Old Testament: Hosea (11:1-11)
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
The Response: Psalm (107:1-9, 43)
1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures for ever.
2 Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim *
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.
3 He gathered them out of the lands; *
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
4 Some wandered in desert wastes; *
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
5 They were hungry and thirsty; *
their spirits languished within them.
6 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.
7 He put their feet on a straight path *
to go to a city where they might dwell.
8 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy *
and the wonders he does for his children.
9 For he satisfies the thirsty *
and fills the hungry with good things.
43 Whoever is wise will ponder these things, *
and consider well the mercies of the Lord
The Epistle: Colossians (3:1-11)
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
The Gospel: Luke (12:13-21)
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 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.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘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.’ 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?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
So what did the farmer in Jesus’ parable do wrong? Some people have ventured a guess or two, but their speculations are simply not supported by the story. There is no hint, for example, that he had stolen anything that he had. There is no evidence of dishonest business practices, no allegation that he had conspired to fix prices or sabotage his competitors, no mistreatment of workers. All that he had, he apparently had earned honestly. It was probably the result of good soil conditions, sufficient rain, prudent business decisions, and undoubtedly his own hard work. So why does Jesus call him a “fool”?
To get to the core of what Jesus is teaching here, we have to step back and look at the way that Luke describes the farmer. He has Jesus begin the story by calling him “a rich man.” Now to us, that term is neutral: it doesn’t make any moral judgment, for or against. But, in Luke’s context and in a wider biblical context, it touches the heart of his character and of the problem that Jesus has with him.
When Luke, drawing on a much older biblical tradition, characterizes someone as “a rich man,” the implication tends to be that this person is concerned only with himself and with what he has and on what he can do, and not on the needs of the poor who are around him. This particular character certainly lives up to (or down to!) that image. He lives completely for himself. He talks to himself. He makes plans by himself. He even congratulates himself. He seems to be the very epitome of a self-centered, selfish, rich fool.
His story certainly doesn’t stand alone. In a gospel reading that we will be hearing toward the end of September, Jesus will again address that theme in the story of another, unnamed rich man and of a poor man named Lazarus. It is a subject that Luke begins to address in his very first chapter: in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in which she declares that God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:53); and it is one that permeates Luke’s entire version of the gospel.
The two core questions that Jesus raises are, first of all, “What is the purpose of our life?” and, second, “What is the purpose of the things that we have in life?”
The clear teaching of the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, is that everything we happen to possess – and that is always a temporary thing – everything we happen to possess belongs, not to us, but to God. And God has entrusted it to us for a time so that we might use it, to the best of our ability, in serving the needs of others, as well as our own.
That is a central theme that Jesus’ teaching shares with that of the prophets who went before him. It was fundamental to the message of Amos and Hosea, from whom our first readings have been taken the past several weeks. And it is fundamental to that of Isaiah and Jeremiah, from whose words we will be hearing each Sunday over the next two and one-half months.
All of them reminded the people of their own time of the purpose of their lives and of their obligation to use whatever God had entrusted to them in order to serve the needs of all of God’s people. That is still our supposed belief; but, unfortunately, it doesn’t always match our practice.
One of the best examples, with which I am familiar, of someone who did put that belief into practice was John Wesley. John Wesley, along with his brother, Charles, and fellow priest, George Whitefield, was a priest in the Church of England. Together, they helped begin the Methodist movement in the 18th century.
Early in his ministry, John Wesley received a very minimal salary. Still, he was determined to limit his expenses carefully in order to have as much money as possible to help the poor. The first year he did this, his income was 30 pounds; he found that he could live on 28 and could then give 2 to the poor. In the second year, his income doubled, but he continued to live on 28; this allowed him to give 32 pounds to the poor. In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds; keeping his own expenses the same, he gave away 62 pounds.
By 1776, his income had reached 1400 pounds, yet he rarely let his expenses exceed 30 pounds. Recognizing the fact that he had become famous and convinced that he must be making many times the salary that he previously had earned, the English Tax Commissioners became suspicious and launched an investigation. His written reply to them declared, “I have two silver spoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the plate I have at the present, and I shall not buy any more while so many round me want bread.” (“Mission Frontiers” Sept. / Oct. 1994)
John Wesley was many things, but one thing that he was not was a fool. He knew the purpose of his life, and he knew the purpose of the things that he had in life. The big question, of course, is “Do we?”
“What does it profit us,” Jesus asks (Luke 9:25), “What does it profit us if we gain the whole world, but lose ourselves in the process?” What does it profit us if, instead of using whatever we have to serve the needs of others, we continue to try to accumulate as much as possible, allowing the things that we own to own us, and allowing our inner selves, our very nature, the image and likeness of God within us, to wither away and die?
Possessions, wealth, richness, like most things in life, are neutral in themselves. The critical question is not how much we have, but what we do with what we have. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us (christianethicstoday.com, Fall 2008), “Let none say, ‘God has blessed us with money and possessions,’ and then live as if they and their God were alone in the world. Possessions are not God’s blessing and goodness, but the opportunities for service which God entrusts to us.”