In the early Church, the question of possessions for the person of faith was an urgent and important question. We read in Acts that certain possessions belong to God and it is harmful to one’s health to steal from God. Elsewhere in Acts, we are told that the early Christians lived communally and shared their wealth to benefit one another. In all the Gospels, we read of Jesus warning people not to hoard wealth. He challenges the rich young ruler to sell all he has and give it to the poor and only then can he become a follower of Jesus. In Luke, there are three other parables which serve to underpin the dangers of not taking seriously what Jesus is teaching. In the parables of the Prodigal Son, the Unjust Judge and the Dishonest Steward, the protagonists all have the opportunity to think about what is happening and make a decision based on that situation. The Prodigal Son gives up his spendthrift ways and asks forgiveness of the father he has treated so poorly. The Unjust Judge is nagged into hearing the widow’s case and rendering judgement which redresses her wrong. The dishonest steward makes sure he has friends when he is threatened with lost employment, so that he won’t starve. Each of these protagonists change course; they don’t keep doing what they had been doing up until that point. To stay on the same path is to perpetuate the crisis in which they find themselves. In Luke 12, things are different. The rich man decides to continue on the same course that has brought him to this point in his life. In other words, he has decided that he will continue to accumulate wealth. There is no conversion, no change in attitude. And, the rich farmer has no chance later to change as death intervenes with a terrible and decisive swiftness.
I daresay this parable makes us feel uncomfortable as we do not spend much time considering Jesus as judge. When we are forced to deal with judgmental words, we interpret them instead as being of relevance to others, and not to ourselves. However, let us not forget that the Gospels were written to Christians: they were never intended as documents to convert non-believers. Luke is addressing concerns in the early Church. I suggest there are two concerns we need to bear in mind as we read this parable. First, Jesus’ ministry is often interpreted as if the Kingdom of God, and Jesus’ own return, are imminent. Luke wrote his Gospel 50 to 60 years after the events he is describing. The second coming is no longer imminent. So, Luke, along with the other Gospel writers, is preserving in written form, the memory of Jesus. Secondly, Luke is writing to a Church in turmoil. On the one hand, it is reaching beyond its Jewish roots and welcoming people from all cultures. As it expands, so the Church comes into greater contact with the Roman authority. That collision did not always go well for the Church. Christians, like their Jewish brothers and sisters, refused to bow down and worship the Emperor. They rejected that notion that the pursuit of wealth and self-aggrandisement be the purpose of life. This is the context in which this parable needs to be read.
In many ways, little has changed. Human beings still chase after wealth and self-aggrandisement. We are encouraged to save for our retirement, save for a rainy day, and vote depending on what we want rather than for the greater good of the community. Which is all very well, but there is an enormous need now, in the present, and there are no guarantees that we will reach that future for which we are supposed to be planning. It also brings us back to asking what is the purpose of the Church, what is the Church’s mission, now?
Whenever I read this parable, I think back to the scandal of the early 1970s. It was reported that European farmers were producing so much wheat and milk that they were being stopped from flooding the market in order to keep the prices high. Meanwhile, people in parts of Africa and parts of Asia were dying of starvation. While I do believe that farmers, like any working person, deserve to make a living wage, surely such a policy, if it was happening, was, and is, indefensible. It goes against we expect of ourselves and of our governments. The farmer in the parable is someone who seems to be unconcerned with the needs of those around him. If this farmer is growing food only for himself, then what is the point of being a farmer? All he is doing is using his good fortune to feather his own nest.
And that is a part of what I think Jesus is saying here, and it is consistent with the message, not only of Jesus, but throughout the New Testament. Nothing we have is because we deserve it. God blesses us with good things because that is the nature of God. The crops grow and do well not only because the farmer is diligent, but because the sun shines and the rain falls and the soil is productive. You see, we are a partnership. We do our part, but we need God’s blessing. That is why we have harvest festivals and Thanksgiving. They are an opportunity to give thanks to God for the blessing of the growing season. The farmer in Jesus’ parable has forgotten this. What he grows is not for himself alone. His good fortune is not to benefit him and no one else. It is not for his retirement, though, ironically as it turns out, he would enjoy his wealth for the rest of his life: only, in this instant, the rest of his life is that night. We know the truism: We have no idea when our lives on this earth will be over. What happens then? In Jesus’ thinking, there is no point in burying the farmer’s wealth with him. Once he’s dead, there is no need for it. He can’t take it with him.
Perhaps this is a further background to the parable. I have long wondered if there is an attack on Graeco-Roman mythology here. In Greek myth, the deceased was buried with money to pay the boat man who was responsible for ferrying your soul across the River Styx. The rejoinder which is repeated in the New Testament that you cannot take your wealth with you, may be a riposte to that thought. In Jewish and Christian terms, you do not buy your way into God’s Kingdom, in any way, shape or form. You do not need money to pay off the boatman, or St. Peter at the pearly gates. God’s gifts are free. That is was grace is, and the farmer’s great crime is that he thinks nothing of grace. In Luke’s Gospel, this is the only parable in which God speaks directly to the protagonist. I wonder if this is to emphasis the crime of this man. Like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, he has stolen from God.
Now, here is the hard part for us. Yes, maybe we need to read this parable as if we are the rich farmer. We plead poverty constantly, and yet we are not poor. While we are balancing our Church budget on savings, perhaps building up those savings in the first place betrays a lack of faith in God’s ability to provide. As we were saving money for a rainy day, maybe we were not growing the ministry. Our job as Church members, as Christians, is not to save money but to use it as a resource to serve the community. Yes, that is exactly what I think. Look around you now. I hear the constant lament, Where are the people? Our Church is empty compared to the way it was 60 years ago when Kildonan had to erect a new building because the old one was no longer large enough. So, what was the purpose of saving the money over the years rather than using it to continue to grow the Church? We are running out of people. However, there is good news, and it is two fold.
First, we have a ministry still. There are an awful lot of marginalised people, special needs children, transgendered folks, addicts, homeless, hungry and unemployed, who need the ministry this Church offers. I know this because they come to the door here when I am working. One member of the congregation witnessed the sort of people who come here when they were in visiting with me a week ago. Going downtown on Thursday, I witnessed many people lining up outside the various missions, waiting for some help. I saw people living on the streets. I see hookers and drug addicts, people the worse for drink. I do not say any of this lightly. It is a human tragedy that so many are suffering, especially in Canada, a very wealthy country. And this was why I was downtown earlier this week: To ask how we, as a Church, can respond to the need that is right on our doorstep. Because I see a lot of people passing the buck: It’s not our concern. Let someone else deal with the problem. So, there is a ministry for us. The question remains if we are willing to take on that challenge. As someone in this Church responded to my blog last week, a very famous man once said, You will always have the poor with you. If Jesus were with us now, I am willing to bet that he would be with those druggies and drunks and hookers, not because he is holding up for praise their life style, but because he is reminding us, nice largely white, middle class people, that those who are down and out are also created in God’s image.
I am not going to pretend that the problem is not overwhelming. It is. That is why I spent part of Thursday at City Hall, seeking ways that can help us do our ministry. Can we afford it? Do we have the money to make a genuine difference? Perhaps the answer to that question leads us to ponder being a Church in a totally different way to the way we have been Church for the past 100 years. Before we plead poverty and use that as an ongoing excuse for not fulfilling our ministry, let me ask, and you can suck in a deep breath as I know some of you will when I ask this question. But, I will ask it anyway. How much is this building worth if we were to sell it? $500,000? $750,000? $800,000? $1,000,000? If this congregation is going to continue to decline, and remember the building will continue to deteriorate as the years go by, can we justify our ongoing presence here. We can worship in a much smaller space, which costs less to maintain, and maybe, just maybe, that decision could be the catalyst we need to let go of our money worries and do the ministry.
Alyce McKenzie, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins Seminary, comments that the problem Jesus is condemning in his parable is not that the farmer has necessarily done anything wrong, but that he is unwilling to change his course. He has been successful, he has created a good life for himself, but he remains devoid of any ability to see the needs of the society around him. Even as a super crop is harvested, he is not taking for himself what he needs to live a good life: he makes plans to keep it all for himself. Unlike those other parables in Luke that I mentioned earlier, the Prodigal Son, the Dishonest Steward, the Unjust Judge, he cannot, or will not, change. There are can be no forgiveness and no second chance because of his reluctance, or inability, to think and act differently.
Our Church is a human institution. We have good times and we have not so good times. We make some good and faithful decisions, we make some poor decisions. That is the nature of being a human institution. The ability to remain faithful is being able to change our ways when it is demanded of us. It is the ability to change our ministry in order to respond to the changing needs and demands of society. We are no longer faced with an expanding congregation which has outgrown its building. We are now faced with a large building which is perhaps taking us away from the ministry we are called to do. It may not be the ministry we imagined 60 years ago, but that is what is being set out before us. May we ponder the lessons of the foolish, or unfaithful, farmer, and see the resources we have as a gift that can be used differently.