Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Property Problems” Luke 12:13-21
Rising inflation has us doing a double-take at the cost of groceries. The war in Ukraine has sent gas prices soaring and made it painful at the pump. Market volatility has not been kind to our 403-Bs and 401-Ks. Yet, despite the economic pinch that we are feeling, we live in the world’s most affluent society. The US has had the world’s largest economy since 1871. With a GDP of $25.3 trillion, we far outpace our nearest competitor, China, at $19.9 trillion. The US has the largest population of ultra-high net worth individuals in the world, including 724 billionaires. Even COVID-19 hasn’t put a dent in the lives of the super-wealthy. According to Forbes Magazine, the US added 98 new billionaires in 2020 and the net worth of America’s billionaires surged 62% during the pandemic to $4.7 trillion.
All that affluence may not always be good for us. Several studies have shown that wealth may be at odds with empathy and compassion. Research published in the journal Psychological Science found that people of lower economic status were better at reading others’ facial expressions—an important marker of empathy—than wealthier people. Having more resources can also cause bad behavior. In fact, UC Berkeley researchers found that even fake money could make people’s behavior rude and inappropriate. When two students played Monopoly, one having been given a great deal more Monopoly money than the other, the wealthier player expressed initial discomfort, but then went on to act aggressively, taking up more space and moving his pieces more loudly, and even taunting the player with less money. Wealth may also cause a sense of moral entitlement. Another UC Berkeley study found that in San Francisco—where the law requires cars to stop at crosswalks for pedestrians to pass—drivers of luxury cars were four times less likely than those in less expensive vehicles to stop and allow pedestrians the right of way. They were also more likely to cut off other drivers. Most troubling of all, children from affluent households are at significantly greater risk for depression, anxiety, and addiction, perhaps due to greater pressure to excel, succeed, and step into the big affluent shoes of their parents.
Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel presents us with one of Jesus’s toughest teachings about the dangers of affluence. Someone in the crowd asked Jesus to arbitrate a family dispute about wealth. The fact that the questioner asked Jesus to rule in his favor, “Tell my brother to share the inheritance with me,” tells us that something isn’t quite right here. Jesus’ warning, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” suggests that someone’s attitude toward the inheritance was dangerously close to idolatry. The Greek word here for greed, pleonexia, means an insatiable desire for more that spawns avarice.
Jesus next told the Parable of the Rich Fool, an exaggerated, cautionary tale about the danger that may accompany wealth. The rich man in the story had property problems. First, he had an inordinate love of stuff. When a windfall crop presented him with a surplus, he hatched a plan to build bigger barns rather than part with any of his abundance. It also seems that he loved his stuff more than he loved his neighbor. Tony Campolo, who taught for many years at Eastern College and Seminary, says that there are about 900 teachings in scripture about the importance of sharing our abundance. But the rich man didn’t see his bumper crop as a blessing for anyone but himself. What’s more, the man didn’t see God as the source of his windfall. His abundance was the blessed outcome of productive seed, fertile soil, ample rainfall, long days of sunshine, and shelter from pests and disease, all things beyond his power and control. Yet the man’s greatest mistake was his attitude about the future. He thought he had safeguarded his future by laying up his harvest. But the future belongs to God—all life comes from God and all life returns to God in God’s time. It’s no wonder that Jesus concluded his harsh and uncomfortable story with God calling the man a fool.
It’s hard to know what to do with Jesus’s tough teachings about the dangers of wealth. I don’t believe that Jesus thought that wealth is evil. Some of the people who surrounded and supported Jesus in his ministry were wealthy. Joanna the Myrrh-bearer, who waited at the foot of the cross and came to the empty tomb, was the wife of one of the most affluent and powerful men in Israel, Chuzza the steward of King Herod. Nicodemus was also wealthy and influential. In John’s gospel, Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’s body for the grave. A one-pound jar of myrrh cost a year’s wages. Imagine the wealth that Nicodemus had to be able to purchase 100 pounds of the precious stuff. So, Jesus didn’t have it in for rich people. When we look at Joanna and Nicodemus, we see people who used their abundance in service to Jesus and in pursuit of the Kingdom of God. So perhaps this uncomfortable Parable of the Rich Fool isn’t a condemnation of wealth so much as it is fresh perspective for discipleship in a world that prizes affluence above all else.
The challenge for us is to redefine how we relate to our possessions. Jesus would first invite us to question how our society prizes possessions. We live in a culture that tells us that stuff can meet our deepest needs. Over the course of a lifetime, the average television viewer will spend a year watching commercials – that’s right, a year of our lives wasted on advertisements, designed to tempt us to go buy stuff. It’s no wonder that we can get caught up in a vicious cycle of consumption, buying to meet the needs that advertisers tell us we must fill. Social theorists call this relentless drive to consume affluenza, as if it’s a disease, “the bloated, sluggish, unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses.”
In a world dominated by affluenza, Jesus would stress that our deepest needs for meaning and purpose are never met by things. Those needs are only met by God. What really matters in life: love, acceptance, forgiveness, grace, salvation, relationship, and dignity, all are found in God—all free of charge. When we grasp this fact, life finds true meaning, and we are liberated from that vicious cycle of consumption. We begin to relate to our relative affluence in ways that allow us to make different choices.
Jesus would also have us consider how our relative affluence shapes how we relate to others. Augustine taught that God gives us possessions to use and people to love. Sin is when we get that the wrong way around. We use people and we love possessions. After all, Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor, not God and stuff. Our affluence, then, is meant to be a resource in expressing our love for God and neighbor. That’s where Tony Campolo’s 900 scripture references come in handy, inspiring us to share a tithe of our income, provide for the widow, care for the orphan, and shelter the refugee. Could we think about our relative affluence as a whole lot of love, ready to make a difference in the world? Now, that’s a paradigm shift. It’s the antithesis of affluenza and the heart of Christian discipleship. Here is more good news: one of the best ways to cut the risk of depression, anxiety, and addiction in affluent kids is to model for them this sort of compassionate neighborliness and to get them involved in serving others and connecting with all kinds of people.
Finally, Jesus would have us remember the true source of our affluence and blessing. The rich man thought he was the architect of his fortune and the guarantor of his future. But Jesus reminds us that God is the source of our blessing, and the future is held in God’s hands. That doesn’t mean that we don’t work hard for what we have, but ultimately all we have and all we are—the heart that beats, the air we breathe, the abilities that we parlay into achievement—all these are God-given gifts.
Imagine if we took a break from the commercials that cultivate our appetite for stuff and instead spent a few moments each day counting our blessings and acknowledging them as a gift from God. It would be a profoundly reorienting and life changing discipline. We would find fulfillment and delight in the everyday miracles of watching a child sleep, harvesting lettuce from the garden, or glimpsing a bass jump out of the water in pursuit of its dinner. If God graces our daily experience with such profound gifts, then we can trust that the future, which is beyond our grasp, will also contain good gifts, whether we are talking about this life or the next. We can be freed to live in gratitude and grace.
Two words that I hope to never hear coming out of the Lord’s mouth are, “You fool!” How about you? In the coming weeks, may Jesus and his parable of the rich fool inspire us to make some different choices when it comes to our affluence. May we find the cure for affluenza in the freely given gifts of God. May we dare to share our abundant blessings in love of God and neighbor. And may we trust that God’s future will abound with daily blessings.
Richard Denniss. Curing Affluenza: How to Buy Less Stuff and Save the World. New York: Black Publishing, 2017.
Tony Campolo. Curing Affluenza. Video curriculum.
Scott Simon. Affluenza. KCTS Seattle: Oregon Public Broadcasting, 2014.
David Lose, “What Money Can and Can’t Do,” in Dear Working Preacher, July 29, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2668
Chase Peterson-Withorn. “Nearly 500 People Became Billionaires During the Pandemic Year” in Forbes Magazine, Apr 6, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/chasewithorn/2021/04/06/nearly-500-people-have-become-billionaires-during-the-pandemic-year/?sh=73cc448925c0
Sarah Ruiz-Grossman. “A New Billionaire Was Created Every 30 Hours During the Pandemic” in Huffpost, May 22, 2022. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/billionaire-wealth-covid-pandemic-oxfam_n_6283e951e4b04353eb0a526d
Marcus Lu. “What Does It Take to Be Wealthy in America?” in Visual Capitalist, July 5, 2022. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/net-worth-to-be-wealthy-in-america-2022/
Anshool Deshmukh. “This Simple Chart Reveals the Distribution of Global Wealth” in Visual Capitalist, September 20, 2021. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/distribution-of-global-wealth-chart/
Carolyn Gregoire. “How Money Changes the Way You Think and Feel” in Greater Good Magazine, February 8, 2018. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_money_changes_the_way_you_think_and_feel#:~:text=More%20money%2C%20less%20empathy%3F%20Several%20studies%20have%20shown,expressions%20%E2%80%94an%20important%20marker%20of%20empathy%E2%80%94than%20wealthier%20people. Suniya Luthar. The Mental Price of Affluence in Speaking of Psychology (interview). American Psychological Association, 2014. https://www.apa.org
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 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. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”