They are gathering on the plain that stretches out before Jesus. The crowds are increasingly drawn by his teachings and healings. Jesus’ teaching on prayer is concise, yet monumental in its implications see last week’s blog entry When you Pray. Jesus now begins casting out demons and makes a series of striking denunciations. He denounces those who follow the letter of the Law while remaining unchanged by its spirit. He denounces the crowd’s fear of physical violence and death, being hauled before judges and tribunals, telling them that these are not the things to be most afraid of. What they should fear are the compromises that slip easily into their lives and that are capable of separating them from God.
This is heavy-duty teaching and Jesus is in full flow when some idiot, taking advantage of a lull in Jesus’ tempo pipes up and asks Jesus to settle an inheritance dispute with his brother. Can you sense Jesus taking a double take for a moment? I have a picture of Jesus turning toward the direction of the voice, and saying to this guy: what’d you just say? Have you not heard anything I have been saying? Do we not hear just a hint of facetiousness in Jesus’ response when he continues: friend, who set me to be judge or arbitrator over you? He now warns the crowd to take care lest they confuse material possessions with the abundance of life. He follows up with a parable, a story with a sting in its tail.
The farmer and his barns
The parable about the farmer who builds larger barns to store his bumper harvest before settling down to a life of ease and security has often been interpreted as a teaching against the folly of accumulating wealth. In this vein, John Wesley is reputed to have said:
When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.
It is a mistake to confuse material prosperity for the signs of an abundance of life. It’s a common mistake as confirmed by the pervasiveness of wealth righteousness in popular American religion, and the frantic and unsatisfying futility of materialism in the wider secular culture. Yet, Jesus is asking the deep question of the spiritual life a question which David Lose poses thus:
Is our material abundance sufficient to meet the weight of meaning, significance, and joy that we seek?
The parable about the farmer and his barns echoes Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man, in Mark’s Gospel. More problematic than confusing wealth accumulation with the abundance of life, it is a reliance on one’s own self-sufficiency that constitutes the most serious roadblock along the spiritual path.
The parable about the farmer and his barns could be read as simply an example of good husbandry. Is this not the very thing Joseph did in preparation against the arrival of famine in the land of Egypt? But note the final lines in verses 20-21:
You fool! This very night you life will be demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?
It’s clear that Jesus is talking here about the illusion of self-sufficiency as the fatal foolishness in of the spiritual life. For:
So it is for those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God.
Why is self-sufficiency – after all a core value in our culture – the ultimate foolishness in the spiritual life? We need to make some distinctions to unravel the answer to this question.
An important distinction
Our culture values personal responsibility, individual ingenuity and skill, along with the rewarding of enterprise and effort. Yet none of these qualities can flourish in isolation from an individual’s membership of community. No one can claim to be self-made. Individuals flourish on the back of community infrastructure and social stability. A baseline of social capital is always required in the forms of education, physical infrastructure supported by taxation, law and order, a stable and functioning rule of law, and the opportunities afforded by freedom of choice. The key definition of an idolatry is the replacing of God with another source for ultimate significance. It is when these values and virtues degenerate into an idolatry of self-sufficiency that the problem Jesus is addressing arises.
The problem for the farmer was that he lacked gratitude to God for the bumper nature of his harvest and he was oblivious to the key requirement of gratitude, which is to live generously. He believed it was all about him. This is a man isolated in his narcissism.
The N word again!
It’s not all about you! There is no more humiliating put-down than this. We all understand narcissism intuitively if not psychologically. I believe that one of the corrosive hallmarks of our contemporary society is the prevalence of a collective narcissism. We are mesmerized by the creed of celebrity. We are drawn to the demagogues who paradoxically allay our fears by making us more afraid. We applaud the politicians who speak to our frustrations by claiming to have the power to deliver the undeliverable.
In a time of change, our desire for certainty becomes reminiscent of that passage in Alice in Wonderland, where, in a conversation with the Red Queen Alice laughs exclaiming that one can’t believe impossible things. To which the Queen replied:
I dare say you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
Everywhere we encounter the message – you can be, you can have, it’s all because of you, it’s all up to you! When religion adopts this message we easily fall for the illusion that we are the authors of our own salvation. Salvation is God’s gift and it is offered not to us as narcissistic individuals but to us through our membership of the community that is saved. We say Sunday by Sunday: we are the Body of Christ, never, I am the Body of Christ. Remember there is no such thing as one Christian.
We are all aware of the form of narcissism expressed by an individual engorged and enthralled by their grossly inflated sense of self. This is the easy form to spot. More tricky, because it’s more intimate, is the form of narcissism that is an expression of fear, turning us into people who never take risks, who hunker down in our self-protected and defended bunkers, who settle for lives lived within only that which is knowable and predictable where everything becomes only about us.
Self-sufficiency equals security. The illusion that we need no one else, that we alone can take care of ourselves, provides some sense of being in control. However, when we are in control that means that God is shut out from our lives. If we are in control, what need have we for God? If God is present at all, it’s a God of our own imagining, a God who is concerned only with me.
Jesus poses a question at the heart of the parable of the farmer and his barns. When we confuse material possessions for the life of abundance, is our narcissistic illusion of our own self-sufficiency capable of delivering the meaning, significance, and joy that we seek?
When surveyed on the significance of their lives many report three regrets:
- They wish they had been more loving.
- They wish they had taken more risks.
- They wish they could have made a greater contribution that will continue after their death.
Jesus says: you fool! Unless you live life generously now, it will be too late when you are dead.
 David Lose in his Commentary on Luke 12:13-21, in Working Preacher August 1st, 2010.