And Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” -Luke 12:15

Throughout the Bible, there are texts that make us all cringe; ones that we wish had not been included in this book of Holy Scripture.  But I would wager that for most of us, this is not one of those texts.  The ones that bother us tend to portray God as angry or judgmental, or suggest that we should, as well.  The texts that make us uncomfortable are the ones that would seem to suggest that if we do not walk the straight-and-narrow, God might stop loving us.  But passages like this one – and the majority of economic texts that make up the majority of the Gospels – these are familiar, and comfortable, and generally make us feel pretty good about ourselves.  And this one! well, this is a story about selfish people – a brother who wants more than his share, a rich old fool who doesn’t know what to do with his wealth!  They’re not like us!

This passage is also comforting for the very reasonable nature of the original premises.  (Which, in passing, should probably clue us in right there: God is very rarely reasonable.) We learned in Kindergarten that we ought to share.  Not too long after, we learned to save our pennies for “just in case”.  It took us a lot longer to learn that “make him share!” is often more an expression of our own greed and desire than it is a cry for justice; and that we humans very rarely know what “just in case” really means.

What do we value?  If our lives do not consist of abundant possessions… then what?

The rich man was not inherently bad for having all those crops.  It must have been a good year, with adequate division of rain and sun.  It’s likely that he was an able manager of his land, but as all good farmers will tell you, skill will only get you so far, and a lot relies on luck.  That year, the rich man was lucky.  As are many of us, who have regular incomes – which don’t make us bad people, assuming of course that our incomes are made honestly and with no harm to others.  But once we have that income, once we have gathered those crops – then what?  The measure of our lives is not in the accumulation of possessions, but in the contemplation of that accumulation.

Fill in the blank: you just received a windfall – a huge amount of money, so big that you never thought you’d see figures like that in your own bank account!  You look at your bank statement and think, “Wow.  NOW I can ___________.”

Would now be a bad time to remind you that God heard that thought?

Is that what you would say to God, if you came face-to-face?

I don’t know about you, but this text is making me pretty uncomfortable, all of a sudden.

Not uncomfortable in the “that doesn’t sound like the God I know!” sense – the one I’m used to.

But rather in the “that sounds entirely like the God I know, and maybe God’s talking to me…” sense.

Because I understand the rich man’s relief from worry.  The impulse to allow myself to relax, to live in a reduced sense of urgency and worry… only separates me further from those who still worry each and every day.  Who worry more about the roof over the heads and the food on their tables than I ever have.  The impulse to store away what I have gathered and reduce my own stress in the process only shows up my privilege, my sense of deserving the good that I receive.  It highlights the implication that those who don’t receive such good must not deserve it.  The implication that I am somehow better.  That we are better than they, that there are inherent differences in people, blessed and damned, rich and poor, hard-working and lazy, us and them…

Look at that.  Not only is this passage suddenly making me uncomfortable, it’s making me defensive, too.

in truth, I cannot separate myself from anyone else.  No one can. Not if we want to call ourselves Christians, at any rate.  Not if we want to follow the God that we do, in fact, recognize in this passage.

What do we value?  A culture of meritocracy, of possessions, of human preparation for the worst “just in case”?  Do our lives consist merely of this?

Or of each other?

Fr. Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, wrote a memoir of his ministry in Los Angeles, entitled Tattoos on the Heart. He describes his parish, Dolores Mission: a church that takes in gang members, the homeless, and recent immigrants, gives them a new chance.  He describes some of the struggles of the church:

Once, while I turn the corner in front of the church, heading to a CEB meeting in the projects, I am startled by letters spray-painted crudely across the front steps:

Wetback Church

The chill of it momentarily stops me.  In an instant, you begin to doubt and question the price of things.  I acknowledge how much better everything is when there is no cost and how I prefer being hoisted on shoulders in acclaim to the disdain of anonymous spray cans…

Petra Saldana, a normally quiet member of the group, takes charge.

“You will not clean that up… If there are people in our community who are disparaged and hated and left out because they are mojados (wetbacks)…” Then she poises herself on the edge of the couch, practically ready to leap to her feet. “Then we shall be proud to call ourselves a wetback church.”

These women didn’t just want to serve the less-fortunate, they were anchored in some profound oneness with them and became them…

It was at about this time that a man drove by the church and stopped to talk to me. He was Latino, in a nice car, and had arrived at some comfortable life and living. He knew I was the pastor. He waxed nostalgic about having grown up in the projects and pointed to the church and said he had been baptized and made his first communion there.

Then he takes in the scene all around him.  Gang members gathered by the bell tower, homeless men and women being fed in great numbers in the parking lot.  Folks arriving for the AA and NA meetings and the ESL classes…

“You know,” he says, “This used to be a church.”

I mount my high horse and say, “You know, most people around here think it’s finally a church.” …

The people at Dolores Mission had come to embody Wendell Berry’s injunction: “You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours.”*

It wasn’t always smooth sailing: it’s not always popular, not always easy, to break the barriers that we have erected to keep out the “them”, to keep ourselves comfortable.  To give of our wealth, our sacred spaces, to someone who doesn’t think or act like us.

Yet that is our call.

You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours.

You have to be able to value one another, more than our own security, our own sense of self.  You have to trust in the community to which God calls us: this Body of Christ of which we are all part.  You have to trust enough that the storehouses you build shelter, not possessions, but people.  To be willing to live “in the paradox of precariousness.  The money was never there when you needed it, and it was always on time.”**

In a culture of “I”, Christ calls us to a faith of “we”.  A faith of recognizing the gifts we are given, the blessings received – bumper crops, large salaries – as grace,  rather than as desserts.  As opportunity, as responsibility, rather than as a mark of favor.  In a culture that tells us that no one is watching out for us, that we have to rely entirely on ourselves, we are called to rely entirely on God, on the Body of Christ.  We are called to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and as we love God.  More than that, however, we are called to trust that we ourselves will be fed, and housed, and loved as though we ourselves were the image of God upon this earth.

In a culture that measures our lives in dollars and cents, we are called to a different measure, a different standard.  We are called to a different culture, and a long-expected kin-dom.  Thanks be to God!

*Boyle, Gregory: Tattoos on the Heart: the power of Boundless Compassion.  NY: Free Press.  2010.  pp 71, 73-74.

**Ibid, p. 5

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