Hespeler, 4 August, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21
ne day, when Jesus was speaking to a large group, one of the people in the crowd called out to him. “Lord,” he said, “my sister just won $50,000 in the lottery. If she were just to give me half of that, I could pay off all of my debts and maybe even get ahead on my mortgage. Then I could finally stop worrying about money all the time. Would you please tell her to do so?”
But Jesus called back to that man, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he began to warn the people and teach them that they would not find security in such things. He told them a story.
“Once upon a time,” he said, “there was a man who had an amazing and wonderful idea. You see, he knew that there were bookstores spread all across the land where people would go and buy books. But these bookstores were located on expensive real estate and they took a great deal of space and expensive staff to rather inefficiently sell books to the people who wanted them.
“So this man’s plan was to create a massive distribution system to sell books to people. He wouldn’t need to create expensive retail bookstores because people would be able to look at and select the books that they wanted on this amazing new thing called the internet. He wouldn’t even have to pay for the warehouse space to store all of the books – the publishers could keep them in their own warehouses until they were needed – so instead this man would concentrate on shipping and distribution and do it very efficiently.
“Now, what would you call something like that – a company that is built around a massive distribution system. Well, of course, you name it after a river because nothing can move things like a river – and not just any river but the greatest river in the whole world. You name it after the River Euphrates.” (Because remember that this is Jesus who is telling this story and in his world, there is no more important river than the Euphrates.)
“And so it was that Euphrates.com was born and the founder of the company very quickly became the biggest and most successful bookseller in the whole world. And what do you suppose that he did next. Did he just lean back and say to his soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’? No, he did not because he did not feel as if he had anywhere enough to feel as secure as that. He needed more.
“And so what he said to his soul was this: ‘Soul, you have become the biggest bookseller in the world but you can do more. Why should you restrict yourself to selling only books when there are so many other goods that people want or need?” And so he began to build great warehouses and fill them with everything imaginable so that there was nothing new under the sun that was not found in a Euphrates.com warehouse.
“Now already, at this point, the man’s success had had a negative effect on local bookstores – they just couldn’t compete with Euphrates.com in selection or price. But now other local retail stores began to suffer the same fate with locations being closed and whole chains going down. And the man began to sell so many products that he had to tear down his warehouses and build even bigger warehouses – massive warehouses where computer programs and robots could sort and shift packages at almost the speed of light.
“And, yes, he did have to hire some real flesh and blood people to work in his warehouses (which was a good thing, I suppose, given all of the local retail jobs that were disappearing) but he didn’t much like it and he made a point of paying them as little as he possibly could and squeezing as much labour out of them as they could possibly give so that Euphrates.com became famous for its poor working conditions.
“In and through all of this, the man became the world’s largest retailer and a billionaire with more money than he could possibly ever spend in his lifetime. And what then? Did he finally speak to his soul at that point and say, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’?
What, are you kidding? He didn’t have nearly enough to feel that secure. There was so much more that he could do to dominate everything that was bought and sold in the world. He created devices – speakers with microphones in them and he created an artificial intelligence that could speak to people in their homes so that he could anticipate everyone’s smallest needs and whims and desires and he could fulfil them all. In fact, he got so good at it that he could practically anticipate anything that someone might need before they even knew that they needed it.
“And so it came to pass that he became not just very rich, not just the richest man in the country but the richest in the whole world. In fact, he was on the verge of becoming the world’s very first trillionaire. Now, do you have any idea of what kind of wealth that actually represents? We are getting into the territory now where it’s not just a matter that no individual could possibly spend that kind of money in many lifetimes. We are in the territory where the world couldn’t even contain that kind of money if it were printed up as hundred dollar bills.
“So this, surely, is it. The man is finally going to have to throw up his hands and say to his soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’? I mean, what could possibly make him more secure, more comfortable, less worried for his future? He could double that amount and still, in practical terms, have no more earthly security than he does now. But is that what he will do? Everything seems to indicate that the answer is no. He will continue to seek more and more and I somehow suspect that, should he come to posses the whole world (which actually seems possible) even that will not be enough for him. In fact, I hear he might even be thinking of conquering space as well.”
Now, this whole time, the man who had originally asked Jesus the question – the one who wanted Jesus to tell his sister to share her lottery winnings with him – had been listening to this story of Jesus and listening, frankly, with growing disbelief. Surely the kind of person that the teacher was describing could never actually exist. Why, not even if the world should endure for, say, two thousand years after the time when Jesus of Nazareth walked upon the earth would there ever possibly be a person who was so obsessed with accumulating ever more wealth and doing it for its own sake. How could there be someone who was so uninterested in any possible good that he could do with his wealth (apart, of course, from any good that he inadvertently did while building ever more profits)! Surely the man in this story was a caricature – a straw man.
But, as the man listened to this ridiculous story, he had a sudden realization. Jesus was holding up this utterly ridiculous example to make a point. And it was a good point. Jesus was saying that it doesn’t actually matter how much you have. You think that you could get just a little bit more, just an extra $50,000 of lottery winnings, and it will push you over the edge to the place where you feel you can finally be secure and not have to worry about anything. But there’s actually no amount that can do that for you.
You could have as much as this plainly fictional CEO of Euphrates.comand you would still not be satisfied because he was not satisfied. The sense of having enough to feel truly secure was always in the future. When you have built big enough warehouses, when you have replaced your entire workforce with robots, when you have beaten everyone into space, then you will able to pat your soul on the back and tell it that it’s eat, drink and be merry time. But the thing is that that day never seems to come. There is always one more thing to do before you get there.
And so, the man who had made the request spoke once more to Jesus. “I thank you, teacher, for telling me about this absurd man. You make me realize that even if my sister did give me half of her winnings, I would likely not find that enough to feel secure either.”
“Well,” replied Jesus, “if that is true then you may indeed be wiser than the CEO Euphrates.com. But I have not yet plumbed the depths of his foolishness, for there is one thing more. Because everything that this man felt he had to do to find his security was in the future, there is something else that is inevitable. He can never actually achieve it all and, sooner or later as is the way of all flesh, he will die. That is something that neither the richest man in the world nor the lowliest slave can escape. He will inevitably die without finding that security he craves by amassing enough. And what will happen to all of his possessions, even if he owns the whole world, at that point? Who will take them then?”
To this, one of the other people in the crowd cried out, “Hey, you can give it to me!” There is always one in every crowd. And he got a laugh, of course he did. And Jesus smiled too, but as he smiled he also shook his head. “My friend, he said if that is all you get from the story, then you might just be a bigger fool than that man was.
I think that one of the reasons why we sometimes miss the meaning that is in the parables of Jesus is because we totally abstract them from the situations in which he told them. We pull them apart and analyze each piece and try to find the symbolic meaning. What we forget was that they were stories that were specifically meant to elicit certain responses from the people who were listening. What they felt about the story was, in many ways, more important than the story itself. He wanted to provoke reaction, surprise and even shock from his audience. He wanted to shake up their assumptions about how the world worked and how it was supposed to work.
The rich man in this particular parable of Jesus was a figure that the people in the crowd would have recognized. he was familiar to them just like celebrity billionaires are familiar to us and we think we know what they are like. He was the sort of person that they all paid their rents to and, yes, he did use those rents to build great big barns for himself and to build what they assumed was perfect security in this life. They envied him and wanted to be like him, but Jesus told them this story to make them understand exactly what a fool he was and what a fool the entire system made of each one of them.
Jesus told that story to make them question the ways that the world worked and to see it all in a very different light. I suspect that Jesus would be only too happy if we were to question those very things about our society and the way that things are supposed to work and about who is truly wise and who is a complete and utter fool.