you wont find it there: on wealth, finding your life, and the parable of the rich fool
"Someone out of the crowd said, “Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.” Jesus replied, “Mister, what makes you think it’s any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?” Speaking to the people, he went on, “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” Then he told them this story: “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I will say to my soul, soul, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’ “Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’ Then Jesus said, “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”
Anyone hear that parable about the rich guy and his barns and go, “damn, it’s speaking right to me”?
Yah, me too.
That’s the thing about these stories. Even though they are over 2000 years old, even though they are as far removed from us as we are from people in the year 4019 (these things are old!), we shouldn’t dismiss them as primitive, dusty, and irrelevant. When we look past all the details and particulars that make them seem so foreign to us, we can begin to see the universals - all the things that still ring true for us today. That’s why we can say these stories are our stories. That’s why these stories have been told again and again and again. For thousands of years people have discovered their own stories within them, finding in them these universal wisdoms, questions, and tensions, these things we all end up rumbling with when we experience the heights and depths of our humanity. That’s why we all went ‘Oh man! Its like its speaking to me!”
And I don't know about you, but I have a love-hate relationship with that. I love it because it reminds me of the power and magic of these stories, but I hate because more often than not, that means I’m about to get pretty uncomfortable and truth be told, as sacred as discomfort can be, I’m not always a big fan of it. That’s one reason we call these stories ‘holy.’ It’s not because these stories fell out of the sky in a ziplock bag, it’s because they hum with reverence and pull us into something new life.
So trusting that’s why we read these stories, trusting that discomfort is sacred, we’re gonna listen to what that parable says, find within it something to rumble with, and leave here with a few mantras that can help us move into that new life.
Lets start with this: what’s the issue with the barn guy? What’s going on with him?
He thinks that if he has enough wealth, if he has a lot of stuff, if he accumulates it all, it’s then that he’ll be able to eat, drink, and be merry. It’s then he’ll find life at it’s fullest.
Which on the one hand, we cant blame him. On a lot of levels, it’s a very wise thing to do. Who wouldn’t want to prepare for the future so they can be happy and enjoy life? Who doesn’t want some wealth to add stability to their lives? I mean, what’s wrong with that? Well, probably nothing. I dont think that’s what the parable is getting at. That’s not why this guy is “foolish.” The take away isn't that God has a problem with tax free savings accounts.
Oh, and by the way: When someone is called a “fool” in the Bible, our ears should perk up a bit because that’s like the ultimate diss. That’s a huge put down. Think about it … if the Jesus Tradition is a wisdom tradition, if it is about a new way of seeing, thinking, and being in the world, to be called “a fool” is pretty much as bad as it gets. It means your way off. It means your head and heart are in the wrong place. It means you’ve lost the plot. And to be called a fool by God? Well, I take it back, that’s as bad as it can get.
So what else is going on here? What made this guy a fool? What deeper thing is Jesus pointing out to?
We can see it about half way through the story: who does the barn guy speak to about what he’s doing?
"I will say to my soul, soul, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’
He’s talking to his soul. He’s speaking to the heart of his heart. He’s talking to that inner most part of his being. This is really important. Jesus is pointing out that the deeper thing going on here is something spiritual. And now let’s remember, when we talk about the spiritual, when we talk about the soul, we’re not talking life after death. We’re talking life before death. We’re talking about life here and now, life as it was meant to be, life that hums with reverence, life that’s full of things like identity, purpose, and joy.
So what spiritual thing is going on here with this guy?
The issue is that this guy thinks that it’s there, in the wealth, in the stuff, in the accumulation of it, that he can find that life. He’s called a fool because he thinks that through all of that he can find a meaningful existence. “Oh,” he thinks, "If i can get enough stuff, I’ll have identity, purpose, and joy. If I have all this in my barns, it’s then I’ll experience life as it was meant to be."
But what’s the tension in that? What’s Jesus calling out here? Why’s that foolish?
The issue is that life we wont find that life through having stuff. We don’t find our identity, purpose, and joy there. The man is called foolish because he’s looking in the wrong place.
I wonder if the reason this story is our story is because how often does stuff shape our values and how we act? How often does what we have determine who we are? How often does wealth, having stuff, or buying stuff become the way we try to find the life we’re looking for?
For me, it’s all. the. time.
It’s been really fascinating and even more challenging to see how owning a house has changed how I see the people in my neighbourhood. Before we had the house, I had so much empathy and compassion for the transient people who walk up and down a street like ours. But now that it’s my street? Now that my house is on it? I’ve caught myself having a completely different attitude. I watch people with suspicion. I have far less compassion for them. Wealth changed how I see and treat my neighbours.
After our dog, Leroy, died, Dawn and I were having a pretty bad day so one day we did what so many people do to help them feel better and cope with things like grief and pain: we went shopping. We tried to find healing through buying stuff. But while we did find a super nice dresser, we certainly didn't find in the having the healing and peace we were looking for.
Maybe you’ve got your own stories. We all have a story or two about how we’ve tried to use wealth and having stuff to help us experience that life. We all probably see our story in this story because we’ve all been that guy.
And if we do, if we do see ourselves in this story, we need to hear the message Jesus is giving us here:
You cant buy or have your way into a meaningful existence. You wont find it there.
We need to hear that because there's a reason Jesus talks so much about wealth. There’s a reason he says ‘give everything away’ and that 'it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into that life.’ We need to hear it because so often, too often, that’s how we try to get saved. That’s how we try to find the life we’re looking for. That’s how we try to find those divine things like peace, contentment, identity, and joy. We try to have or buy our way into it and as this whole parable goes to show, that’s a foolish thing to do.
Now, it’s not that wealth and stuff are inherently bad. It’s that wealth and stuff so easily can get in the way of finding and having a life connected with God, each other, and ourselves. As one writer of the Bible said, “the pursuit of money is the root of all evil.” It’s better to give everything away, Jesus seems to say, than risk not having a life at all.
So as people trying to find that life, as people trying to live with a new wisdom, here are some mantras to help keep us on track and rumble with wealth:
“I have enough.” Whenever you’re tempted to grab onto more, repeat to yourself “I have enough. I have enough. I have enough.” Let enough be your standard instead of more.
“Who/what else made this happen?” Gratitude is so important because it forces us to look beyond ourselves. It makes us look to see who or what else is responsible for what we have and where we’re at. And not only does it expand our gaze, it usually turns into generosity. So when something amazing happens, when something good comes into your life, ask yourself: who or what else made this happen? how can I be grateful for this? how can I pass it on to others?
"Does this really matter?” It's kind of like a Marie Kondo kind of thing. A way to approach our wealth and stuff is to ask whether it really actually matters. Whatever it is your holding, whatever it is, ask "is this actually of value? is that worth my time, energy, and space? does this deepen my relationship with god, my self, and neighbour?” If it doesn’t, well, maybe it’s not worth actually having. Maybe it’s time to give things away to someone for whom it really will matter.