Lectionary reading for Sunday, 31st July – Luke 12:13-21
The fields are golden now, and the recent heat has ripened the grain. The barley is being harvested, the wheat waits a little longer. It is good to see food grown and treated with care. Full barns help through the winter, as they have for generations.
So, now, as harvest is happening, as barns are being filled, as heavy machines trundle through the Suffolk lanes, the Church calendar gives us this story to consider – a warning against greed.
This story is a profound challenge to those of us now with full cupboards, stuffed wardrobes, too many shoes. It is unique to Luke, where it is followed by “do not worry….”, reminding us that the ravens have no barns, and yet are fed. The two together form a call to a simplicity of life, and a reliance on God, that is at odds not only with our society, but with our instinct.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the story. Jesus is asked to intervene in a quarrel between two brothers – and, characteristically, does not. It is interesting to note how many times Jesus is invited to act as judge, and declines. Instead, he often shines a light on the motives of the one asking him to do so, the one who is sure he is right. In this case, the motive seems to be greed. Greed needs to be guarded against, to be actively resisted. Jesus seeks to turn on its head our notion that life is measured in the abundance of possessions, that life consists of stuff. We often talk as if this were a new, modern phenomena, this way of looking at life. Clearly, it is not.
Clearly, though, it is a danger we are facing this day, now, as we are besieged from the outside by the call of so many things, and experience within ourselves the desire for them, as well as the tendency to judge and measure and compare our things with the things of others. I am not sure we have a contemporary word which quite expresses the old idea of”covet” – the last of the ten commandments prohibits it, even so.
One day, when Jesus was speaking to the crowds, someone stood up and said “Teacher, tell my brother to share our inheritance – to divide up the family land fairly!” Jesus said “Who made me an umpire in your squabbling match?” Then, he said to the crowd, “Watch out for greed – it can sneak up on you. Your life is about much more than what you own.
“Once there was a rich man, whose fields were full of ripe, golden grain, ready to harvest. When it was gathered in, there was so much grain that his barns were creaking and straining with the weight of it. He couldn’t store any more. This troubled the farmer – for he wanted to keep it all. ‘I know!’ he said to himself with a smile. ‘I’ll tear down these barns and build big new ones, then I’ll live the high life! I’ll fill my belly and drink my wine and have a good time!’
But God didn’t see it like that. ‘You fool! You are going to die tonight – then what will happen to all your fine things? They won’t be any use to you then!’” Jesus looked at the people gathered around him. “That’s how it is for anyone who stores up things for themselves, leaving no room for God!”
The distribution of the harvest is an essential matter of social justice. We remember the story of Ruth, the provision of gleaning rights for the poor and the foreigner. We remember the bias towards the hungry we encounter in the Hebrew Scriptures. Full barns can be a blessing for the whole community.
Jesus reminds his listeners of the purposes of plenty, and of the life-corroding effects of greed. It is not easy – but wherever we are, we can begin. We can begin to hold things lightly, to remember that all belongs to God, that where we have, we can give, and bless, and meet the needs of those who have less. We can begin to pass on something, one thing. We can come to know the lightness and freedom of this generous, open way of living.
To give is an act of resistance against our own capacity for greed. Giving, sharing, and working for justice, are powerful. They can transform all involved. Perhaps, as we enact this different way of living, we can begin to see how it can make room for God – God who is love – generous, gift-giving, open-handed love.
I wrote the following prayer in response to the feeding of the five thousand, where the crowds were fed far from shops and barns. It seems to follow on from this story, too.
From Prayers and Verses
Lord Jesus, who broke bread beside the lake and all were fed,
thank you for feeding us.
Lord Jesus, who asked his disciples to pass food to the crowds,
may we do the same.
Lord Jesus, who saw to it that all the spare food was gathered,
may we let no good thing go to waste.
Lord Jesus, who gave thanks,
we thank you now.
If you would like to use the reading and the prayer, please do so, mentioning the source.