The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 4, 2019

Lessons:

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49:1-11
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

 

My suspicion is that Jesus was not always fun at parties.

I mean I know that Jesus could be fun, a lot of fun. There is no question that he could tell amazing stories and that he knew something about making fine wine. And there is no question either that, even more than fun, he could be awesomely, almost impossibly kind and generous, inviting the loneliest and most lost and most hurting person to know that they were safe and they were home, that this was a party at which they belonged.

He could say to you: This is your table. You belong here.

And you would know in your bones that it was true.

But there is no question either that Jesus could turn on you and turn on you hard. You would be in the middle of telling or asking Jesus something that seemed kind of normal and everyday and fair and those eyes of his would suddenly be looking at you and looking through you. Abruptly he would say to you, Let the dead bury their own dead or Get behind me, Satan or It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

Something like that happens today. This man comes up to Jesus and he says to him:

Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.

And I want to emphasise how thoroughly reasonable this guy’s request is. Inheritances, the reading of wills, these questions after a death about what is fair and about what is just and about which possessions appropriately go to which family member and about what all of that means about how the deceased loved or didn’t love those who remain: well, when they go wrong they go really, really wrong. This is a moment in the life of a family that can leave you with resentments, with scars, that will last forever. Getting an inheritance right is super important for the long-term health of a family. Asking a teacher to help you with that makes a lot of sense.

Let’s add to the reasonableness of this request the element of grief. If this man says to Jesus, Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me, then what he is also telling Jesus is that his parents have died, that he is in mourning. And let me digress a little here to say for the record that it is hugely unfair that in our seasons of deepest loss we also have to navigate our seasons of deepest paperwork. There you are in the vortex of grief, unable to focus on much of anything, and the world says to you: your grief is not enough, here is probate. Please plan on spending the next several months fighting with forms and listening to hold music and writing cheques.

This is what the man brings to Jesus. This really reasonable, possibly family-saving request. And this grief. Together. He says to Jesus:

Please.

Please tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.

Maybe there are tears in his eyes as he speaks.

And what does Jesus say in response? He says:

Who cares?

Or, more accurately, he says:

Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?

Which, if you think about it, is not only a harsh response but also kind of an odd one. Because if the man knows who Jesus is, if he knows that Jesus is the son of God, then his reply to Jesus might well be:

Well, Jesus, God the Father set you to be a judge or arbitrator over me. There is literally no one more qualified than you. You, Jesus, are going to judge the living and the dead – I think I heard that somewhere in the creeds. So please start judging right now.

Here’s what I’d like to wonder about along with you this morning. Actually, that’s not strong enough language. Here’s what I’d to struggle with along with you this morning. As Jesus responds to this man’s reasonable question with what sure looks like an unreasonable and angry answer, is it possible for us to understand why Jesus speaks this way? And more than that – and this might be asking too much – through even these staggeringly harsh words, can we permit Jesus to teach us?

One reason that Jesus might respond to the man with the anger that he does is because, well, Jesus and his friends are poor. If the scholars are right who say that the job title in the Bible that we often translate as carpenter is better rendered as day labourer, if Jesus’ disciples are living cheque to cheque doing subsistence jobs, then neither Jesus nor anyone else in his posse is going to be receiving an inheritance from anyone. And so asking Jesus to arbitrate an inheritance is a bit like you or me approaching someone who is sleeping on the pavement and asking them for advice with our stock portfolio. Maybe it’s not deliberately cruel – let’s assume good intentions. But it is totally clueless. No wonder Jesus snaps at him.

A second reason that Jesus maybe responds with such harshness – and this is where I would like to spend a little more time this morning – is that the man is asking a question that seems mistaken or just wildly unimportant to someone like Jesus, someone who knows that, in a matter of months or maybe even weeks, the cross is waiting for him.

In all four of the Gospels, Jesus talks with this startling clarity about his death. The Son of Man, he says, must suffer and must die. Death is not an abstraction for him, it is not years away or decades away. He is not like the person – I don’t know if you do this, I do sometimes – who is calculating what percentage of his life is likely left, who is saying to himself, maybe 20 or 50 or 70 percent of my life remains. No. By the time of this conversation, Jesus may well be counting in weeks until his dying.

And I wonder, therefore – and forgive me if this is an odd idea, but it’s one that I have been sitting with this week and in which I have been finding insight – if we could listen to Jesus in conversations such as this one and understand his words as being spoken by someone who is terminally ill.

By terminally ill I don’t mean that Jesus is in any way sickly. To the contrary, he is just past the prime of his life, he is delighting in friends and food and wine and stories and walking across God’s good earth. By that I mean that he is like the one who has the test results in hand, the piece of paper that says that people don’t get better from what he has. Jesus knows that, this time next year, he will no longer number among the living, that one day soon the sun will rise and it will not shine upon him.

In Jesus’ case, his terminal illness is called Empire.

There is a difficult gift in this kind of knowledge. Those who are terminally ill, those who know that death is neither far away nor an avoidable misfortune that happens to other people, can, if they allow themselves, find clarity in this knowledge. I don’t want to be glib about this – and let’s be clear, there is a huge danger of glibness any time that we suggest that there are gifts to be found in suffering and grief and loss. I do want to name the reality that knowing that you will die soon can sometimes make it beyond clear what does and does not matter in life. There is a reason that the spiritual masters invite us to imagine our deaths, to write our own obituaries.

We all of us have two storehouses in our lives. This is implied in the parable that Jesus tells us today and he makes it explicit in a similar saying in the sixth chapter of Matthew, the one where he contrasts storing up your treasure on earth versus storing it up in heaven. The first storehouse is named something like success. It holds money – credit cards and 401(k)s and, yes, inheritances – it holds degrees and awards and other accomplishments, it holds property, it holds status, it holds all of the stuff that you put on your resume. And this storehouse is important. I love The Beatles, but I am kind of suspicious of people who say that they don’t care too much for money, especially when, like the Beatles, they have enough money to live comfortably for 100 lifetimes.

While there are lots of things that money can’t do, there are also totally ways in which it can buy you happiness. To have enough money to live indoors is almost always to be way happier than to live under an overpass beside the I-84. To have enough money to never wonder where your next meal is coming from is almost always to be way happier than to me walking in broken shoes from one soup kitchen to another. Similarly, your resume matters. If you can find a vocation in which you find stuff like meaning, belonging, and joy, then you have got a whole lot of life figured out.

As important as it is, the storehouse of success has its limitations. It turns out that private yachts or jets don’t necessarily make you happy. And most of us – all of us? – have had the experience of achieving a goal and saying: Is this all? I thought that I would be happy once this happened. These limitations become more and more apparent as you remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, as you realise that you have the terminal illness that is called having a body. Any moment, God may demand our lives of us.

Because of these limitations, we need the second storehouse. Let’s call this storehouse love. This is the storehouse that holds acts of kindness, what the Jewish tradition calls Mitzvahs, a word that means something like both service and blessing. This is the storehouse that holds friendship, that holds joy, that holds love of God and love of neighbour. This is the storehouse that holds the stories that, you hope, will go into your obituary and be spoken at your funeral, the storehouse that you hope will be spoken of when we step into heaven.

Here’s the hard news. Or maybe it is the good news. I haven’t decided yet. The first storehouse, the one called success: we don’t get to keep it when we die. All of the grain in it either gets forgotten or goes to someone else or gets eaten by rust and moths. The second storehouse, however, the one called love: we get to keep the stuff in there forever.

Maybe that is why Jesus speaks so harshly at this man, why Jesus is no fun at this particular party. Jesus, our terminally ill saviour, recognises that, reasonable though this man’s request for arbitration may be, his fixation on money and stuff is keeping him from seeing his all but empty storehouse of love. And that emptiness isn’t what Jesus wants for this man, it isn’t what he wants for you or me. Both now and at the end of our days, Jesus wants all of our storehouses to be overflowing with the love of God.