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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 8/5/07

“You never see a U-Haul attached to a hearse.”  The guy who ran the funeral home in L’Anse when I was there used to say that and maybe somewhere Jesus is saying, “That’s a good line; I wish I’d thought of it; there’s a parable in there somewhere.”  But of course Jesus had his own ways of making the same point about not being able to take it with you because it’s a valid point; it’s true.  We know it’s true so we smile at the funeral director’s one liners, we hear Jesus’ parable of the rich fool and we think, “Yeah, I know someone like that,” …and then we head out and buy the next thing that we just have to have not because we’re greedy; certainly not; we just have to have it.  We’re seduced by our culture and the commercials that say, “It’s not that you don’t need it; you just haven’t thought of it yet.”

We get the point of Jesus’ parable though; this is a case where he’s not particularly subtle; what he’s getting at is pretty obvious even without the introductory line of, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in abundance of possessions.”  We get it.  We get it, even if the way we live our life says we don’t really believe it and if we’re honest, I also think that there’s a part of us that thinks that the guy in Jesus’ parable really didn’t do anything wrong in making his situation as secure as possible.  In fact, according to the way our world works, in a lot of ways he did everything right; he was just a victim of bad luck. 

We know those people too, someone who works hard, invests well, doesn’t waste his money on foolishness, saves for the future so he can enjoy those retirement years only to drop dead a month after he retires or a month before.  Oh well, life is always a gamble.  Nobody is guaranteed tomorrow, we know that too.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan for the future does it?  In our world, the ones perceived as foolish are those who make no such plans, the ones who are unlucky are those who aren’t blessed with a good pension and retirement plan.  An untimely death is always a possibility, but still one has to make plans. 

So that’s not what’s going on in this parable.  It’s not about responsible planning for the future.  It’s about greed but even with that it is more than a simple, moralistic don’t be greedy story.  It’s more about what greed does to you as in this parable Jesus creates one of the loneliest characters to be found anywhere in scripture.  Even if he had lived to a ripe old age, this man in this parable is a tragic figure. 

This rich man is all alone, living in reference to no one but himself.  He interacts with no one; he talks to no one but himself.  He parties by himself; he dies by himself, surrounded only by his barns bursting with grain and goods.  He has no name except “Fool.”  He offers thanks to no god.  Jesus prefaced many of his parables by saying, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God,” or “The kingdom of God is like…”  Here though, he provides a negative example, a stark picture of what the kingdom of God is not like.

Greed has isolated this man.  He is separated from God and from other people.  He’s all alone, and maybe the saddest part of all this is that he’s done it to himself.  Now keep in mind there is no shortage of gospel stories where people are isolated in some fashion.  In many of the stories where Jesus heals someone, isolation is a factor.  Lepers, cripples, the blind, people possessed by demons, those with other forms of illness were isolated from the community.  In some cases the illness also made one ritually unclean which in essence meant being isolated from God as well.  But those people didn’t choose isolation; they were victims of their condition.  The rich man in this parable, by his actions, by his attachment to his goods, has chosen isolation. 

When Jesus healed people, there was always a physical component to it but another part of what he did was to restore relationships.  He enabled  people isolated by illness to return to their family or to their community or to God.  Often his first words after a healing were to tell the person to go home.  With children sometimes it says he returned them to their mother or father.  Sometimes he told those he healed to go to the priest who would previously have been outside their boundaries.  He restored these relationships and often when he healed someone he didn’t say, “Friend, you are healed,” he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”  He connected healing with forgiveness of sins because such forgiveness restores one’s relationship with God. 

The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed has to do with living in relationship with God and in relationship with others; that’s what it is to be human in the kingdom of God. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind; Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Those are the rules of the kingdom.  Relationship is always involved.  Kingdom people are not isolated and alone.  Conditions which cause such isolation must be cured and much of Jesus’ activity in his ministry did just that.

I don’t think that any Bible commentary would classify this text as a healing story though, because it’s not a classic healing story.  But maybe this calls for a new genre, an “early detection and prevention” genre.  Remember the context in which Jesus told this parable.  The presenting issue was a voice from the crowd asking Jesus to arbitrate between the speaker and his brother, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  Jesus however, would not be sucked into this.

Instead he told this parable perhaps because he detected that this man who called out was showing some of the early symptoms of greed.  Jesus point then was to show the man that this is where you’re headed, this is what the final stages of your illness will look like if you don’t begin treatment.  Straining your relationship with your brother over a quantity of money and property is a step toward isolation, isolation which has no part in the kingdom of God.

It’s not a healing story because we don’t know if healing took place; we don’t know if the treatment was accepted.  My guess however, would be that it wasn’t.  Why should this guy be any different than we are when we hear the parable and then head out to buy a few things that we just have to have.  We’ve got it under control though, or so we’d like to think.  I just need a few things, but it’s not greed and it has nothing to do with relationships and isolation.  It’s not going to change my relationship with anyone.  It’s not going to change my relationship with God. 

In a way that’s true; no one incident is going to do that.  It’s more subtle and insidious than that until one day you wake up and you realize that something has changed; you’re a lot more alone than you thought you were.  You’ve got a lot of stuff, but your pursuit of that stuff has isolated you from the things that really matter.  With early detection and prevention this could have been avoided, but…

With any of Jesus’ parables one of the questions is, “Who in the parable do you identify with?  What role are you cast in?”  In this parable we only have one character and while we might identify with the rich fool, I don’t think any of us really wants to be cast in that role.  The other option for us is that we can be the disciples who just happen to overhear all this.  The challenge though is to really hear it; to take it personally; to hear the invitation to be rich toward God which means to recognize Jesus’ kingdom of God as the alternative that it is, an alternative of relationship with God and neighbor where the treasures of this world are kept in proper perspective.

One hearing of this alternative probably won’t move us toward the necessary repentance, the necessary turning from ways that we find quite comfortable.  We all tread lightly between the kingdom of God and our desire for the things of this world.  But the Holy Spirit also works in subtle ways, always reaching out to us with ancient words from ancient texts that speak to new circumstances, words intended to make God known, words intended to restore relationships, until one day we wake up and realize that something has changed, that we’re not all alone.  By God’s grace, healing takes place.  The kingdom of God is made known. 

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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welcomes me, and whoever
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