helps us keep our ears and eyes open to God and our neighbor. It grounds us in what is truly important and of lasting value. It keeps us connected, rather than cut off and isolated, secure in our own bubble. And when these are our treasures, that is where our heart and souls will be as well. Amen.