Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
I work in development for a Human Services non-profit that meets people’s basic needs, while we advocate for systems that distribute resources in a more just and equitable manner. As a result, I spend 40+ hours a week thinking about people and our relationship to resources, primarily money. People who have it; people who need it; the systems in this country, county, town that have privileged and continue to privilege some people’s ability to amass it.
I think a lot about how to motivate people who have money to share it, but I also wonder why our society – our life together as organized through a system that we call government – is structured such that basic needs are not considered a right or subsequently funded with public dollars, i.e. our gathered resources. Honestly, it would be great if jobs like mine didn’t exist because the political will to care well for each other did. So, I welcome Luke’s willingness to talk bluntly about our relationship to resources. To be honest, I could use some help in knowing what to think.
In this pericope Jesus declines a real-time request to adjudicate a matter of family inheritance, and instead follows it with a parable regarding a rich landowner and a bumper crop. In both situations humans have been gifted with resources. That is, of course, the nature of inheritance – somebody else’s life’s work becomes available to you via wealth transfer. And in the case of the landowner, the text makes doubly plain that he has nothing to do with the yield. The land is a subject, i.e. the land produces – much like the land is currently inundating North Carolina with yellow squash. Plus, the text never calls this guy a farmer or indicates that he cultivated anything. He just happens to own the land.
Convinced of meritocracy, the rich guy consults himself about what he should do with his crops or literally as he describes them, “the fruits of me.” After determining that he doesn’t have the necessary space, he demolishes the existing barns and build bigger ones that will gather together “my grain and all my goods.” At that point, he advises himself, he’ll be existentially good to go and can check out, eat, drink and make merry.
So many immediate connections come to mind regarding American culture, including the rich-guy President who consults his own “very good brain” to self-advise on policy matters. There’s that disordered model and there’s this: Something like 1 in 11 Americans pays for storage units, hoarding disorder is an official mental health diagnosis as of 2013, and doomsday preppers (a specialized subset of hoarders?) are featured on Netflix. Our access and attachment to stuff has pushed the pendulum so far that we are seeing good old capitalist reaction: people develop and profit off of methods like KonMari, which advise you on how to systematically purge things. I see the value but make no mistake: KonMari is just as entrenched in idolizing stuff as the existential be all-end all. Marie Kondo’s business, which naturally includes a Netflix show, is built on the claim that possessions – just a curated fewer of them – will transform your life and spark joy.
Ok, so for those of us who have (and have had) enough already: buy less stuff? Institute a one-in, one-out policy? Clean out your closet and make some donations? Donate a little more? Split the inheritance with your brother already?
Early on, Jesus warns against pleonexias, greed, the desire for more. But not indulging ourselves is not the gold standard. It’s the first step. The passage invites us to take the second by closing with an odd phrase that suggests a constructive alternative and presumably properly ordered relationship to resources/possessions/grain/money: being “rich toward God.”
But what does that actually mean when creation is gratuitous? When God doesn’t need you or the grain or your Kon-Mari’ed cast offs? When God, in canonical fact, is the source of anything that humans could offer in return? (A nuance lost on the fruits-of-me guy.) You literally can’t give God anything that God didn’t create.
As the rest of the passage (which the lectionary cuts off) indicates, our relationship to resources is both secondary and subject to our relationship with God and other people. God is to creation, including us, a consistent and abundant provider for our physical needs, which all of the lectionary texts for this week affirm. And if we take Colossians seriously to clothe ourselves in Christ, then God’s relationship to us is a model for our relationship with other people.
Being rich towards God, then, means acknowledging that God is the provider and source of all resources, which frees us from the “fruits-of-me” mindset. Introducing that mental distance between us and the resources in our possession maybe makes it a little easier to see these resources as abundance that we can pool to provide for each other. We are given more than what we need to meet our collective needs.
I believe that we can gauge our orientation to resources with a simple question: Are you open to relationships affecting the resources that God makes available to you, or do “your” resources affect your relationships?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Luke talks about the rich guy in isolation. His bigly barns of grain are our McMansions, our gated communities, our garages, our private and charter schools, our alarm systems that allow us to preview who’s knocking at our door then decide whether to answer. The bigger houses get, the more ways we use resources to “secure” things and distance ourselves from other people, the more money we pull from serving the common good, the smaller our experience of humanity gets. In fact, research has shown that the more we have, the less generous we become overall and the less we give to meet people’s basic needs. Exactly who is the rich guy going to eat, drink and make merry with? Looks like a party of one.
On the flip side, I have found time and again that people don’t feel conflicted about parting with resources available to them – their time, money, food or other in-kind donations – when they recognize the dignity of every human and are open to being engaged. Of many examples I see at work, one recently has stuck with me.
The non-profit I work for provides some of the only hospitable, indoor space in town for people to exist in during the day. One Friday late afternoon, a man arrived after a harrowing and traumatic cross-country trip that literally took a turn when a medical emergency got him kicked off of a bus in another state. He hadn’t intended to come to us, he just landed there. He is trilingual and hearing impaired. He was hungry. He had a backpack and a rollerbag with all of his things. He had nowhere to sleep and the shelter was full.
One of our members heard this extremely stressed man recount his story and without hesitation offered him his regional bus pass. It was a powerful and humbling moment of shared humanity. Although our member doesn’t have many resources available to him, he nonetheless offered to meet a stranger’s need because he let his relationship to another human dictate his relationship to his possessions. This example bore witness to me, and I will try to live into it, as a simple but powerful reminder of what it might mean to be rich towards God.