Once a quarter, I get an email telling me that my 401k statement is ready to be reviewed. When I log in to the portal to view my account, I get a snapshot of my current account balance, and also a forecast of my monthly income after retirement. When I look at this, I think about our mortgage, student loans, groceries, healthcare costs, maybe other expenses down the road such as assisted living or even nursing home care. Sometimes, I look at the numbers and feel confident that we will live comfortably in our retirement. Other times, I wonder whether we will have enough. I look at the monthly estimates and wonder, over how many years does the tool forecast that we will need our retirement savings? Will we outlive our resources? What happens then? Can I put my trust in the forecasting tool? In our financial system?
The thing about money is, it’s always about more than money. Money is a primary way in which we classify people. We used to talk about the “haves” and the “have nots”; now, we talk about the 1% and the 99%. Societally, money becomes our starting point to figure out how to relate to those around us. Our first impressions of people often rely on things such as how they are dressed or how they wear their hair. We ask questions like, “where do you live?” and “what kind of work do you do?” when getting to know people, and then we make judgments, consciously or unconsciously, about whether they live in a “good” neighborhood or a “bad” neighborhood, and about how well we think they can provide for their families.
Money also becomes our point of access for the things we need: how much money we have determines what groceries we can buy, whether we can make needed repairs to our homes and vehicles so we can remain safe, what sort of access we have to healthcare. Even our very level of wellness or illness is tied to our financial resources. According to the Home and Health Initiative from the Urban Institute and the Center on Society and Health, our overall level of wellness correlates with our income and asset levels: lower middle-class people are healthier than the working poor, upper middle-class people are healthier than lower middle-class people, and so on.
So in ways that are somewhat cosmetic or superficial, as well as in ways that literally become issues of life and death, money is a crucial component in our lives. We can’t get away from it. Because money never really is just about money. It is always about something more.
Which is what makes our Gospel reading for this morning so challenging for us. It’s easy to read this parable and think Jesus is telling us it’s not good to save, that we should just trust in God to meet all our needs. And then we turn away, knowing that our reality is different.The fact of the matter is, though, that saving for our future needs is good stewardship. We hear this in Luke 19, in the parable of the servants who are each given a gold coin to do business with while their master is gone; on his return, he rewards the ones who have been faithful stewards. In much the same way, in the 41st chapter of Genesis, Joseph counsels the Pharaoh to save during the prosperous years, so that Egypt will have plenty during the years of famine. The same is true for us: we are to be good stewards of the resources we have been given so that we are able to meet our own needs when we are no longer wage-earners. We are to be good stewards so that our neighbors can have enough. We are to be good stewards so that future generations can have enough.
No, the point of Jesus’ parable in our Gospel reading for today is not that we should not save our resources.Rather, he warns us against idolatry. He cautions us against greed, against prioritizing our wants over the needs of our neighbors, against buying into the myth that we are self-made. We Christians can have a hard time reconciling these words against saving for our future needs, and we Americans can have a hard time distinguishing between needs and wants. When we read passages like this, we can start to feel guilty for wanting things that bring us pleasure – our hobbies, for example, or vacations, or fashionable clothes. But that’s not what Jesus is saying here – he’s not saying “don’t want things that bring you pleasure.” He’s reminding us to ask: “How much is enough?” He is cautioning us against setting up our success as an idol, neglecting our relationships with God and neighbor, focusing only on ourselves.
The language that the farmer uses in the parable is interesting. Listen again to his plan: “What shall I do, for I have no place to store my crops?….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.”
Do you hear the emphasis there? Do you hear where his focus is? He is turned inward, thinking only of himself. There is no thought to his neighbor, to those around him who may not have enough. His only thought is to keep the crops that he has grown, so he can enjoy his bounty for years to come. He makes no mention even of selling his crops! It doesn’t seem to occur to him that they might go bad, or that he might not live to enjoy what he has hoarded. He is not generous, And does not seem to be aware of any dynamics that may be playing out in his community – unusual, in a time when life was communal, and people depended on each other for safety, as well as for the goods and services that they needed. The farmer’s only thought is of himself: building a bigger barn, so he can enjoy his bounty for years to come. He does not feel an obligation toward stewardship. He does not feel the need either to share what he has with those who are less fortunate in his community, or to take his crops to market, where he can stimulate the local economy, helping his community in a different way.
No, his focus is turned inward – even going so far as to refer to himself as soul, the vital breath of life, the direct aftermath of God breathing life into him. He is so entirely turned inward that he does not see God’s hand in his success, or even in his very life. His prosperity has become his idol.
This is the danger that Jesus warns us of. He warns us against falling into this trap ourselves, becoming so self-satisfied that we lose sight of God’s work all around us. Ultimately, all that we have comes from God, beginning and ending with our very lives. We are stewards of all that God has given us.
This can be hard to remember when we live in a consumerist, self-oriented culture. We live in a world where people aspire to be Instagram “influencers”, ostensibly using their credibility with their followers to sell products. Or YouTube celebrities, posting videos of themselves playing video games, doing stunts, or whatever else they do to increase views on their channels. But really, what they are selling is themselves: “Look at me!” they say. “I’m the Next Big Thing, the one you should listen to. Be like me, and your life will be so much better!”
Many politicians seem to be more worried about their “brand” than their politics. They seem to be more concerned with the optics of supporting a particular cause than whether whatever cause they are supporting is in the best interest of the people in their district. Instead of prioritizing the work of governing, of helping people who are in need and promoting the safety and welfare of the people in our country, they prioritize the work of politics – fundraising, glad-handing, and persuading.
Companies offering goods and services ranging from the most mundane to the most exciting sell us a lifestyle: use our paper plates, and your life will be so much easier! You will suddenly have family meals where everyone is happy to be together, laughing and sharing the joys of their day. Travel on our airline, and you will arrive at your destination rested, pampered, and refreshed! Use our skincare product, and you’ll be more successful at work and in your social life!
But that’s all superficial. None of it really matters. But these social media celebrities, these politicians, these companies all know that we are seekers. We are in search of fulfillment, maybe in search of happiness. And our consumer culture tries to sell us on this idea that if we just have that one…more…thing, that time- or energy-saving gadget that allows us to spend more time with our families, or that luxury item that we’ve always wanted, ever since we saw it last month or last year, or that fantastic getaway to an exotic location, THAT will be what finally brings fulfillment to our lives.
This is the danger that Jesus warns us of in this parable. He warns us that when we attach too much importance to our bank accounts or our belongings, our capacity for trust in God is reduced. We begin to believe in the myth of American wealth – that having more money or more stuff proves that we are better people; that people who don’t have as much as we do have somehow done something to deserve it. In modern American culture, this is even attributed to God’s working in our lives; we tell ourselves and others that we are “blessed” to have good-paying jobs, nice houses, and the stuff to fill them.
But we know as Christians that what brings fulfillment to our lives is not the stuff we acquire, or the time that we free up, or the things we do. We know that what we seek can only be found in Christ. We know that when we lean into God, attending to our relationship with Jesus so that our spirituality grows, our understanding of success changes. We are less enamored of the things of this world – less likely to be tempted to greed and idolatry, less likely to seek fulfillment by building up our bank account balances or by believing that this next trip will bring clarity of mind, stronger relationships, or a more resilient or peaceful spirit. When we trust in God, we are more likely to recognize when we have enough and when our neighbors do not, and to share our resources to try to correct that balance in some way. When our capacity for trust in God increases, we hold our possessions lightly. We recognize that while the stuff we have may help us live longer and be healthier, it doesn’t bring us fulfillment, and it won’t buy happiness. We can’t buy our way into heaven. Trusting in God helps us see that we are merely stewards of all that we have, and we can’t take it with us. Instead, our God-given responsibility is to enter into relationship with our neighbor, conserving and sharing resources so that all of God’s children the world over, and their children, and their children’s children, will have enough.