READING: I Kings 21:1-22; Psalm 30; Luke 10:1-12,17-20
SERMON : "Learning From A Fool"
Rev. Dr. Ross Bartlett
The following is another in our summer series of guest sermons.
Rev. Ross Bartlett is an United Church of Canada clergy person
located in Halifax, NS. This sermon was first shared on our site
in 1998 while Ross was located in Kingston, Ontario.
I had something of a bad moment, after I sent Bob Hales my notes for
these summer services. I suddenly realised that the titles of these
sermons might appear in the Whig-Standard. Given the title of today's
sermon that might not be entirely auspicious. I mean, even if it's true,
is that the note you want to strike at the beginning of a new ministry
in a new community? On the other hand, I rationalised, someone reading
that title might be provoked by the preacher's honesty to attend church
on a Sunday morning when they were going to give it a miss.
Into the middle of Jesus' teaching a man with a question breaks. You can
almost see him, standing there in the crowd, squirming with this question
that is consuming his attention. It doesn't matter that Jesus has been
speaking of eternal truths. The man is concerned with today and so misses
eternity. Apparently his father had died and his brother was refusing to
follow the commandments of the law which specified a certain division of
the estate. That he should ask Jesus' opinion is not surprising. The
rabbis were often sought out to give rulings on points of law, including
those related to family money matters. But notice what the question says.
In the background it is quite clear that the man has decided what his
rights are and now wants Jesus to enforce that decision. Jesus declines
to get involved. Instead he gives the man, and the crowd, an answer which
must have sounded peculiar.
"Beware of covetousness." That's the traditional rendering of this word.
Covetousness. A strange word, not one that comes trippingly off the
tongue in the conversation of most of us. I can't think of one occasion
in the past month where I've used it. Maybe your speech is a whole lot
different than mine but I doubt it's part of your regular vocabulary
either. Covetousness. Sometimes it gets translated as "all kinds of greed".
That's not bad. It's certainly closer to where you and I live, but it's not
quite on. Covetousness really means "wanting more of what you already have
enough of". Wanting more of what you already have enough of. Saying it
that way may help us to find ourselves in this strange story from the long
ago. After all, I doubt that most of us would call ourselves greedy.
Not a nice word, not a word we use about ourselves. But wanting more of
what we already have enough of. That sounds a lot more like you and me
than is comfortable.
This farmer has done very well for himself. Remember please that he's
done nothing illegal. This is no slum landlord or drug dealer, he doesn't
cheat his employees or mistreat them. This is the North American folk
tale made good - he's hit the big time. He's a hard worker, an
upstanding citizen. This is lawful profit. This isn't someone hanging
around in back street alleys exchanging manila envelopes of insider
trading information. Through a combination of skill and luck and plain
hard work, his investment and labour have paid off. He's got this massive
crop in. And in typical fashion he calls in the architect to help him
plan bigger barns. The hours pass, finally the architect says, "look,
I've got to get home. I've been out every night this week". "Leave the
plans with me", says the man, "I'll keep working on them. We'll pick it
up tomorrow." So he continues to work with his drawings and his figures.
His wife comes in to say "goodnight, don't work too late" and 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'm death" the presence replies. "What are you
doing here?" "I've 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. I warned you, but
whether or not you were listening, who can say? Seven, six, five".
"Wait, wait, I'll give you half of all I have." "What is that to me?
Four, three." "Wait, I'll give you everything I have. I'll start all
over again. I'm just not ready." And death counts him out of the
picture. 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
neighbour 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."
Notice what's happening here. Don't make the man worse than he is.
He's not unlike most of us in his passions and motives. Notice too
that what happens isn't a punishment. The message of the parable is
not, God doesn't like people who work hard and are successful. What
happens to the farmer is not a denial of any of the good, loving,
charitable actions which may have characterized his life. The
parable is simply an observation of the way life is for all of us,
rich and poor, successful or struggling. This is one of those facts
It's not an easy story. Certainly not one I might have picked for a
pleasant summer Sunday, had I had my way. But there it is. And, if
we can cut through the layers of familiarity, especially those of us
who have heard the story over and over again, we'll find rare gold
for the living of our days. I think that Jesus' teachings around
money and possessions may be harder for our age and generation to
follow than many of his commandments that we may put more emphasis
on. Oh we often concentrate on the other ones, but these may be the
toughies. After all, we're brought up to consume. My daughter,
before she learns to read, is being bombarded by all sorts of
messages which tell her to have, to want, to need more and more
things. We're trained to be consumers and when we don't consume
we're told that because consumers don't have confidence the economy
is faltering. Which being translated appears to mean - if you're not
buying it's your fault your neighbour's unemployed. So Jesus' words,
"beware of covetousness" beware of wanting more of what you already
have enough of, go against the grain in ways which are deeper than
we may always comprehend.
So what's the rich man's problem? Why is he a fool? Notice a couple
of things. In the first place he's all alone. Those of you who,
like me, have been in the Middle East may notice how peculiar that
is. Anthropologists and ethno-historians point out that,
particularly in the Middle East, it is extremely rare to be alone.
Middle Eastern life is often very gregarious. You live in tight
knit communities. The smallest transaction is worth endless debate.
Having been part of such discussions there is often a subtle pressure
not to introduce the detail which will end the discussion. The
message is, we have a wonderful discussion going here, why close it
with something as mundane as a decision?!
In any event, a respected man makes up his mind in community. This
fellow talks to himself. He has no friends, no cronies. His money
has allowed him to build a vacuum and live in it. His speech, full
of "I" and "me" and "mine": my goods, my grain, my barns, my soul
is not a sad speech but a pitiful one. He's arrived, he's finally
made it, but there's no one to share his joy, no one to hear his
arrival speech. He speaks to the lonely audience of his own soul.
Jesus' point of course is to show that the farmer's formula for the
good life, "eat, drink and be merry", is sheer stupidity. For like
everything else he has accumulated, even his soul is on loan, and
now the owner wants it back. And the sting of Jesus' words lie in
the question at the end of the parable. "Who will get what you
have prepared for yourself?" They show just how lonely and empty
the man's life truly is.
The Romans had a proverb: "Money is like seawater; the more you
drink the thirstier you become". Yet money, or the things which
money secures, are a passion for many people. Howard Hughes made
more than a billion dollars in his lifetime and J. Paul Getty
made several billion. It was much more than either could
possibly spend. If you spent a thousand dollars an hour, 24
hours a day, 365 days of the year, you'd need over 100 years to
spend that billion. Why the drive to pursue more money when
they already had more than they could count, let alone spend?
Surely not happiness since each of them became more and more
unhappy as their wealth increased.
But you don't have to be a Hughes or a Getty. All material
things are given to us by our creator to be enjoyed. But it's
easy to become enslaved by them. We find ourselves driven by
the urge for more, more, more. More to eat, more to drink, more
to wear, more to entertain us, more to distract our minds. And
every time we surrender to that inner urge for gratification we
lose a little bit more of that inner freedom that allows us to
exercise one of the chief human powers - the power to choose.
Beware of covetousness.
A very rich man died and left his inheritance equally to his two
sons. Now one son had married young in life and had a large and
happy family. The other was still a bachelor. The night after
the division of the estate the single man sat thinking in his
living room. "Why did my father make such a mistake? Here's my
brother, with all those mouths to feed, so many to provide for
and no real joy in it. While I'm quite comfortable, I've got
more than I could ever use. Why divide the estate equally?"
The other brother, when the children were tucked in bed and his
wife was off at some project of her own mused: "Why would my
father divide the estate equally? Here I am, surrounded by a
loving family and all that joy, while my brother sits alone over
in his house. I have my family to care for me, while he will
need financial security for his future. Why divide the estate
equally?" So each man, that very night, resolved to place the
majority of his inheritance in a suitcase and take it over and
hide it where the other brother would find it and use it. As
they were doing just that, they met between their two homes
and realizing what each had intended fell into one another's
arms, meeting in love as their father had hoped they might.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
copyright - sermon by Rev. Ross Bartlett 1998, 2001, 2004
page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks, 1998 - 2006
please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.