July 31, 2016
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
Back in the good old days, when someone in Israel had a dispute, they went to the elders who sat at the gates of the city. There they would plead their case and maybe the elders would judge for them or against them.
After the destruction of the Temple, much of the role of the elders went to the Rabbis. People would come to them and make their case and the Rabbis would offer a judgment based on collection of commentaries on the Bible and examples of legal cases that had been argued and settled.
Somewhere along the way, a rule was put into place that you could ask any rabbi you wanted, but you had to abide by and follow what the rabbi said. No shopping around for the answer you wanted.
So we might forgive the man from coming to Jesus and assuming he was playing the role of elder, or rabbi, or teacher. Perhaps this man was not the firstborn son. According to Jewish law, the firstborn son gets a double portion compared to the rest of the sons.
Jesus is not just an elder, not just a rabbi, not just a teacher. And in not settling this case, Jesus is also stepping away from being a new Moses, making a new law for the people. Instead, Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter.
Jesus asks a question: “Why do you come to talk to me? Why are you not talking to your brother?”
Inheritance battles are some of the ugliest of family conflicts. They can rival divorces for nastiness. What can often seem obvious to outsiders, to people not invested in the fight, is that they stuff that they are fighting over is not the stuff they are fighting over.
Jesus calls this greed. I used to think greed was just about wanting more stuff, wanting more than was really necessary. But making it about stuff rather than what really gives life; making it about money rather than relationship; making it about possession and not about compassion: Jesus calls this greed. And greed, in the Bible, is equated with idolatry. Making life about stuff and not about God.
Another way of saying this is maybe greed is about thinking we have nothing to give, when in fact we are rich beyond measure.
Florence Ferrier tells the story of a family in deeply poor Appalachia:
The Sheldons were a large family in severe financial distress after a series of misfortunes. The help they received was not adequate, yet they managed their meager income with ingenuity — and without complaint.
One fall day I visited the Sheldons in the ramshackle rented house they lived in at the edge of the woods. Despite a painful physical handicap, Mr. Sheldon had shot and butchered a bear which strayed into their yard once too often. The meat had been processed into all the big canning jars they could find or swap for. There would be meat in their diet even during the worst of the winter when their fuel costs were high.
Mr. Sheldon offered me a jar of bear meat. I hesitated to accept it, but the giver met my unspoken resistance firmly. “Now you just have to take this. We want you to have it. We don’t have much, that’s a fact; but we ain’t poor!”
I couldn’t resist asking, “What’s the difference?” His answer proved unforgettable.
“When you can give something away, even when you don’t have much, then you ain’t poor. When you don’t feel easy giving something away even if you got more’n you need, then you’re poor, whether you know it or not.”
I accepted and enjoyed their gift and treasured that lesson in living. In time, I saw it as a spiritual lesson, too. Knowing that all we have is provided by the Father, it seems ungracious to doubt that our needs will be met without our clinging to every morsel.
When I feel myself resisting an urge to share what’s mine — or when I see someone sharing freely from the little he has — I remember Mr. Sheldon saying, “We ain’t poor!”
When we have more than enough but do not know how to share, we are poor, whether we know it or not. When we can share with one another, no matter how little we have for ourselves, we are not poor.
The man in the parable is a farmer, and he is blessed by God. That is the Biblical understanding of what it means for someone’s crops to come in abundantly. But there is something missing.
He thinks to himself, “Self, what should I do, for my barns are not big enough to hold my crops?”
Do you notice what is missing?
Then he says to himself, “I’ll tear down my old barns, build new barns, and then I will say to myself, ‘Self, now it will be good.”
Figured out what is missing?
Who is he talking to? Not a spouse, not a brother, not a business partner, not a neighbor, not a friend, not a son or daughter, a nephew or niece, not a slave. Not even God.
The only one he has to talk to is himself. What kind of life is that? He can gain the whole world, be rich beyond counting, but being alone means he has nothing of real value.
How many of you are familiar with Pokémon Go? It is the augmented reality game where you go around looking for stuff that shows up on your phone. It is sort of like virtual geo-caching, which may just make the concept as clear as mud.
But the idea is that you can catch various creatures in the game, but to do so, you have to travel around to where they are. The Pokémon catch phrase is “Gotta Catch’em All!” It may sound like a game of greed, but what it has led to is something far different.
In Kalamazoo, one young man wrote about what has happened:
That which brings us together, whether it is over pizza in a Kalamazoo park while playing Pokémon Go, or over canned bear meat in a broken down house in Appalachia, or over coffee with dear friends, is the love of God reflected in one another.
As a church, as a congregation, we look at our budget, we look at all we have cut, and we bemoan the “fact” that we are poor. But when we hear the Gospel, when we have ears to hear and eyes to see, what do we find out except that “we ain’t poor!” In fact, in Jesus, we are rich beyond measure.
Thanks be to God.