It’s not about the money…(Proper 13C)

It’s not about the money…(Proper 13C)

Date: Sunday 4 August 2019 | Speaker: The Rev’d Clare Barrie

Here’s the thing about this parable about the bigger barn and the bigger harvest and the bigger fortune. It’s not about the money. 

When that young man calls out from the crowd, trying to draw Jesus into his family dispute, Jesus refuses to be entangled. No one is doing triangulation on this messiah. But he does take this as a teachable moment. “Be on your guard,” he says – and not against wealth or material abundance. “Be on your guard against greed…”

He is warning everyone against the insatiable feeling of never having enough. And the parable he tells illustrates this. The farmer’s problem, in Jesus’ eyes, isn’t that he’s had a great harvest, or that he’s wealthy, or that he wants to plan for the future. The farmer’s problem is that his good fortune has warped his vision, his way of seeing the world, so that everything he sees begins and ends with himself. 

Most of the parable is the farmer in his own inner dialogue. He’s not talking to a spouse or friend or parent or neighbour, but only to himself. “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build bigger 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 fo rmany years; relax, eat, drink, be merry…’” 

The farmer is trapped inside this egocentric conversation, and he is consumed by the notion that life – the good life – consists of amassing more and more wealth for himself. 

As I pondered this parable, I remembered another parable, a book by Dr Suess that I’ve read many times to both our girls. I’m sure many of you know The Lorax – the story of the Once-ler, the creature that discovered the beautiful truffala trees and started cutting them down to make thneeds, and make money, disregarding the impact on the creatures that depended on the trees for their lives. The Once-ler is challenged by the Lorax, of course, ‘who speaks for the trees,’ but he doesn’t care. He is driven by greed.

“I meant no harm. I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.
I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads
of the Thneeds I shipped out. I was shipping them forth
to the South! To the East!
To the West! To the North!
I went right on biggering… selling more Thneeds.
And I biggered my money, which everyone needs.”

Like the farmer in Jesus’ parable, the Once-ler has no care for the needs of anyone or anything else around him. They are both cut off from family, from community, from their environment, from God – these things are seen as only as commodities rather than as gifts, blessings. We have all heard enough of the gospels to know that this is a kind of anti-gospel – because the life of faith that Jesus shows us is all about relationship, about connection – love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.

Again – it’s not about the money. Money can do wonderful things – it provides for our family, it can be given to others in need, it can be used to create jobs and support the community. But it is our attitude towards it and the place it takes in our hearts and our lives that becomes problematic. I think most of us know this – we know that money can’t buy happiness, as the saying goes (though it does make it easier in some ways). But we’re easily seduced by the same message that captured the farmer and the Once-ler. 

We all watch TV, browse the internet, and we all see advertising – we are inundated daily by media that is designed to exploit our very human sense of insecurity. Our scarcity nerves and our inadequacy nerves are engaged in a kind of two-step dance… First an ad identifies and exaggerates something we have some insecurity about – whether that’s our breath or our bodies or our clothing or status – then it offers something we can buy – toothpaste, or low-fat yoghurt, or a new car – that will ease that anxiety and help us feel better about ourselves again. Next time you’re watching TV, see if you can identify this pattern. 

The hard thing is that materialism has a huge advantage over the kind of abundant life Jesus teaches about. It gives us a quick fix – whatever we reach for is immediately tangible. Whereas the things Jesus invites us to embrace are much harder to lay our hands on – relationships, community, purpose. 

We know what a good relationship feels like, and we know what being part of a community feels like, but we can’t get either of those things by zipping down to Briscoes, or the other St Luke’s. So we easily substitute material things for immaterial things because they’re often in easy reach and we’re swamped in a culture that tells us that this is the best there is. 

So what do we do? Even on my best weeks, I know this is not a one-sermon, one-prayer fix. 

This is a shift in us, in our hearts and minds, that involves life-long, deep learning. It involves noticing the nature of the waters we’re swimming in, noticing the habits of our hearts and minds, and unlearning them – and learning new habits, new attitudes. 

St Augustine, one of the great theologians of the early church, once said that God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin, in short, is the confusion of these two things. So part of our examen – our self-examination before God – is to notice when we are using people and loving things, and to ponder how we might reverse that. 

Our faith tradition offers us some particular practices that help to open up this deep entanglement at work within us. One is to give thanks – to name the blessings we experience, to thank God, to thank others around us. This sounds simple but it is profoundly transformative over time. 

The things Jesus teaches about in the gospels – relationships with God and with neighbour, our community, the goodness of creation – when we notice these in the moment and give thanks to God, we are giving those things priority in our awareness. These are the good things that the world of our media has rendered invisible. 

Another practice is to offer out of what you have, to give of your time or skills or money. Like giving thanks, this is a countercultural practice. Our culture tells us to be like the farmer, or like the Once-ler – get as much as you can, and keep it safe… but living like this is to be driven by scarcity and self-centeredness. 

Our faith tradition is eucharistic, and part of our practice of the eucharist since the very earliest years of the church has been the bringing of gifts of money and food to the table, and we still do this today as part of our worship. 

These gifts have always been used to sustain the life of the faith community and help those in need around us. And the practice of giving in this way, giving to God out of what we have been given, is something that changes us gently over a lifetime.

Try these things… plant seeds – truffala seeds, if you like.… Notice and give thanks for the small shifts in your heart. Be not dismayed when you find yourself acting out of some old habit or attitude. God’s love for each of us is steadfast, and far greater than our capacity for getting lost. We return to God, and begin again, because we are a resurrection people.