The Vanity of Self-Absorption: A Sermon for Proper 13, Year C

I’ve had occasion this summer to talk with a lot of people about their lives and journeys. Some of those conversations have been over lunch and I look forward to more of them. Others have taken place in more traditional pastoral settings—during pre-marital counseling, at a bedside in a nursing home, or as we discuss funeral arrangements either for themselves or for loved ones. Such conversations can become the heart of pastoral ministry, especially when we allow ourselves to open up and talk about our deepest hopes and fears. Crises like serious illness or death can become the opportunity to reflect on what really matters.

Conversations like these can be intimate, holy moments, and as is often the case when we come near to holy ground, we become fearful, awestruck, and turn back. Sometimes we find ourselves in places where it’s difficult to say, either to ourselves or to our closest companions and friends, what really matters, what motivates us, what gives us passion.

In our readings today, we encounter two men who are trying to discern what matters most, but neither of them seeks help from anyone outside themselves. The teacher, Qoheleth, sought to learn all wisdom and to understand the meaning of life. He concluded,  “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Or to put it more literally, all is vapor, a puff of wind. For all his wisdom, he resented all the work he had done, everything he had accomplished, presumably all the wealth he had accumulated. He complained that he would have to leave it to people who might not have the wisdom to put that wealth to proper use. The teacher, for all his wisdom, is all alone, with little thought for other people, or for God.

In that, he is similar to the farmer in today’s parable. In the gospel we are treated with a wonderful little parable, the rich or foolish farmer. Luke puts it in an interesting context. First he has two brothers come to Jesus seeking his help. There’s clearly a conflict between the two over an inheritance and they want Jesus to arbitrate the dispute. He refuses, and then warns the crowd about greed and the desire to accumulate possessions. By way of illustration, it would seem, Jesus tells the story about the man whose abundant harvest creates a problem of inadequate storage. So he decides to tear down his barns and build bigger ones where he can store his grain and goods. He has a conversation with himself: “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” But God broke into the conversation the man was having with himself, told him “This very night your life is being demanded of you.” The moral is quite clear and rather ominous: Similar fates await all those “who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

We are inclined to hear passages from the gospels like this one and immediately try to apply them to our own lives and worry whether God’s word to the foolish farmer is also God’s word to us. Most of us are concerned about our future. Those of us who have retired have hopefully stored up some resources with which to enjoy our retirement. Those of us who are still working want to make sure that we have made adequate provision for the future. We worry about things like inheritances and we want in our retirement to be able to enjoy life in ways we weren’t able to while we were working—to travel, of course, and yes, to eat, drink, and be merry. So God’s word to the foolish farmer may sound like God’s word to us.

But is it? I’d like to explore this story a little more deeply to see what’s really going on. Jesus’ warning to the brothers who asked him to arbitrate the family inheritance provides a stance from which to examine the parable: “Be on guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” The warning is not against wealth in and of itself, but rather against greed. There is more to life than being rich, Jesus seems to be saying. And so the parable is an illustration of that.

In the beginning of the story, the farmer has done nothing wrong. For reasons that aren’t specified (perfect weather, perhaps?), his fields produced a banner yield. That created a problem: what to do with the bountiful harvest? There may be more to this yet. If he’s had a good year, it’s likely that other farmers have had equal success. In the absence of federal subsidies and crop supports, an abundant harvest would likely drive the price of grain down. Keeping some of it for future years is prudent management of resources. Who knows what the next year might bring?

So even the decision to build bigger barns, on the surface, is not necessarily the wrong thing to do. But note something curious in the story at this point. As the farmer deliberates with himself, the problem becomes clear. He is completely focused on himself. What shall I do? he asks, for I have no place to store my crops? I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul…

Notice how many times the personal pronoun “I” has been used in these few sentences. The farmer has no larger perspective than himself as he considers his bounty and his future. It’s all about him. There’s no thought about God who provided the abundant harvest; no mention of the workers who helped till the fields and reap the harvest, and no mention of Torah obligation to take care of the widow and the orphan. It’s interesting to compare this parable to other parables in Luke with agricultural settings. In most of them, there is a full cast of characters—stewards, servants, workers, even family members. Here there’s only one person—the farmer.

The farmer sees the abundant harvest only in terms of his own enjoyment of life. The I, the self has become the only agent, the only character, in the story. But wait, there is another character—God, and God calls the farmer to account for his actions.

The farmer is seeking security, something we all desire. But he seeks that security through the accumulation of wealth, and only through the accumulation of wealth. There’s nothing wrong with saving for retirement; there’s nothing wrong with trying to make sure you and your family have comfortable lives, in the present and in the future. There’s not even anything wrong with wanting to “eat, drink, and be merry.” After all, Jesus, especially in the gospel of Luke, is shown to enjoy a good dinner or banquet with friends (and is criticized for doing so—he tells us people call him a drunkard and glutton). One might wonder what sort of a party someone as self-centered as this farmer would throw. Who would he invite?

No, this parable is not about the evils of wealth. It is about what matters most. It is about our priorities. What role do our possessions play in our lives? What role does God play in our lives? Are we most concerned with the gratification of our desires, our creature comforts, our selves? Or are we oriented toward God and our neighbor? Are we thinking about how our efforts, our goods, can aid in God’s blessing and redemption of the world?

To put it another way—if we were confronted with the farmer’s problem, with whom would we engage in conversation? Only with our self as the farmer did? Or would we invite our family, loved ones, the larger community, and especially God, into that conversation? And if we do look outside of ourselves, at the needs of the community and the world, and at all the ways God has blessed and continues to bless us, what sort of stewards of God’s abundance could we then become?

 

 

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