“A Tale of Barns”
“A Tale of Barns”
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
July 3, 2022
“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
The story begins not with a person who has done something wrong, said something wrong, or been someone wrong. The story begins with someone in the right.
The brother is justified in his part of the inheritance according to Jewish law. And it was common in first-century Palestine for a Jewish person to ask a rabbi for a legal ruling when justice was not being made known in the family. He has a right to his inheritance.
On this weekend, in particular, we are reminded that we live in a country where we name clearly the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and many are the ways we seek to cherish and protect those rights, and many are the ways we call out for justice when those rights are not secured or fully realized.
The story begins with one of the most common experiences known in small ways and big ways to humans throughout time – naming and securing what is rightfully ours.
But Jesus 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.”
How strange that this man who is justified in his grievance gets no help from Jesus…if anything, it seems he’s confronted.
Can you imagine praying to Jesus to right a wrong…and getting confronted?
And the confrontation comes – as often is the case with Jesus – by way of a story:
“The land of a rich man produced abundantly.”
Or the King James Version: “The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully.”
Notice the subject of the sentence? The land. The ground. The soil.
Land produced…the ground brought forth.
This is not a story about a good farmer or bad farmer or an in-between farmer. All of that is beside the point…one year, the land just blew up with crops.
A banner year. A prize money moment. A huge bonus. An unexpected inheritance. The market just took off on its own.
Ever had that moment?
And whether we nod yes or no or maybe…the truth is that the “year of abundance” is always our truth.
Eugene Peterson observes, “We are set down in a world of prodigious wealth…not just a few trees but entire forests of pine and beech and oak. Not just a few stars to navigate by but a whole of them full of pictures and stories. Not just a few birds to keep insects under control but a huge ballet in the company of shapes and colors and songs…”
And also, he adds…”it’s not like God barely saves us with just enough grace to get us over the threshold of heaven. Time and again scripture declares the extravagant love of God to where people testify time and again: “My cup runneth over.”
The story could start equally, “the land of a rich people produced abundantly.”
And the man thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’
How often times of crisis or times of great fortune make clear how it’s going with our soul.
Then the man 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.’
And on the surface maybe that doesn’t sound so such a bad idea – certainly, there are Scriptures that commend wise planning, and saving. But did you hear it? There is something off about his approach to the obvious need for bigger barns.
Listen again to his discernment process regarding this abundance… “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…”
So much abundance and totally impoverished of any meaningful relationship to God or neighbor. No wonder he thinks it’s all his.
And what happens when we have no prayer and one alongside whom we can process our lives? Our thoughts? Our abundance? Our worries?
Go long enough without God and other people, other meaningful friendships, without a sense that we belong to one another and need one another…go long enough and one of the things we see emerge most consistently: anxiety.
Wait – where does it say this guy is anxious?
The teaching that Jesus does immediately following this parable is one of Jesus’s more famous teachings on not being anxious…and Jesus overtly connects that teaching on not being anxious to this parable.
He makes clear that greed and barn-building – at room there is great anxiety.
- Because what if the economy really tanks…?
- Because what if we end up roped in the war and then…?
- Because what if the family member decides to change the will…?
- Because what if so and so gets elected and then this legislation passes or….?
- What if someone hacks our account and steals all of the crops…?
Build a bigger barn! A stronger barn! A barn with enough wherewithal to fend off all the anxious ‘what ifs.’
Because if we can have enough money, enough house, enough car, enough savings, enough credentialing, enough of a safety net… we can join with this man and announce that benediction upon our soul: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’
Isn’t that what all the barn-building is really about?
If you can get to a certain level of ‘enough’ you can quiet all the ‘what if” anxieties…and have peace?
“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.’
All this time the man thought it was so obvious – he needed to secure all the ‘more’ that came his way…and the whole thing was about generosity toward God.
“Do not be overawed when others grow rich, when the splendor of their houses increases,” Psalm 49 declares.
“for they will take nothing with them when they die; their splendor will not descend with them.
Though while they live they count themselves blessed— and people praise you when you prosper—
they will join those who have gone before them, who will never again see the light of life.
People who have wealth but lack understanding are like the beasts that perish.”
How easily we as individuals, churches, nations…how easily we can get caught up in what seems obvious: we need more and when we get it, we need to secure it. Hold it. Guard it.
But what if the whole thing is actually about generosity? What if that elusive peace is found not in bigger barns but in bigger hearts?
Henri Nouwen writes that we often live our lives as if we anticipate questions from God that actually will never be asked of us:
“How much did you earn during your lifetime?” “How many friends did you make?” “How successful were you in your career?” “How much influence did you have on other people?” Or even, “How many conversions did you make?”
“Are any of these the question Christ will ask when he comes in glory? If so, we could approach judgment day with great confidence. But nobody is going to hear those questions. The question we are going to face,” says Nouwen, “is not about selfish attainments and selfish achievement, and not about anything related to “my,” or “mine.”
The question, Nouwen says, that matters to God is about how we have been “rich toward God,” which is fundamentally about being rich toward the things of God’s heart.
“As long as there are strangers; as long as there are hungry, naked and sick people; as long as there are prisoners, and refugees and slaves; as long as there are people who are handicapped physically, mentally, emotionally, and people without work, or a home, or a piece of land, there will be that lingering question from God: “what have you done for the least?”
So, whatever happened to that brother who justifiably wants his part of the inheritance and then heard this story about a man who built bigger barns to hold the abundance that came from his land? We are never told. But as interesting as that might be to know, the far more pressing question is not what happened to that brother, but what happens with us?
- What do we do with the fact that we want to talk about our rights… and Jesus wants to talk about the barns we are building?
- We want to talk about what is being withheld from us…and Jesus wants to talk about what may be holding us back?
- We want to talk about our individual grievances…and Jesus wants to talk about our impoverished sense of community with one another?
- We want to talk about our aggrieved anger…and Jesus inquires of our anxiety?
- We want to talk about what should be ours…and Jesus wants to talk about all that we have been given?
- We want Jesus to resolve the most recent, unfair headache in our life…and Jesus inquires if our deepest long is not peace?
What if the story went this way?
The land of a rich people produced abundantly…the Holy Spirit nourished souls of a rich people produced abundantly…all that they had and all that they were, was the sheer grace of Jesus Christ through and through.
And in genuine communion with and community with one another they looked upon the crop without and looked upon the crop within and together they could see so clearly what they could never see alone in their siloed anxiety…
“It’s all a gift. What a thing! Let us share. For it is surely as God’s Word declares: in seeking their peace we shall find our peace.”