The Parable of the Rich Fool

In the name of the Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Good morning, It is an honor and a pleasure for me to worship with you all this morning, and I want to begin by thanking Paul, Marilu, and Josh for this opportunity to preach here in this beautiful space, and in front of this wonderful community, where I’ve spent so many Sundays in both the remembrance and the proclamation of the mystery of God’s enduring love.

I’m going to preach today from the Gospel of Luke. On the parable which is commonly known as the Parable of the rich fool. A parable in which a wealthy man, believing that he can stave off death, builds ever larger and more elaborate barns in which to store all of his surplus grain, only to realize at the end of the Parable that, as God Says, “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 stare up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God. 

And like all of Christ’s parables, when we read them with the proper attention and depth,  it is a parable that is difficult to hear– both for Christ’s audience, who never receive the self-affirming answer they want to hear, but it is also a parable that is difficult for all of us to hear today, myself most of all.  For in the gospel passage for this morning, Christ reminds all of us, in no uncertain terms, about the universal, unavoidable, and yet always terrifying reality of our mortal condition as human beings.   This is a parable about our mortality.

This passage, strikes a particularly personal chord with me this morning, as i’ve spent the last 10 weeks of the summer working as a chaplain at the UVA hospital.  While I’ve certainly been aware of my mortality, in some vague abstract sense.  Death, my own death especially, in some fundamental way is not something that I can clearly imagine.  Death, in some sense, is something that happens to other people—not my loved ones, and certainly it’s not to me, God forbid. But this summer has forced me to face the reality of our human limitations, the truth that all flesh is grass, in a way that I’ve never been forced to experience  

Our Modern society has a strange relationship with death. Even now in church it feels strange to talk about in public, and it makes all of us uneasy.  We live in a culture that, in many ways, is in full flight from mortality. It is a culture that is so obsessed with youth, so obsessed personal autonomy, and the inalienable right to pursue happiness and control our own destinies,  that we’ve finally crafted a culture that has been rendered incapable of addressing the one universal reality that all of us share in common: Our own death. While in pre-modern societies, death was a was a public affair, and usually occurred in the home—we have orchestrated a society which has pushed the sight and reality of death further and further from the perceptual realm of the living.

But the Gospel passage for this morning leaves us no room to skirt around this issue– and it is precisely by being forced to confront the reality of our mortality,  that Christ forces us to ask the universal existential question– which is precisely, “How should I live?  Who am I?  How am I to spend my limited time on this earth?”   a question which we are confronted with whether we are Christian or not, and it is a question which Christ’s parable is forcing us to ask this morning.   

In the face of our mortality—we are given the story of the rich young man—a man dedicated to constructing a life  of control and personal security—He dedicates his life to the construction of ever larger and more elaborate barns in which to store his ever increasing surplus.   The rich young man believes that once he completes this newly constructed life of security and control, He believes he will then finally have the life which can keep his mortality at bay.  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 this is the way of the world—it is not an abstraction which exists on the outer reaches of our intellectual worlds, and nor is it is the fate of a greedy few whom we can point out and designate for judgement—but it is instead the world in which all of us must strive to make our way.   All of us are engaged in one way or another in the construction of some life, some identity, which we hope will stand the flux of time.  We stake our lives on these identities—our bank accounts, the schools we attend, Our career advancements, our physical beauty, our moral superiority, and various achievements. And the world sells us on the possibility that this identity once achieved will stand the test of time—it is a world that tells that the construction of ever larger and more secure barns will somehow be enough to stave off the necessary suffering of life—the creation of some eternal bulwark that can stand up  against the weight of our mortality. 

And the problem with these barns, these ever more elaborate constructions of achievement and security that all of us strive to build throughout our lives, is not that any of these things are evil, but quite simply, they are inadequate.   Not only are they based upon a shadow reality that is passing away, but they are also unable to satisfy our deepest yearnings and desires of the human soul from which they spring.     

In 2016 at the Golden Globe awards, the actor Jim Carrey delivered a now famous ad-libbed speech, after being introduced under the moniker– “2 time Golden Globe winning actor Jim Carrey.”   In the short speech, Jim Carrey.   When he walked out on stage he said, quite ironically, and with a smirk that I won’t attempt to do justice too, he addressed the crowd by saying   “I’m two time, golden globe winning actor, Jim Carrey. You know, when I go to sleep at night, I’m not just a guy going to sleep. I’m two-time Golden Globe winner Jim Carrey going to get some well-needed shut-eye,’ he continued as the audience cracked up.

‘When I dream I don’t just dream any old dream. I dream about being three-time Golden Globe winning actor Jim Carrey. Because then I would be enough,’ he said, pausing dramatically. ‘It would finally be true, and I could stop this terrible search, for what I know ultimately won’t fulfill me.”

And this statement—the vague hope that somehow the self-created identities of our achievements can somehow be transformed into something that is “enough”— something that is “TRUE”—is the key to the deeper meaning of Christ’s parable.  We all somehow want to believe, that by force of our own will, through our white knuckled grip on the direction and meaning of our lives, that we can finally transform the transience of our self-created personal achievements into some eternal identity—some bulwark by which to withstand the flux of time– some identity to bear the weight of the truth of who we actually are.  

Just to give you another example: I was driving up to New Haven Connecticut last week to move out of my apartment up north, and I passed a billboard on the way to manhattan—that was extremely disconcerting. It was a billboard for a plastic surgery firm that I passed on the turnpike as  I entered  the city which had a picture of a very seductive, not church-appropriately-dressed young lady–  with her face cropped out of the picture, and on the billboard it simply said — “Perception IS reality.”  “Perception IS reality.”   

And of course, my initial reaction was completely self-righteous—blaming it on the crass materialism and moral bankruptcy of my wealthy Northeastern brethren—but deep down I know that the indictment was on me as well.  We all live and make our way in a world of money, power, and achievement which runs not on reality, not on truth, but on perceptions.  And perhaps you, like me, secretly believe that our perceived identities, if we just commit to the reality of these perceptions enough, that this will somehow make them true.  We live in the hope that if we just strive enough, build a big and sturdy enough barn, then Yes, then they will finally be enough– the way people perceive us, will finally be true.  It will finally satisfy us.     

But it is precisely in the throes of the shipwrecks and inevitable tragedies we face in this life, that we learn that this simply isn’t the case.    There is no Golden Globe award that will satiate Jim Carrey’s deepest yearnings– There is no plastic surgery that will stand up to the forces of time and gravity, and finally, as Christs parable tells us– there is no barn big enough to stand as an eternal bulwark against our inevitable mortality.   

And of course, this life of self-created identities and perceptions, and illusions of security is contrasted in today’s gospel parable with a life that is “rich towards God.”  It is tempting, especially here in church, to examine this life that is “rich towards God,” as a command to live a more churchly Christian life in the face of death.  It would be tempting to take this as a simple injunction to  “go to church,” “pray 3 times day,” “get your life together,”  “have the proper ever changing, nuanced political opinions,”  “stop being so darn greedy,” “go and call out all of your friends and neighbors for the illusions they live by”—let them know that their illusory fictitious barns will be utterly meaningless when the tragedies and shipwrecks of life come—and make no mistake, the cross in our lives is coming.  

But, as we see in the next line from Luke’s Gospel, this is not what Jesus says a life that is “rich towards God” looks like.  He doesn’t say to go to church, he doesn’t pray 3 times a day, He does not tell us to vote a certain way, nor does he tell us how to get our lives together.  Jesus doesn’t say any of this. Now don’t get me wrong—I think going to church is wonderful, I’m training to be a priest, and it means so much that all of us gather together here each week in humility, love and wonder, to praise God in this special way.  I also hope everyone here makes time in their lives to pray– it is important, and I believe that all of us would have some more of the peace which passeth all understanding if we took more time out of our lives to do it. I hope, as I’m sure your spouse and your children hope, that we all get our lives together—my life right now is an absolute dumpster fire—I sure hope that I get my life together. But it is important to reckon with the Gospel truth these are not prerequisites that Jesus gives us for a life that is rich towards God. 

No, instead immediately after the Parable, Jesus tells us what a life that is rich towards God looks like:  Jesus says “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?[d] 26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin;[e] yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for his[f] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

And this, is good news.  This is the true comfort from the Gospels that we all need today.  It is not the sentimental consolation or facile optimism which attempts to white wash and gloss over the very real sorrows, worries, suffering and tragedies we face in our lives– It is a gentle but profound reminder that Perception IS NOT reality.   The version of yourself you think you so desperately need to be– the exhausting world of wanting, achieving, and displaying– your self constructed world of perceptions– is NOT the real you.  Your true identity, your true story, with all of its complications, anxieties, worries, confusions and failures– the real you, which may be suffering and scared this evening– is a story that is known fully and loved fully by God.   And  to live a life that is rich towards God is not a life spent in self-actualization, becoming what you could be or becoming what you should be– but instead, it is about realizing and learning, through life’s necessary pilgrimage of love and suffering, who and what you actually are. A life spent in search of his Kingdom– a life spent in search of God—the way, the truth, and the light– is a gradual ascent to the knowledge, and reality, that you—the real you—has already been found.   Amen.