Mismanaging Miracles

Delivered May 20, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos
as part of a series on the parables.

Theme: God is the source of our security, not goods, money, job, etc.

Sermon Text:
Luke 12:13-21
and Deuteronomy 8:11-20

According to sociologist, Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart, Americans have two great goals in life. The first is to have success and the other is to feel good. It seems to me that since those are the goals of many contemporary Americans, that money often seems to offer the power to reach those goals of both success and feeling good. And if that were so, then we could probably come up with an axiom that would say “wealthy people are rarely miserable, wealthy people are always happy.” Actually, when money is the target and we hit it, it usually leads to either wanting more money, or to a great deal of burden, then it leads to either feeling successful or good.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the average American had 72 wants and considered 18 of them to be necessities. At the end of the 20th century, the average American had 496 wants and considered 96 of them to be necessities. Now, I don’t have the two lists, but I know things like microwaves and computers did not make the first list and so probably because of our technology, because of our media’s advertising saturated society we have been led to believe that our wants are greater than they were 100 years ago. And the more wants that one has, the more money becomes the object of pursuit. And if that really holds true, then our pursuit of money becomes like the way of the angler fish. An angler fish has a long snout, powerful jaws, sharp teeth and from it’s head are tentacles that come up and at the very tip of it’s nose there is a red leaf-like lure that it waves. It buries its body in the mud and then it waves that leaf-like lure, that red thing and an unsuspecting fish, well you know the rest of the story. Unfortunately, when that green leafy stuff waves in front of us, and we go after it thinking that it’s the goal, and we get it. And then many times, it gets us.

The word “fool” appears two times in the four gospels. Once in Matthew, where Jesus tells people not to call other people “a fool.” And then in the text that I am about to read to you. Why does Jesus call the rich farmer in this parable a fool? Not because money is inherently bad, but because becoming pre-occupied with it can block us from the quality of life that comes by focusing our attention on God. So as we look at this parable, let’s again do so and listen to it as Jesus’ listeners would probably first have heard it and filtered it. But first lets hear the text, Luke Chapter 12, verses 13-21.

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘teacher tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ Jesus replied, ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or arbiter between you?’ Then he said to them, ‘Watch out, be on your guard against all kinds of greed. A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’ He told them this parable. The ground of a certain rich man produced a good group. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do?’ I have no place to store my crops. Then he said, ‘This is what I will do, I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones. There I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to myself, you have plenty of good things laid up for many years, take life easy. Eat, drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you, then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God.

When Jesus began this parable, I think it must have sounded like the beginning of that famous television show, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Remember Robin Leach? He would come on and say, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous! Today we are going to take you to Aruba,” and we kind of say, “Boy I wonder what the other side lives like” and we get drawn in and that’s exactly what the hearers of Jesus would have thought when he said, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully.” Boy, if this guy is already rich, and his land brings forth plentifully, this is a story that he is about to tell us about money and about wealth and about it’s accumulation and it’s use. Actually, the land of the rich man is redundant because in an agrarian society, you are known to be rich because of how much land you have. And the word “land” here really, if you were in Texas, would refer to “a spread.” That’s how huge this person’s land was. On this huge spread a bumper crop came forth plentifully.

It’s important to understand what the audience’s understanding of wealth and the use of wealth would have been like in the 1st century. Remember, we are talking about an agrarian society. Here’s a quote from the Wisdom literature of the 1st century.

Blessed is the rich man who is found blameless and who does not go after gold, who is he? We will call him blessed for he has done wonderful things among his people. Who has been tested by riches and been found perfect or mature? His prosperity will be established and the assembly will relate his acts of charity.

In the mind of the people who first heard the beginning of this story, their attitude toward wealth was that it should be shared. Riches posed a problem and a rich man has a difficult, but not impossible task. The purpose of wealth is acts of charity and alms giving. In fact, in Acts, Chapter 4, we see that very clearly when people would from time to time sell lands and houses and give to the church, and the church would in turn distribute it to the needy. So, in a limited good society, hoarding was frowned upon. It was condemned because the public need was great. So let’s keep this in mind as we look again at verse 17. The man’s land was richly abundant and he thought to himself, “What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.” Now that’s a strange question. Why doesn’t he have any place to store his crops? He’s rich. He must have huge granaries and barns. An alert listener hearing that text would say, “Now exactly how big was this bumper crop?” I mean how much did it produce for him to say that? One commentator on the parables said that often running through the parables are muted miracles, things we don’t pick up very quickly, or right away at first reading. Here’s a muted miracle. An incredible blessing of God. (Another theme of the parable is kind of an all or nothing attitude like the pearl of great price, we sell everything to buy the pearl.) Now this man, instead of adding to his barns, says, “I will tear them down to build larger granaries. And there I will store all my grains and my goods.” So the parable really could be renamed from the parable of the rich fool to the parable of the man who mismanaged a miracle. He mismanaged a miraculous blessing of God.

Now Jesus’ listeners at this point, before we go any further in the parable, are probably thinking of two Old Testament images. I will give you a little pop quiz today. What story is equated with granaries in the Old Testament? In the end of Genesis. Anyone? Joseph, yes. Joseph, seven fat years, seven lean years, he builds the huge granaries. In Exodus, what’s the common story or the primary story of God’s feeding God’s people? How did God provide food? By the Manna. And in both accounts, there was a time of plenty and a time of want. Because with the manna they said on the Sabbath day, there won’t be any so collect double so that you will have enough for two days. The miraculous harvest leads Jesus’ hearers to anticipate something. This miracle places demands upon the rich man so that by the end of verse 18, they’re expected response is, “Oh, this man’s intention is to be like Joseph. He’s going to tear down his barns and build bigger ones and be socially responsible and bless the community, for the less fortunate and the needy.” But always in Jesus’ parables there is a hook. An unexpected thing. And that comes in verse 19. I am sure to the shock of those who first heard this story. “And I will say to myself,” notice how the language shifts. This man takes center stage. It doesn’t say that he said to himself, it says “I’ll say to myself, you have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy. Eat, drink and be merry.” He left out a part of that phrase, didn’t he? Do you remember this famous statement from Epicures, a Greek philosopher, “Eat, drink and be merry for…” yeah you know it, “for tomorrow we die.” He knew it too, but he didn’t say it.

Death’s inevitability should prompt a very different response. And so verse 19 goes on to paint a picture of a rich man hoarding a miracle of a fantastic blessing from God for his own pleasure. And he refuses to share it. He mismanages a miracle. Is his chief sin greed? No, verse 20 tells us what his chief sin is: It’s spiritual stupidity. It’s spiritual thickness, because God says to him, “You fool!” Did you know that this is the only parable that Jesus taught where God intervenes? And the reason for that is it that the man has taken center stage, thinking that the spotlight is on him, and the harvest, and his attitude, and the needs of the community, all create an impression that God is standing outside in the wings. And God is going to take center stage and correct what’s being done here, and intervene and restore the balance. He says, “You fool, this very night your life will be demanded from you, then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” Jesus’ listeners knew the answer. The people, for whom they should be prepared, the community in need. This mans chief sin is not greed, it is idolatry. He worshiped the blessings of God, the gifts of God, more than God. He thought he had many years, he had one night. He believed he had many things stored, but he was going to lose the one thing that really mattered. He thought he could ward off the threat of death by his own management, he is dead wrong. In fact, he will die in his sleep. And so Jesus teaches something in a very sober manner to those who would dwell in God’s kingdom. That we are to be people who manage God’s gifts for the benefit of others, and not just for ourselves. One of the first things to think about when God has blessed us and pours out his blessings upon us is to think “How can I share this blessing with others?” The parable is less about greed and more about the correct use of wealth. The bottom line is “How are you managing God’s miracles?” I mean, even for those of us who would say, “Well I’m not wealthy,” we know that when we compare ourselves to the rest of the world, that that’s not so. Our body really is a miracle. Our life is a miracle. How are you managing God’s miracle? It’s my contention that Christians often don’t reach the levels of generosity that are expected biblically proportionate. We know, and I have shared this before, that studies of the average giving patterns of Christians in mainline churches is 2.3%. That’s much better here at Central, it’s wonderful. But it’s my contention that many times we don’t give, not because we are greedy but because we are fearful that if we distribute more than we think we can that we won’t have enough. And it’s not that we worship the dollar, it’s just that we don’t worship God enough. And we withhold not because we are greedy, but because we are insecure. And so Paul says in an incredibly beautiful passage in 1st Timothy, Chapter 6, (and actually there are a couple of other verses and there is the passage from which the famous verse comes, “for the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”) Listen to this: “Some people eager for money have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” But he goes on to say, “Command those who are rich, in this present world, not to be arrogant or to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasures for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” We can see from those verses that it’s not wrong to be rich. It isn’t sinful to provide to provide for the future. In fact, the scriptures are very clear. Parents ought to lay up for their children, 2nd Corinthians, Chapter 12. Proverbs says, “A good man leaves an inheritance.” What would have happened to Israel if Joseph hadn’t had the forethought to store grain in the barns? So, God wants us to enjoy life and it’s blessings. And it says that God gives us all things richly to enjoy, just as we want our children to enjoy the things that we provide for them. But God does not want us to depend on those things, but upon Him. So again, my thought for you today is that, it’s worry and insecurity that sometimes freeze our fingers and often causes us to pursue the wrong goals.

One more verse from Luke, Chapter 12 and it’s important to read this parable in it’s context because Jesus goes on to talk about how we should not worry and to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. In verse 32 of Luke 12 he says, “Do not be afraid, little flock. For your father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” G. Campbell Morgan, a famous preacher, said that there are three metaphors in here and they are not being mixed–because back in those days, a Middle Eastern sheik could be a shepherd, a father, and a king all at one time. And so, as a believer in Jesus, we are sheep of God’s flock, we are children in God’s family, and we are citizens of God’s kingdom. If this is so, what do we need to fear? When God blesses you and me with good things, with wealth, with other miracles, and with money, make them your servant, not your master. And keep in mind what St. John Chrysotom, church father of the 4th century in preaching on this text said. He said that “the stomachs of the poor are the safe barns of our wealth.” Amen.

Lord, we ask that you would help us again to keep things in balance, to remember that you have blessed us beyond our deserving, and help us, Lord, to humbly confess again that it is your hand that has done these things. Help us, O Lord, to have the proper perspective to be good stewards, to share our wealth generously. And for those Lord who feel pressed financially, for those who feel worried about things today and needs, we pray that you would help them to cast that burden upon you and to know that you will meet their need to trust you and to orient their lives with you at the center. We ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.