Pentecost 8 Year C/2 Luke 12:13-21 St Mary’s Cathedral
Last week Bishop John, the Bishop of Edinburgh was here. During the service we prayed for him and Clare his wife, as they prepared to go to the Lambeth Conference; a big gathering of Anglican Bishops from all over the world. And Bishop John asked us to keep praying, for, and I quote “…prayers for courage and prayers for humility. Courage to offer of our best when we’re there, but also the humility to receive of the best of others”. I don’t know if he had prepared himself to say that, or if it was a spur of the moment sentence. He certainly thought it was worth remembering because after the service he asked if it could go as a request on the diocesan social media channels. It’s a phrase that has intrigued me all week. Why chose those two particular things? Why courage and humility, why not, say patience or energy, or empathy or confidence? And my mind was mulling that over as I started to look at the gospel reading for something to say today. A story of another man involved in an act of gathering, of a different sort, but nevertheless a gathering.
Jesus tells a story. A man who is already rich, gets lucky and his land produces a bumper crop. He ends up with so much and he gets so rich, he doesn’t know what to do with it all. So, he talks himself into tearing down the barns he already has, building bigger ones, and gathering all his possessions together and putting them in storage. Knowing that he is absolutely loaded, and it’s all stored away securely he intends to live a lavish, worry-free, happy life. Elon Musk eat your heart out.
Courage and humility as we gather. Courage to offer our best and the humility to receive the best of others. Actually, that’s probably exactly what the rich man in Jesus’ story could have done with. It seems to me his problem wasn’t in being rich, or in fact in being a successful landowner and farmer. His problem was that he acts as a completely independent, autonomous, and self-reliant person. So much so that he didn’t even talk to anyone else when he was trying to work out what to do when faced with a problem. He did all his thinking, all his strategizing and all his planning in his own head. He did all of his gathering on his own in fear and in pride. And in Jesus’ telling of the story, God gets straight to the point; you idiot, you fool, what happens if tonight you die, all these things that you’ve gathered and stocked up for yourself, whose will they be then?
The people originally hearing this story would, I think, have understood this. The crowd around Jesus would not just have reacted to this man out of prejudice against the rich, but would have seen his behaviour and his choices as very odd, as mismanagement and probably as evil. Because he has so much and is so rich, his decision to hold back his produce would have a huge impact on the other local farmers and the regional economy. Because he has so much and is so rich he would also be enormously powerful, and his decisions would have made others in the locality even more dependent on him. They would also, probably be highly critical of a farmer who seemingly didn’t realise he was going to get a bumper crop and take some action well before he had actually harvested. This was a man who was not behaving as a member of a community. He was arrogant, independent, and completely self-reliant. He didn’t have the courage to offer anything, let alone his best, or the humility to receive from others of what they had to give including their best.
And if we were allowed to read just a little bit further in the Biblical text from where we stopped today there’s some further confirmation of this being the rich man’s actual problem. Jesus says as a sort of climax to this bit of teaching to the crowds “do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying” (verse 29). Well, we translate the last word as “worrying” in English. In the original Greek it’s a word that is only used here in the whole of the New Testament and can mean “to be arrogant”. As a lifelong worrier who gets cross when people say “oh don’t worry” as though you can just flip a switch and turn it off, I was extremely grateful when I realised that. So, the big precis of this bit of Jesus’ teaching can easily read “do not strive for what you are to eat and what you are to drink and do not be arrogant or self-sufficient”.
Wise advice indeed. Jesus, the great teacher, instructs us that a good way to live is not as autonomous, self-sufficient individuals but as people who are part of a community in all that we do and say, including how we use good fortune and wealth should that come our way. Well, yes, and. Jesus always tells stories, speaks, behaves, and acts to teach us something about God. God, says Jesus, if you keep reading, feeds even the nasty unclean ravens, God has made ordinary fields beautiful with flowers and lilies. God is overwhelming generous and caring. God gives because that is in God’s nature. God is generous to all, regardless of whether they are considered to be the nastiest thing or the most beautiful thing on the planet. That’s just God. In the face of that fact, the rich man trying to be completely self-sufficient and all our attempts to be autonomous and arrogant, do all become foolish.
And it’s that picture of God, out of all the other things we can understand from this story, that at this moment in our lives I think, might just be the most helpful and useful thing to mull over. Some of the other ideas and concepts don’t quite work. The major issue of our current context is arguably the fact that we are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. The cost of everything is going up and we are told is going to continue to go up, not least the cost of energy and fuel. The vast majority of us are not chatting away to ourselves wondering what to do with all the riches we’ve just amassed, we’re terrified that the bit we’ve got coming in isn’t stretching enough. In this context, trying to be self-sufficient isn’t arrogant and being dependant on others doesn’t always feel virtuous and good.
Or, to take another example of the big things in life at the moment, we are on the cusp of festival time in this city after a couple of years of that not happening. Our streets and venues, including this church will soon be packed with people relaxing, enjoying events, eating, drinking, being merry and entertaining each other. And that’s a joy, a celebration of culture and creativity and art and relationships, not something to condemn.
So, let’s take that from this bit of teaching of Jesus and let it seep into our souls and our bones. God is overwhelming generous and caring and gives, and gives, and gives again without judgment or prejudice. The knowledge of that can give us a very deep confidence to put one foot in front of the other with, amongst other things, courage, and humility. Courage to offer our best and the humility to receive the best of others.