HOME-GROWN ANXIETY
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
July 31, 2016; 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Luke 12:13-31

“And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”
Luke 12:17

A great many of Jesus’ parables have a way of throwing us off balance — and this one, the Parable of the Rich Fool, is no exception.

Luke starts off by making us think Jesus is maybe not such a nice guy. The lead-in to the parable says, “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’” OK, here’s a person coming to Jesus for help. He wants a little legal advice. Not an unusual position for an ancient rabbi to find himself in. (Remember, rabbis in that era were the go-to people when someone wanted an interpretation of the law of Moses.)

But Jesus seems to brush him off: “ Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” He doesn’t even want to hear the details of the case.

The details are these. We don’t know a whole lot about this property dispute, but it seems that a father has died, leaving his sons with title to the land. Deuteronomy chapter 21 says the firstborn son inherits a double portion of the father’s property (21:16-17). That means if there are two sons, the oldest inherits two-thirds, and the youngest one-third. Here, it seems, the youngest brother wants to force his older brother to do a little better than that.

Jesus is not inclined to go along with that. He seems more interested in the state of the young man’s heart than with the details of legal interpretation. And so, he tells them all a parable.

*****

It’s a story about a farmer who has a bumper crop. The man’s got several barns, and they’re already full of grain. What to do?…What to do?

The farmer concludes he’s got to tear down his barns and build bigger ones.

Well, who could argue with that? It sounds like wise management. The farmer’s growing richer and richer, and the wisest course is to save his resources for a rainy day — right? There were no investment accounts back then, no stock markets. Money took the form of hard currency, usually silver – and there were no banks, either, so the only way to save a quantity of silver coin was to bury it in the ground. That was risky. Anyone could dig it up. Better just to hold onto the grain, and build some larger barns to contain it.

That’s the conventional advice. But Jesus is not inclined to offer it. As he finishes out the story, he mentions that the rich farmer died suddenly, that very night. “All your stockpiles of grain,” he says to the farmer in an imaginary conversation, “whose are they then? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

It’s a challenging parable. What’s even more challenging is what Jesus says a few verses later. “Sell your possessions, and give alms,” Jesus advises his disciples. “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

*****

In studying any parable of Jesus, it helps to hear the story through the ears of his original audience. The key insight any first-century listener would have instantly picked up — that you or I can easily miss — is just how wealthy this farmer is. He’s got more than one barn already, and he’s talking about tearing them all down and building even bigger ones.

This makes him unusual, for that time in history. Most people who worked the land were subsistence farmers. They planted crops mostly for their own families to eat. This guy’s farm, though, is more like a plantation. He’s probably got dozens, even hundreds, of hired hands doing the labor.

Now, we hear that story today and we’re inclined to say, “Good for him! He’s a successful agribusinessman who made it big.” That’s not how the disciples would have responded, though. They would have looked at things differently: because they had a different understanding of economics.

Economics, in Jesus’ day, had no conception of growth in the larger economy. There was a certain amount of wealth in the world — a pie that could be cut up into any number of pieces. If you carved out a piece bigger than your neighbor’s, that meant your neighbor had to live on less. This is why Jesus has little sympathy for the plantation-owner whose barns are bulging with grain. There was no conception that a rising economic tide could lift all boats. This guy’s overflowing barns are impoverishing his neighbors.

*****

Pay close attention, now, to how the farmer deals with this problem of too big a harvest. For most anyone else, that wouldn’t have be a problem at all. It would be a stroke of good fortune. But for this guy, it’s a source of anxiety.

Jesus lets us listen in to the voice within the farmer’s head, his internal monologue: “And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’” You can almost hear him fretting anxiously: “What should I do? What should I do?”

Most of Jesus’ listeners would not have been sympathetic. The man’s dilemma would have sounded ludicrous. “Yeah, this guy’s got a problem, for sure. I wouldn’t mind having that sort of problem!” (You know what this means, don’t you — world’s smallest violin?)

But isn’t that also true of a lot of the anxieties you and I struggle with, every day? The things we find to worry about: don’t we realize how fortunate we truly are? Don’t we realize what an extraordinary thing it is — compared to the story of just about any of our ancestors — to live in a land of such wealth as our own? Sure, we can complain about the shrinking middle class here in America — it’s a real thing — but I’ll tell you, for most other cultures on the face of this earth, there’s no middle class at all!

If our washing machine breaks down, and we have to go out to a laundromat or wash out our underwear in the sink, we consider that a major existential crisis! Just imagine telling that sad tale to our great-great grandmothers, who had to do all their laundry with a washboard, lye soap and a metal tub! They didn’t get anxious about that.

Some of us are anxious, I know, about health problems — often with good cause — but do you think very often about average life expectancy, how much it’s improved over the last several generations? Used to be, only half of all children made it into adulthood, and those who lived into their sixties were considered elderly. No longer! The combination of improved infant survival and a lifespan longer — by several decades — is a development unprecedented in human history. Psalm 90, verse 10, in the King James Version, speaks of “threescore years and ten” as the normal limit of human life. A “score” is 20 years, so three of them plus 10 is 70. Some of us, I know, reading an obituary of someone who died at age 70, say “What a shame! She was so young!” That would be simply inconceivable to a person of Bible times — or even of Colonial America.

*****

But yet, you and I are anxious, all the same. No sooner does an improvement come along that takes away a source of anxiety, than we swiftly find another to replace it. For lots of us, anxiety is not the product of particular circumstances: it’s a chronic condition. It surely seems to be that way for the farmer in Jesus’ parable: he of the many barns.

We don’t have so many barns around here, but out in farm country they’ve got something called grain elevators. Claire and I used to see them all the time when we lived in the midwest. Out in wheat-growing country — the land of “amber waves of grain” — the grain elevators are about the biggest things around. They’re four or five stories high, at least: huge cylinders of poured concrete, several of them lined up one after another. You can see them for miles.

Most of them aren’t owned by individual farmers. They’re owned by big agribusiness concerns who buy up the harvests and hold onto the grain until the time is right to sell it. Truly, these are that “bigger barns” that would be the envy of the farmer in Jesus’ parable — larger by far than anything he could have imagined.

But do you know what the biggest problem is with grain elevators? Explosions. When full, they contain so much grain — all of it perfectly dry, and the air on top filled with fine dust — that the tiniest spark can create a fireball so large, it can blow the whole place apart.

Extreme anxiety can do much the same thing. Overly anxious people can be volatile. They engage in self-destructive behavior. Often they have trouble managing anger, and lash out unpredictably at people around them. Maybe you’ve sensed the same thing yourself, in seasons of your life when you’ve felt overly anxious. Maybe you’ve said or done things you regret.

*****

You may have seen the reality TV show called Hoarders. It’s the story of some very sad human beings who live in houses packed floor-to-ceiling with junk. A great many of the items they hoard are useless: stacks of old newspapers, piles of dry-rotted clothing, old bottles and jars they may “find a use for” someday. Hoarding behavior is a real psychiatric illness, and the teams of TV helpers who come into those homes always include a psychological counselor, to help the victim find the fortitude to let the team throw some of their things out.

Part of the appeal of watching Hoarders, I know, is turning the TV off when the show’s over, and saying, “I thought my messy closet was bad, but it’s nothing compared to what those poor people have to deal with!”

Consider this, though. There are all sorts of ways of being a hoarder. Sometimes it’s physical possessions we hold onto. Other times it’s memories of times we know will never come again in this life. Or, it may be cherished hopes and dreams of the future we now know — if we’re truly honest with ourselves — will never come to pass. But still, we hold onto them. Still we make ourselves incapable of experiencing joy in the present.

Jesus offers a solution to such dilemmas. The solution he offers us — the golden prize he holds up before the eyes of our souls — is that phrase, “treasure in heaven.”

What does he mean? It’s hard to know, exactly, but it doesn’t seem to be anything at all like the treasures for which we strive, on this earth. It couldn’t be money he’s talking about: because in heaven, there’s no need of money. It couldn’t be shopping carts full of food: because in heaven, there’s a great banquet, a huge spread for all to enjoy. It couldn’t be finding that special someone to love: because in heaven, love is as the very air they breathe. It couldn’t be physical health: because “those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

All these things for which we worry and strive and grovel in this life are as nothing, in the sight of God who feeds the ravens and clothes the lilies of the field. Jesus teaches that, by knowing him — by inviting him in to become Lord of our lives — you and I can know something of this heavenly treasure in the here and now.

C.S. Lewis says, in one of his books, that the greatest pleasures you or I can know in this life are but samples of the joys of heaven. The most elegant gourmet restaurant meal is but a tidbit compared to the heavenly banquet. The ecstasy of first love that captivates our hearts as teenagers — or the deep sharing of physical love between life-partners — is but a pale approximation of the love of God for us.

You know how, when you walk into the deli, they often have a tray of samples up on the counter: broken fragments of cookies or cakes? Usually, they’ve been pawed over by the customers who were there ahead of us. They’re pretty stale and awful-looking. Well, the most coveted treasures of this life are like those samples. That’s what Jesus is saying to us. We spend such time and energy struggling and worrying over them. But do you know what? They’re only samples! You can’t make a meal of them, no matter how hard you try.

So, “try not to worry over them” is Jesus’ advice to us. Try not to be anxious if the sample tray is picked clean, and contains only crumbs. As our Lord says, “strive for [God’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

Let us pray:
God of abundant generosity:
we acknowledge that we have been slow to trust your goodness.
At times we’ve even imagined you to be cheap,
in doling out the treasures of this life so sparingly.
Save us from our manufactured anxieties.
Allow us the grace of expanded vision,
so that, as we wander through places that appear to be barren,
we may catch the fleeting glimmer of heavenly treasure,
knowing that such visions are a foretaste of greater glories to come.
Amen.

Copyright © 2016 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.