Text: Luke 12:13-21
A few years ago, an article entitled “We Don’t Need Another Superhero” appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and in it media critic James Bowman noted the flood of superhero movies that have been released since September 11, 2001. (The Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2006.) In the decade following that horrible day there were nearly fifty movies about superheroes in our theaters, with more in the works. There have been three Superman movies, three X-Men movies, as well as Batman Begins, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, and others – the list goes on and on. Most people would agree that it’s no accident that this flood of superhero movies has occurred during a time when insecurity defines our culture. Life doesn’t seem quite as secure as it once did. There was a time when we didn’t have to worry about terrorist attacks or factions of people who make it their mission to kill Americans.
Just last week my family and I were on vacation in Maryland. On our way up there we noticed electronic signs on the Washington, D.C. beltway urging people to report any suspicious activities. Those signs are relatively recent additions to the Washington landscape. The news is full of updates on the strength of Al Qaeda or the prospect of terrorist cells proliferating in different countries. And of course, there are other reminders of our insecurity as well. Daily the headlines offer us reminders of how quickly life can go from normalcy to tragedy. And certainly if the last few weeks of life in our own congregation have taught us anything, it’s that death is very much a part of life. That’s something that we all face. It’s part of being human. A very natural response to all this is the intense desire to feel secure again.
Maybe that’s why superheroes have been so popular in the last several years. We gain some comfort and hope seeing the story of someone who is larger than life, super-sized, able to rise above the insecurities of this world and somehow make life secure again. The creation of Superman is a fascinating example of this. Superman was created by Jerry Siegel during a time in his life of intense helplessness. His father had been shot and killed and the police never found the murderer. Siegel never talked much about his father’s death. What he did was create in his mind a bullet-proof father who could not be killed, and would go about the world restraining evil and defeating death. If he could not bring justice to his father, he would create a world in which justice was secured by an invulnerable, super-sized hero. Superman arose out of the almost universal desire to have security and protection in the face of insecurity and death. Don’t we all have that desire to be secure in this world of insecurity?
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr went so far as to say that human nature was paradoxical. On the one hand, we are immersed in nature and subject to all of its perils, including death. But on the other hand, human beings have the ability to transcend nature and ponder not only our finitude and the reality of death but also how we might respond to it. (Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York 1941), p. 182.) We are bound by our limited human nature, our finitude, but at the same time we are free to respond to the perils of life on earth in any way we choose. That, I believe, is what Jesus’ parable of the rich fool is really about. It’s about how to respond to insecurity, finitude, and death.
At first glance the parable of the rich fool seems to be a simple parable about greed. Jesus is interrupted by a man who wants help in acquiring half of his family’s inheritance. Presumably this man has an older brother who is due to receive the entire family inheritance (that’s the way things worked back then), and we can assume that the older brother has just gotten the inheritance because the father of these two sons has just died. The younger son’s desire to have half of the inheritance isn’t just greed for the sake of having more stuff – it’s a response to the reality of death. This man’s father has just died. He’s the younger son and stands to get nothing. Suddenly, his life has become insecure. In response to this, he is attempting to make security for himself through obtaining possessions.
Now I know that may seem like reading a lot into the text, but consider the parable itself. There’s a wealthy landowner whose crops produce abundantly, so abundantly in fact that he doesn’t have room to store it all. In that day and age famine could hit without warning and set in for years, putting everyone’s lives at risk. So this landowner does a very prudent thing – he super-sizes his barns so that he can store his bumper crop and thereby secure his future against the threat of famine. If we’re honest with ourselves, we will admit that’s probably what any of us would do. We would invest in our future and try to secure our lives for as long as we can. But just when the landowner has done this, his time is up. “This very night,” God says, “your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” His attempt to secure his own future is ruined by the very thing that he hopes to avoid by storing up all his grain – death. It’s a sad story less about greed and more about how to live when life becomes insecure.
This is a universal human situation. When life is insecure, we seek security. Sometimes our desire for security is so strong that it leads us to relentlessly search for the one thing that will make life secure again. We may find ourselves storing up possessions, barricading ourselves with ‘stuff’. We may place our hopes for security or happiness upon one person or thing that we keep at the center of our lives. As long as we have that one person or have that one thing, we may feel secure and happy for a time. But ultimately that will fail and we will find ourselves searching for something else that will fill the void and quench our desire to be secure.
Do you remember that scene in the movie, “Jaws” when they catch and kill a huge shark, then cut it open to see what it’s eaten? Out of the stomach comes a bunch of half-eaten fish, an old tire, some bones, a piece of a boat, a clock, and a license plate. Great white sharks are known for being voracious and very indiscriminant eaters, sort of like us when we relentlessly search for one life solution after another. We are hungry people looking for wholeness and security. We try to fashion these things out of our possessions but that doesn’t work; we’re still hungry. We try to find fulfillment in work or faulty relationships, in this product or that drug, in super-sized versions of things we don’t need. But we don’t find it. We consume and possess things indiscriminately, relentlessly grabbing for this and that, hoping to insulate ourselves from our limitations, our insecurities, and our fears. We try to be content with that which never satisfies. And so we are left yearning for more.
That is the literal meaning of the Greek word that Jesus uses and we translate as “greed”. It means yearning for more. A better English word for it might be avarice, the insatiable desire for more. Luke, by situating the parable of the rich fool right in the middle of Jesus’ predictions of his own death and the plots to kill him, connects this universal human desire for more with universal human insecurity and fear of death. Luke knows that living in an age of insecurity increases certain temptations, namely the desire to regain our security even if it means fashioning it ourselves. He also knows that such a response is doomed to fail us, and it just might be at odds with the good news of the gospel.
Leading up to the year 2000 and this new millennium, some Christians were focusing solely on insecurity. They expected a catastrophe, the coming of the Antichrist, and on the advice of their pastors they stocked their Y2K shelters with rice and beans, portable generators and ammunition. Never mind that this fear was totally contrary to the gospel, which promises that God looks after the sparrows and the lilies of the field and yes, even more so we human beings. Never mind that hoarding food supplies and guarding them with guns was totally at odds with the gospel. If that time was notable for anything, it was that in some places, Christians themselves had become anti-Christians. (The Christian Century, July 27, 2004, p. 20.)
Jesus, immediately after the parable of the rich fool, says,“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Can any of you by worrying about these things add a single hour to your life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the poor. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
Jesus speaks these words even as he approaches Jerusalem, the place where prophets go to die. Jesus speaks these words even as the scribes and Pharisees plot to kill him. How could he say those things knowing that death for him was right around the corner?
Jesus knew, more so than we ever will, that God alone is Lord of both our lives and our deaths. He knew that true security, true fulfillment, true life can only be found through trust in God. Of course, following Jesus and trusting in God doesn’t mean that you won’t die. It also doesn’t mean that you won’t come face to face with some super-sized problems during your time in this world. What it does mean is that even when life is insecure and the threat of death is all too real, we can nevertheless affirm that the God who created and redeems the world is the God who was, is, and always will be. Even those things that threaten our security and our lives are situated in the dominion of our faithful God. This is the super-sized good news of the gospel: We belong not to ourselves, but to God… who is infinite, all-powerful, larger than life and larger than death. To God, who is gracious. Loving. Secure.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
This sermon was written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz. All rights reserved.