The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 8/2/98
Text: Luke 12:13-21
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

A fool and his money. Are soon parted, right? Someone has rewritten it to suggest that "A fool and his money are some party!" OK. Some of us are old enough to remember Adlai Stevenson, Governor of Illinois, UN Ambassador, two-time Democratic candidate for President, and rare wit. Stevenson once said, "There was a time when a fool and his money were soon parted, but now it happens to everybody."(1) Amen? Amen!

Of course, this link between a fool and money (or possessions) goes back along way, all the way to our Gospel lesson. The story is prompted by a man from the crowd which has been surrounding Jesus: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." Apparently the man's older brother refused to give him what he felt he was due. The laws of inheritance in that day stipulated that the elder brother would receive a double portion of the legacy,(2) then the balance distributed. For whatever reason, this fellow was feeling cheated and he wanted Rabbi Jesus to act as Probate Judge, just as Moses had done centuries before.(3) But Jesus would have none of it. As is so often the case when families gather for the reading of the will, the issue is not justice, it is greed, pure and simple. And the shame is that families are often permanently torn apart by it. Jesus says, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed;" Or as the venerable King James Version has it, "Beware of covetousness." Commandment #10: "Thou shalt not COVET." Someone has defined covetousness as "wanting more of what you already have enough of." Wanting more of what you already have enough of. Most of us would not call ourselves greedy, but wanting more of what we already have enough of? Hmm. Sounds almost too close for comfort.

Now, in good rabbinic fashion Jesus says, "Let me tell you a story." He begins to talk about this rich guy...a farmer who has done very well for himself.(4) Nothing illegal. This is no slumlord or drug dealer, he does not cheat his employees or mistreat them. This is lawful profit. Horatio Alger stuff. A hard worker, an upstanding citizen. Through a combination of skill and luck and plain hard work, his investment and labor have paid off. He has got this massive crop in.

Now what? Got to store it someplace. He calls in the architect to help him plan bigger barns. The hours pass, finally the architect says, "Look, I have got to get home. I have been out every night this week."

"Leave the plans with me", says the man, "I will keep working on them. We can pick it up tomorrow." So he continues to work with his drawings and his figures.

Mrs. Farmer comes in to say, "Goodnight, dear. Don't work too late." But he barely hears her, so caught up is he in the vision of the future.

The hours pass, and he senses what seems to be a knock at the door. But before he can answer the door there seems to be someone in the room with him. "Who are you?"

"I am death," the presence replies.

"What are you doing here?"

"I have come for you. Ten, nine, eight."

"Wait a minute, I'm not ready. You didn't warn me."

"Oh yes, I warned you. I warned you when that young man had that boating accident. When the friend you started farming with died of cancer. Those twinges in your chest and left arm. I warned you, but whether or not you were listening, who can say? Seven, six, five."

"Wait, wait, I will give you half of all I have."

"What is that to me? Four, three."

"Wait, I will give you everything I have. I will start all over again. I am not ready."

But the count-down continues..."two, one, and out."

In the morning, his wife finds him slumped over the papers. The pressure building up in his system had simply been too much for his heart. The little pain he felt and ignored had been the warning of something more massive.

At the farmer's funeral many fine words were spoken. He was an example to the community, he was a big barn builder, always willing to help his neighbor in times of need, a strong supporter of community charities. A fine man, a fine man. But that night, the angel of God walked through the cemetery and wrote on the man's headstone the letters F O O L.

"So are all of you", Jesus said, "who are rich in the things of this world but have no treasure in heaven." The fool and his money are parted...permanently. There are no pockets in a shroud, no U-Hauls behind a hearse.

Please be careful here. Do not make the man worse than he is. He is not unlike most of us in his passions and motives. Notice too that what happens is not a punishment. The message of the parable is not that God does not like people who work hard and are successful. The parable is simply an observation of the way life is for all of us, rich or poor, successful or struggling. Death is one of those facts of life, and no matter what you accumulate, nothing will change that. Another fact is that those possessions (or the pursuit of them) can become so overburdening as to be fatal. The Greek rendering of this passage is more explicit than the English - Verse 20: "This night THEY (the possessions) will require your soul from you." Those possessions can be dangerous...even deadly. BE CAREFUL!

Now we begin to see why our rich friend was called such a nasty name. Obviously, he was inordinately preoccupied with those potentially deadly possessions. Until the voice of God interrupts, all we hear about is STUFF - his "land...crops...barns...grain... ample goods." He sounds as if he comes from the school of thought that is convinced that the one who dies with the most toys wins.

Is he right? I do not think so. Do you remembering seeing (or hearing about) that wonderful program on Public Television last year called AFFLUENZA?(5) As it opened we saw a patient in a doctor's office. She whined, "I feel so awful, so bloated," and the doctor told her, "I'm afraid you're suffering from... AFFLUENZA." The program noted that Americans are spending more, but enjoying it less, and there is a consensus out there that, as a society, we are too greedy, too materialistic. In fact, there is an even greater consensus that the children we are raising have been taught so well that they are even worse than us old folks. "Never before has so much meant so little to so many." And there are too many miserable millionaires to be ignored. STUFF! Just like the fellow in the parable.

But he has more of a problem than an accumulation of STUFF. He has come to believe that the STUFF is his security. WRONG, Fool! Even without the problem of an untimely demise, this never works. Ask anyone who has ever been robbed...or had their house burn up in the Florida brushfires...or seen a home slide slowly, slowly over a rain-soaked California cliff.

I was intrigued to read recently of a family that put up a hummingbird feeder with four feeding stations (similar to one that hangs outside our kitchen window). Almost immediately it became popular with the hummingbirds that lived in the area. Two, three, or even four birds would feed at one time. The feeder would be refilled at least once a day.

Suddenly the usage decreased to almost nothing. The feeder needed filling only about once a week. The reason for the decreased usage soon became apparent. A male bird had taken over the feeder as his property. He was now the only hummingbird who used it. He would feed and then sit in a nearby tree, rising to attack any bird that approached his feeder. Guard duty occupied his every waking hour. He was an effective guard. The only time another bird got to use the feeder was when the self-appointed owner was momentarily gone to chase away an intruder.

That hummingbird was teaching a valuable lesson. By choosing to assume ownership of the feeder, he forfeited his freedom. He was no longer free to come and go as he wished. He was tied to the work of guarding his feeder, his STUFF. He was possessed by his possession.(6)

That leads us back to our rich fool. One more problem he appears to share with that hummingbird is selfishness. Remember what the goal of his good life would be? "Eat, drink, and be merry." His daydream is to spend his future indulging himself. His chariot will sport a license tag proclaiming "I'm spending my children's inheritance." Is that what gives life meaning? No life that I would ever want.

Admittedly, we understand what motivated him. We come from a society that encourages the same in all of us. Why else would people stand for hours in long lines this past week to buy Powerball tickets that offered only an 80-million-to-one chance of winning? (And how many of those would be standing in line today to get into church?) We all suffer from "AFFLUENZA." The Romans had a proverb: "Money is like seawater; the more you drink, the thirstier you become."(7) We know. We know. And folks ARE trying to do something about our addiction. The PBS program noted that, of the Americans who have voluntarily cut back their consumption, 86% say that they are happier as a result. In 1996, 5% of the "baby boom" generation reported practicing a strong form of voluntary simplicity. By the year 2000, some predict the number will rise to 15%.

Jesus says, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed - no covetousness, no wanting more of what you already have enough of - for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." He made the statement in response to a request for help with an inheritance problem. He could have concluded with a story about another family's settlement of an estate. Again, it involves two brothers.(8) The older brother was very rich. He had been successful in business and the world. Over the years he had never married and did not really have friends. He spent all of his time working. The younger brother, on the other hand, had a large family and many friends. He worked hard, but had little to show for his work. It seemed as though between his family and helping his friends the money just barely went far enough.

One day the men got word that their father had died and the land that had been the family farm was to be divided between the two brothers equally. They both went to stay in their father's house while they tended to the various matters and arrangements of their father's affairs. After their father had been buried surveyors came and marked the land to allow for equal distribution.

One night the older brother was lying in his bed, and he thought of his younger brother and how poor he was. With his big family he could certainly use some extra income. He thought, "I am rich and have plenty. I will go out in the dark of the night and move the marker that divides the farm in half, giving him the bigger portion of the land."

Meanwhile, the younger brother was lying in bed and thinking about his older brother and how alone he was, without family and friends. He thought about how blessed he was to have a large family and so many friends. He thought, "All my brother has to remind him of his family is this piece of land. I will go out in the middle of the night and move the marker over further on my side, so that he may have the bigger piece of the land."

That night, in the middle of their father's field the two brothers met. When each heard what the other brother was doing, they embraced and wept. Years later, legend has it, that the city of Jerusalem was built upon the spot where their tears had fallen.

Listen once more to Jesus: "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."

Let us pray.

Lord, we confess to terrible difficulty in not being foolish about money and STUFF. Help us. We do not do well on our own. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen!

1. quoted in Bill Adler's The Stevenson Wit, via Internet,

2. Deuteronomy 21:17

3. Numbers 27:1-11

4. Credit to Ross Bartlett's sermon, "Learning From A Fool" via Internet for the creative retelling of the parable,

5. A production of KCTS-TV and Oregon Public Broadcasting, John de Graaf, Producer, first broadcast nationally on PBS on 9/15/97

6. W. L. Barnes, Free As a Bird, quoted in Bible Illustrator for Windows, diskette, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technology, 1994)

7. William Barclay, Daily Study Bible Series, CD-ROM, (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1996)

8. An old Hasidic tale which can be found in a number of iterations. This one was posted by Janet MacgregorWilliams on Ecunet in "Sermonshop Sermons," #744, 8/5/98

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