Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Story of the Greedy Farmer

A man approaches Jesus, asking him to play the role of judge --not an unusual thing to ask a rabbi in those days. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me” he cries. No doubt the father left his possessions to his sons in a lump sum -- not a problem if there was peace between the brothers, but there wasn’t. So the man approaches Jesus like a judge on The People’s Court TV show and asks him to enforce his right to his share of the inheritance. Jesus’ reply may seem surprising! “Who made me a judge or arbitrator (literally, a divider)over you?" But wait! Wasn’t this a legitimate request, Jesus? A cry for justice?! Kenneth Bailey points out that the answer can only be that however lawful this man’s claim was, Jesus knew that his most important problem was not the division of his father’s property, but the division of a family over material possessions.

“One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” Jesus says. “Let me tell you a little story…” (15). Here is Jesus’ signal that he wants to help the man, but not the way that he’s asking. He wants to help him, and anyone in earshot, understand that there are ways to be rich that are far more important than having great material wealth, and he does this by showing us how a greedy farmer who thought he was rich was really poor…

To begin with, the farmer had a poverty of gratitude. Then [Jesus] 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 (16-17)?

There is no parable which is so full of the words me, mine, and I: I will do this I will do that…it’s all about MEmy crops, my barns, my grain, my goods. The Me-Monster is on the loose! Notice that he never considers that this abundant crop was an extra blessing from God. But Jesus is clear: “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully” (16). He certainly didn’t earn this abundance; and being rich he did not need it. And yet, he treated it as though it was simply his to stockpile and to do with as he liked.

George W. Truett, a well-known pastor who used to take several weeks each year to drive cattle in Texas and minister to cowboys on horseback was invited to dinner at the home of a very wealthy man. After the meal, the host led him to a place where they could get a good view of the surrounding area. Pointing to the oil wells punctuating the landscape, he boasted, "Twenty-five years ago I had nothing. Now, as far as you can see, it's all mine." Looking in the opposite direction at his fields of grain, he said, "That's all mine." Turning east toward huge herds of cattle, he bragged, "They're all mine." Then pointing west to a beautiful forest, he exclaimed, "That too is all mine." He paused, expecting Dr. Truett to compliment him on his great success. Truett, however, placing one hand on the man's shoulder and pointing heavenward with the other, simply said, "How much do you have in that direction?" When we lose a sense of wonder at life’s unexpected gifts, we also lose a sense of gratitude to God for what he’s given us; and a desire to share it with others.

The farmer had a poverty of relationships. "Then he [discussed with himself], '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'" (18).

Notice that this man is rich in material things, but poor in friends and vital relationships. He is a man isolated by his wealth. In Middle Eastern culture no decision of this magnitude is made in isolation (see Kenneth Bailey, Poets & Peasants). There are conversations at the gate with the leading men of the village. Even the slightest transaction involves hours of discussion. Contrast this picture with what Jesus describes:

Jesus says that there is no one around as this wealthy man ponders what to do with his grain. He is alone, talking to himself (literally, “dialoging," v. 17) with his own soul, instead of dialoging and having a conversation with others! How different are the shepherd, and the woman who celebrate with their friends over finding the lost sheep and the lost coin in Luke 15. Sure, he’s “arrived!” But he has no audience, no family, no friends, to give his arrival speech to! It reminds me of a conversation Elvis Presley had with a reporter 6 weeks before he died: “Elvis, when you first started playing music, you said you wanted to be rich, famous and happy. Are you happy?” “I’m lonely as hell” he replied. In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis described Hell as a dismal town of infinite size where people move further and further out, building , quarreling with neighbors, then moving and rebuilding to get away from one another. Some inhabitants are millions of light years away, lost in envy, grievances, self-importance and resentments (The Great Divorce, pp. 18-19). There’s a great cost in never seeing beyond ourselves.

The farmer had a poverty of vision. "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?'" (19-20).

This man was a fool not because he had no plan, but because his plan lacked vision. It was short-sighted – a plan to eat, drink and be merry. He didn’t think beyond satisfying his own immediate wants…right here, right now…right away. John White comments that “death is a values-clarifier." Death makes us re-evaluate what the purpose of life is. It causes us to think about what really matters. This man had not done that yet. Now he was forced to look beyond his earthly timeline to consider who would inherit the things he now possessed. God is blunt, "Whose will they be?" Good question, God. Obviously they are God’s, but beyond that this man made no provision for the future, for the coming generation, or the kingdom of God.

Just up the street, a man died recently who lived alone for years. I noticed yesterday morning a swarm of cars around the house. Someone was holding a garage sale…that should have been called a clearance sale because there were dozens of people going in and out with furniture, knick knacks, all kinds of things. I walked over to the house to look inside and then I had a sobering thought: Here was a man I had never met, never even seen…and now I was walking through his living room…watching all of his earthly possessions being carted out by strangers. All of a sudden the phrase from this passage came to mind: “Whose will they be?”

Whose will they be? We can either make that decision ourselves…or it will be made for us. We can live for the moment, or we can have a generational vision that considers how the things we have will bless those in need…a charitable cause we believe in, our church where we have spent years together in ministry and mission…and yes, our family whom we are called to provide for. In the case of the farmer, his was the tragedy of a missed opportunity to bless others with his possessions, to leave a legacy of faith , to declare with his wealth who he belonged to, and in whom he trusted. But how about you? What legacy will you leave? What message will you declare to the world with your words, actions, and possessions? And what will that decision say about who you belonged to, and in whom you trusted in this life?

Finally, the farmer had a poverty of generosity. "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God" (21).

Notice that Jesus ends the parable with a challenge to be rich, not a challenge to be poor. Jesus does not exalt poverty; and while he does not want us to be filthy rich, he does want us to be faithfully rich, rich in gratitude…rich in relationships…with a compelling vision of never-ending life in the kingdom of God.

I have two cousins who inherited their parent’s property in Malibu after they died. One of my cousins stayed on the property, married, and continued to run the nursery. Her brother moved out years ago. He has been very successful in bioengineering, and owns more than one property, but it pains me to say while he has been materially rich, he has been poor when it comes to the practice of generosity, and I would tell him that to his face. Eventually he demanded his half of the Malibu property. This was his sister’s only income and he knew it. This was not about mismanagement or irresponsibility on her part…this was about greed on his part. Sadly, it came down to a lawsuit…in which he forced her to sell and divide it with him. She has never fully recovered…is still looking for a permanent residence, and a way to re-establish her business. This story is strangely parallel to the parable we just read. The division between two siblings over a family inheritance…and the pain and suffering that it causes. Greed causes division, Selfishness causes division… and it’s not the way our Lord wants us to live. He wants us to live a life of generosity; a life in which we are caring for the people around us, and not just ourselves (which also includes encouraging others to be responsible in the use of what they have). But I’ve seen firsthand what happens when people do the opposite…and you have too.

“Don’t store up treasures for yourselves…but be rich towards God says Jesus. Philip Yancey writes about a conversation he had with a medical doctor who worked with lepers in India…and the subject was storagefat storage. “I don't know what comes to your mind when you hear the word "fat", but I have a good idea. In America fat is nearly always a dirty word. We spend billions of dollars on pills, diet books, and exercise machines to help us loose excess fat. I hadn't heard a good word about fat in years--that is, until I met Dr. Paul Brand. 'Fat is absolutely gorgeous,' says Brand… 'When I perform surgery, I marvel at the shimmering, lush layers of fat that spread apart as I open up the body. Those cells insulate against cold, provide protection for the valuable organs underneath, and give a firm, healthy appearance to the whole body.' I had never thought of fat quite like that! 'But those are just side benefits,' he continues. 'The real value of fat is as a storehouse. Locked in those fat cells are the treasures of the human body. When I run or work or expend any energy, fat cells make that possible. They act as banker cells. It's absolutely beautiful to observe the cooperation among those cells!' Now each individual Christian in a relatively wealthy country like America is called to be a fat cell. America has a treasure house of wealth and spiritual resources. The challenge to us, as Christians, is to wisely use those resources for the rest of the body" (Philip Yancey in "World Concern Update," January 1982).

You and I are a fabulously fat storehouse, a gigantic reservoir of God’s blessings…just waiting to be unleashed upon the world. “Don’t’ store up treasures just for yourselves…be rich towards God.” When we live a life of gratitude, aware of all that God has given us; when we invest in relationships, actively loving the people around us; when we ponder God’s vision for this world, a vision that goes far beyond short-sighted goals and desires; then, we will be catapulted into a life of generosity, a life that is rich toward God and all that he cares about. Amen!

Father, help us to see that a life without gratitude, a life without relationships, a life without transcending vision, a life without generosity -- is a life on the skids, a life of true poverty. For when we live a life of gratitude, aware of all that you have given us; when we invest in relationships, actively loving the people around us; when we ponder your vision for this world, a vision of the kingdom that goes far beyond short-sighted goals and desires; then, we will be catapulted into a life that is “rich toward God” and all that you care about. So where we have focused on what is ours instead of thanking you for all that is yours; where we have hurt others or neglected important relationships, where we have made no investment in the generations to come and focused on short-sighted, self-serving goals; where we have withheld from you and those in need -- we ask your forgiveness and the ability to feel, and to walk in, the richness of your boundless grace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Carol C. said...

Our Lifegroup had a wonderful, in depth discussion about this story. Thanks for the guidelines you presented as a starting point.

Anonymous said...

Very insightful exposition and practical explanation of that passage. I enjoyed reading as it enhanced a stronger sense of gratitude now and I pray for the long run of my life as well.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing! I was convicted and challenged by your words and how you presented the message. Thank you again!

Elsie said...

This story is in my lenten devotional, I found your post insightful and inspiring. Thank you!