The Rich Fool and the Generous Spirit

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Luke 12:13-21 and Colossians 3:1-17.

There is a fable I heard once about a monkey who found a jar of nuts sitting by a road running through a forest. The monkey could smell the nuts inside the jar, and he was very hungry – but he also knew that there were tigers in the forest, and the jar was too heavy for him to pick up and carry away to a safe place. So he put his hand into the jar and grabbed a huge fistful of nuts. But when he tried to draw his hand back out again, the nuts made his fist so big that he couldn’t get it through the jar’s narrow mouth. He was stuck there. And it wasn’t long before the tigers got him. The monkey was too greedy to realize that he could’ve escape his danger simply by opening his fist and letting go.

The fable helps to point up a contrast that is set before us in our scripture readings this morning. The contrast is between two sorts of attitudes toward material wealth, personal accomplishment, wisdom and knowledge and skill – two different ways of living with what we possess. One is the way of people who, as Jesus says, “store up treasures for themselves,” and the other is the way of those who seek to be “rich toward God.” Or we might put it even more succinctly: it is a contrast between the way of greed and the way of gratitude.

Jesus’ parable in the Gospel is a clear example of the way of greed. A wealthy landowner, Jesus says, gets record-breaking harvests from his farms. He is acquiring so much that he doesn’t have room to store it all; so he institutes a capital campaign and begins a building program and pulls down all his old barns and builds newer, bigger, better, state-of-the-art storage facilities. And he’s quite pleased with himself: he thinks that his vast wealth will keep him fed and safe and secure and self-satisfied and self-gratified for many years to come. He thinks his wealth will make him happy. But he’s like the monkey with his fist stuck inside the jar. That very night the rich man dies – and he never enjoys a single bit of all the wealth he was so greedy to hold on to.

Bible commentators often call this passage “the parable of the rich fool,” as if to emphasize the connection between riches and foolishness. But in this parable, what makes the rich fool foolish is not just that he is rich: what makes him foolish is what he does with his riches – what makes him foolish is that he hoards his riches, he hangs on to his wealth all for himself, he thinks his possessions will make him happy. What makes him foolish is that he is so greedy to possess things that he never sees beyond them to the good actions those possessions could do. He doesn’t see his abundance of food as a way to build up relationships with others: to have a feast for his friends, or to give to the poor, or to offer up to do the work of God’s justice and peace. His possessions are simply his possessions, and he doesn’t have the creativity to think of them in any other way.

That’s why Jesus says, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” One’s life consists in being alive – and where possessions can help that sense of aliveness, they are good; where they get in the way of being more fully alive, possessions become empty, hollow, even evil. Vanity of vanities, emptiness upon emptiness, as the Teacher in Jerusalem found out.

So what’s the alternative? If trying to store up treasures for ourselves causes those treasures to collapse under the weight of trying to provide a happiness they can never provide – if following the way of greed leads in the end to emptiness and vanity and futility – what other way is there?

Well, we begin to see that other way in today’s Epistle reading, when the Apostle reminds the Christians in Colossae that they have “stripped off the old self and have clothed themselves with the new self.” In the verses right after this assigned reading, there is more explanation of what being clothed with this new self means: it means clothing yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience; it means clothing yourself with love; and it means being thankful.

In fact that last bit is so important the text says it three times in three different ways: “Be thankful.” “Sing with gratitude in your hearts.” “Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Being clothed with the new self is a way of living that is based on relationship, based on exchanging and sharing, based on giving to others what you have the strength to give, and receiving from others what you have the need to receive. It is a way of living that is in fact modeled on the way that Jesus himself lives with God – the way that Jesus receives all things from his heavenly Father and returns all things in love and praise and mission and life. What the Epistle is describing here is a life that is open to others, because deep down, at the heart of it, it is open to God.

And the foundation of that opened life is gratitude. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and writer on the spiritual life, puts it very nicely in passage in a book called Belonging to the Universe when he writes: “It is with gratitude that spirituality begins, with a sense of gratefulness for being alive, gratefulness for the gift of this universe to which we belong. In the give and take of everyday living, every action can become a grateful celebration of this belonging.” Gratitude is all about belonging to God and to the community of God’s Creation.

And that is why the way of gratitude is exactly opposite to the way of greed that we see so vividly in parable of the rich fool. Where the fool separates himself from others by hoarding his good things for himself, the Christians at Colossae are united with each other in giving again the good things they’ve received. Where the fool treats his possessions as ends in themselves and finds them melting away into death, the Christians at Colossae use their good things as means for doing more good, and find them being made more abundant precisely by being shared. Where the fool tries to store up treasures for himself and fails, the disciples of Jesus strive to be rich toward God and find that they are blessed.

And of course, that choice between the way of greed and the way of gratitude is open to us, as well. We can choose whether we want to be more like the rich landowner, or more like the community at Colossae. We can choose whether we want to take our material possessions, our personal talents, our spiritual gifts, our political commitments, our joy and compassion and enthusiasm and energy – we can choose whether we want to take these things and hoard them for ourselves, or whether we want to share them, whether we want to give and receive with them, whether we want them to become the fabric of a community which we all help build up and in which we all can grow – a community that might begin here in this church, but that reaches out far beyond these walls and joins God’s mission in the neighborhood and the world. That is the choice the scriptures set before us today.

What are you grateful for? Where in your life does gratitude open you up to the reality of abundance? And what can you do with your abundance with a spirit of generous joy?

Let us offer our possessing at this altar today. Let us receive from God the treasure of belonging. And let us be grateful in all that we do. Amen.