“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Luke 12:15
For the past seven months I’ve experienced something rather strange. Back in January I downloaded an app called WeCroak.[i] The app is inspired by a Bhutanese folk saying – that to be a happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily. So at five random times each day I get a notification on my phone that says, “Reminder: Don’t forget you’re going to die.” And when I open that notification, I find some wise words from a poet, a philosopher, or another kind of writer or thinker. Here are a few examples, all of which happen to be from novelists:
From Christopher Isherwood: “We must remember that nothing in this world really belongs to us. At best, we are merely borrowers.”
From Doris Lessing: “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
From George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”
It sounds a little morbid, I know. But I’ve found the app curiously helpful. The reminders never come at the same times from one day to the next, but I’ve been surprised by how often they’ve arrived at a moment when I’m spinning out about something that doesn’t really matter at all. That reminder of death – and the small reflection on larger truths – often refocuses me on what matters most.
As you know, Jesus is fond of telling these instructive stories called parables as a way to interrupt his listeners’ assumptions and surprise us into a new way of thinking. Perhaps more accurately, Jesus wants to help us see the world as God sees the world. Some of these parables are so mysterious that we can hear them again and again and still not be sure what they mean. But this one seems pretty straightforward.
A rich man has a good run of luck. His fields yield an abundant harvest year after year. He ends up with more crops than he knows what to do with. So he plans to tear down the barns he has, build some larger ones, store his grain, and take an early retirement. You might be thinking, “Well, that sounds pretty good. What’s the problem here?”
The problem here is not that the man is rich. The problem is not that he’s planning for his future. The problem is how he views his wealth. Listen to how his thought process is described:
“What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”
In just a couple of verses, there it is: I…I…I…I…I…I. He uses the pronoun “I” six times. My…my…my…my. Four times. He believes even his soul belongs entirely to him. Me first. Me only. There’s no sense that anyone other than this man has played a role in his success. And there are no plans to share it with anyone other than himself, not even with family or close friends. That seems quite sad…and lonely.
The man never acknowledges God’s generosity, the One who created the soil and the sunshine in which those crops grew, the One who filled his lungs with life and breath day after day so he could manage his fields. And that reluctance to see God’s generosity makes the man stingier, turning him inward and closing him off to other possibilities.
And, as we see from the dramatic turn in the story, all those barns, all those crops, all that wealth does not protect the man from death. Being rich does have many benefits in this life, to be sure. But it does not keep anyone from experiencing pain or grief or heartbreak. It certainly doesn’t keep anyone from death.
What might have happened if, instead of building bigger barns, the rich man had shared what he had with his neighbors? What if he had gathered people around tables filled with good food? What if those people had shared stories with each other and laughed together late into the night and then went away with full stomachs and full hearts? And what if those people all decided to throw dinner parties of their own, inviting still more people to gather and eat and share and laugh? Think of the relationships that might have deepened. Think of the joy, the connections, the mutual support, the love that would have been possible.
Be on guard against greed, Jesus says. Jesus knows how greed makes us turn inward, how it makes us hold fast to things we don’t really need because we think they will bring us security. Jesus goes on to say that life does not consist in an abundance of possessions. Those possessions might bring a kind of temporary excitement, the thrill of acquisition, the delight of having the latest and greatest “thing.” But those possessions don’t bring any sustained joy. You know that. We all know that. It’s just that the “buy now” button is so reliable, and relationships are – well, they’re much harder, messier.
I find it interesting that Jesus tells this story in the first place because a guy comes to Jesus with a complaint about an inheritance. This guy wants his brother to share an inheritance with him more fairly. It’s probably true that the inheritance laws of the ancient world favored one son over another, so this aggrieved brother may have had a case. But inheritance is tricky, isn’t it? Nobody “deserves” an inheritance, really. It’s something that a person receives because that person happens to be born into a particular family. The person doesn’t create that wealth or earn it in any way.
Each time we worship is a good opportunity to remember that we have a much greater inheritance – the gift of love, the gift of hope, the gift of eternal life that we receive from God. We do not create those gifts ourselves, nor do we do anything to earn or deserve them. They are pure gift, given to us because we are children of God, heirs of God’s everlasting promises.
One of the quotations that popped up on my WeCroak app a few weeks ago was from a Buddhist teacher named Frank Ostaseski who specializes in end-of-life care. He has said: “As people come closer to death, I have found that only two questions really matter to them: ‘Am I loved?’ and ‘Did I love well?’”
Am I loved? Did I love well?
Am I loved? Because of God’s generosity, we can all say “yes” to that question, even when we don’t feel sure.
Did I love well?
The answer to that question is still being written. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]For more information, see https://www.wecroak.com