Today we continue to follow the lectionary passage set for today. As you may remember, the focus for the lectionary this year is the Gospel of Luke. One thing you will see fairly quickly if you read through Luke’s Gospel is that it has quite an economic emphasis to it. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has quite a lot to say on issues of wealth and poverty, and that is where our passage takes us today.
It is a passage that starts with a dispute over a family inheritance. A family member comes to Jesus wanting Jesus to tell his brother to give him his share of the inheritance. It is obviously a situation where one brother has taken the whole inheritance for himself and has failed to share it with his brother.
Jesus refuses to get involved in the dispute and rather responds with a one-liner:
“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; true life does not consist in having an abundance of possessions.”
Another translation that really stood out for me when I was preparing for today goes as follows:
“ ... a persons life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs”.
Jesus then goes on to tell a parable which is critical of a rich farmer who had a good harvest. Not knowing what to do with his excess wealth, he decides to build bigger barns to store all his wealth. But that very night, he dies and has to answer to God for his life.
On Tuesday when I sat down to look at this passage, I asked Wendy’s opinion on it, which I found quite helpful. As some of you may know, Wendy grew up as a Jehova’s Witness in South Africa. She left them at the age of 18.
As Wendy listened to the parable she immediately began to share how this passage was interpreted by the Jehova Witnesses when she was growing up. Based on this passage (along with other passages), members of the Jehova’s witnesses were told not to build up pensions for themselves because the end of the world was near and God would judge them, like the rich man in this parable for not trusting God and for not believing whole-heartedly in the second coming.
Today, Wendy knows of members and ex-members of the Jehova’s Witnesses who are now in their 70’s who don't have a proper pension and who have to rely on children and family members to pay their rent and buy them groceries.
In doing some research online, I see that in more recent times the Jehovah’s Wtiness organisation had a shift in policy and has begun to tell their members that saving for their retirement was a wise thing to do. But for many it remains a catch-22 because members are still told that that the second coming will happen in their lifetime in which case saving up for a pension doesn't exactly make sense anyway.
This very literalist interpretation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their subsequent shift in policy cautions us against making extreme or even just literal interpretations of passages like this. It is a reminder that there is an extreme way of reading this passage that in our current industrialised developed world would be irresponsible and dangerous.
What then do we make of this passage. How do we wrestle with this passage in a way that is not reckless to our families and yet seeks to deal with this passage with some degree of integrity?
Firstly, the criticism of the rich farmer in this passage has some validity to it. The parable doesnt criticise him for having storage barns. The problem comes that when his wealth increases, he fails to look beyond himself. Instead of sharing his excess wealth with those in need his concern remains just himself. It reveals a stunted spiritual growth.
As one reads the Gospels, it is clear that for Jesus spiritual growth always goes in the direction of expanding our hearts and our concern for others. It always moves in the direction of generosity.
But in the parable of the rich farmer his heart has not enlarged beyond himself. He is locked into a completely self-concerned mode of being. When his wealth increases, instead of considering others, he simply builds bigger barns for himself.
Growing up as a Methodist I was always inspired by the example of John Wesley when it came to his teaching and example regarding money.
His advice to early Methodists was summarised in three simple phrases:
Earn as much as you can
Save as much as you can
Give as much as you can.
“Earn all you can”, John Wesley suggested that here is nothing wrong with earning money if it is done in a responsible, just and ethical way. He felt that Christians have a responsibility to be productive members of society.
“Save all you can”. Part of this was to make sure that Methodists had money for a rainy day. This was at a time when most Methodists came from the poorer classes in a time when there were no social services. Save all you can. But for John Wesley, “save all you can” was also a call to avoid living extravagant lives which he felt was out of sync with the teachings of Jesus. It was a call to a life of simplicity. Distinguishing between needs and greeds.
“Give all you can”. This was perhaps the crux of his teaching. John Wesley believed that ultimately, the reason we should earn all we can and save all we can, is in order that we might give all we can, that we might bless others with the fruit of our labour, especially those in need rather than simply building bigger and better barns for ourselves like the rich man in the parable. One colleague used to say that our purpose as Christians is not to earn a living, but rather to earn a giving.
What was really impressive about John Wesley is that he lived his own advice.
Charles Edward White, in his book “Four Lessons on Money from One of the World’s Richest Preachers” tells the following story about John Wesley that changed his perspective on money:
[Wesley] had just finished buying some pictures for his room when one of the chambermaids came to his door. It was a winter day and he noticed that she had only a thin linen gown to wear for protection against the cold. He reached into his pocket to give her some money for a coat, and found he had very little left. It struck him that the Lord was not pleased with how he had spent his money. He asked himself: “Will Your Master say, ‘Well done, good and faithful steward?’ You have adorned your walls with the money that might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?”
Perhaps as a result of this incident, in 1731 Wesley began to limit his expenses so he would have more money to give to the poor. He records that one year his income was £30, and his living expenses £28, so he had £2 to give away. The next year, his income doubled, but he still only lived on £28 and gave £32 away. In the third year, his income jumped to £90; again he lived on £28, giving £62 away. The fourth year, he made £120, lived again on £28, and gave away £92 to the poor.
Wesley preached that Christians should not merely tithe, but give away all extra income once the family and creditors were taken care of. He believed that with increasing income, the Christian’s standard of giving should increase, not his standard of living. He began this practice at Oxford and he continued it throughout his life. Even when his income rose into the thousands of pounds, he lived simply and quickly gave his surplus money away. One year his income was slightly over £1,400; he gave away all except £30.
I cant say that I have managed in any way to emulate John Wesley in this regard. If anything, I am a terrible failure in comparison. But it is an example that continues to inspire and challenge me. I also think it is the kind of perspective that can help us to wrestle with this parable of Jesus today and reminds us that true life consists of more than having an abundance of possessions.