Pentecost 10C. 2016
A Liturgy is available
IF I AM WHAT I HAVE AND I LOSE WHAT I HAVE, WHO THEN AM I?
"A major metropolitan newspaper in Melbourne in December 2008
devoted its front page to a story of a visiting American celebrity, of no known accomplishment
apart from an ability to attract the media, to report that she spent $5,000 plus on clothes in a shopping spree…
The incident is a dismaying illustration of how we have been increasing led to believe
that the sum of who we are is expressed in being a consumer, and that such behaviour
not only deserves public attention but is to be applauded”
(Grierson 2009: 47).
To say we live in a society based on a very high level of consumerism,
is both a truism and a fact.
More than at any other time in our history,
we are living in a time marked by the need to have things.
To have a large superannuation payout.
To have a house or three.
To have a car.
To have a job... even a second job.
To have… seems to symbolise our way of life.
It gives us security, a sense of well-being, and a sense of prestige.
In order to live we must have things. We are what we have.
One commentator on our society has said:
“We live in a culture in which the supreme goal is to have - and to have more and more - in which one can speak of someone as 'being worth a million dollars'... To acquire, to own, and to make a profit are the sacred and unalienable rights of the individual in modern society” (Fromm 1965).
And as I watch television, read the newspapers and listen to radio,
I can't help thinking Eric Fromm is still right – after more than 45 years.
Not that our parents and grandparents didn't also want to have things. They did.
But they seemed to want them in a different way.
In their day everything they owned
taken care of,
and used to the very limits of its utility.
Buying was 'keep it' buying!
But these days, buying is 'throw-away' buying.
If you've ever tried to get a toaster or DVD player repaired,
you'll know what I mean when I say ‘inbuilt obsolescence’!
Trying not to let themselves be caught up in the cycle of consumerism,
some people are now looking for alternatives.
It’s called a ‘sea-change’ or a ‘tree-change’.
And many are wanting to move away from ‘I am what I have’
to another lifestyle: ‘I am what I can be’.
I reckon this is the modern setting for the Lukan story we heard this morning.
The story’s scene is set by a man in a crowd
who asks Jesus to arbitrate in a dispute he is having with his brother
over a family inheritance.
Luke’s Jesus quickly responds: it’s not my role to make judgments.
Indeed the response asks the person to judge for himself the right course of action.
“[And] it invites the person to examine whether the dispute is being fuelled by his greed…” (Reid 2000:136).
And so as to emphasise the point, Luke then drops in a story,
indeed a parable – about a greedy absentee ‘Macquarie Street’ landlord.
You will recall, the parable opens with the landlord
celebrating the fact his land has produced abundantly.
Again let me put this in its first century context
otherwise you may hear all this as just another whinge by the church
against making money.
In Jesus’ day, greed was seen as particularly vicious in light of their experience of limited good.
Catholic biblical scholar, Barbara Reid notes:
“…there is only a limited amount of any good thing... Anything that one acquires is someone else's loss. Contrary to [our] capitalistic notions that all can increase in wealth, in first-century Palestine the… assumption is that everything is finite and cannot be expanded. If someone's share gets larger, someone else's decreases. Desiring more for oneself was the most insidious of vices, and was utterly destructive of village solidarity” (Reid 2000:137).
We overhear this parable through the thoughts
and plans of the rich man, as he talks to himself:
I don’t have enough room.
I will pull down my barns.
I will build bigger ones.
I will say take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time.
He has no thought for others.
Slaves. Family. Tenants. Day workers. Peasants.
Yet as an absentee landlord, it would have been by their sweat
that the harvest is so miraculously plentiful.
A bitter scenario for them.
What rightfully belongs to them, they will never inherent.
Mmm. The beginnings of modern ‘trickle-down’ economics, no doubt!
Again, listen to Barbara Reid’s continuing comment:
“The fury and resentment of hungry peasants clinging to the edge of life for bare subsistence is palpable in the face of their landlord hoarding unused produce” (Reid 2000:140).
A precarious situation for the landlord.
He refuses to share with the community.
He “mismanages the miracle” (Scott 1989:136).
Well all this is one perspective on this parable. A social/cultural perspective.
But I have this nagging thought in the back of my mind
that there is also something else in this story I have missed.
And once again it is the humour in this story.
So let’s see if we can hear and re-imagine that now.
A city-slicker 'Macquarie Street’ farmer arrives in the country,
sees his abundant crops ready for harvest and rubs his hands in glee.
But immediately he sees he has misjudged the storage space required.
“Weighing his various options, he comes up with the laughable inappropriate action… He plans to tear down what storage facilities he has and begin building new facilities” (Hedrick 2004:98).
Hang on a minute, the tenants farmers and day labourers say,
the crop needs to be harvested now.
You don’t have time to pull down and build new sheds, you goose!
Don’t you worry 'bout that… he replies.
Can you imagine it? All being told as a story to a group
of day labourers and tenant farmers?
Then he makes another miscalculation.
He misjudges the length of his life, and dies that night.
His bigger barns and magnificent harvest are all a fantasy.
It’s just laughable!
Nearly as good as telling a Tony Abbott story at an ALP National Conference!
We do live in a society based on a very high level of consumerism.
We are what we have.
But if I am what I have and I lose what I have, who then am I?
This parable offers no answer to that question.
It does however, raise questions of life’s meaning and priorities.
And it is also clear from the story that
“economic prosperity does not provide a sense of deep satisfaction with life… [We have other] needs… emotional, mental, spiritual and psychological. [We] also need a sense of purpose and acceptance… [and] to share life with others” (Hedrick 2004:98).
And that’s a surprise to many. Indeed, to too many!
Luke’s Jesus says to the brother: it’s your call.
And so it is for us.
And this invitation for you to ponder some more…
“The Jesus most relevant to us is he who provided no ready-made answers, but by his tantalising stories prompted people to work out their own most appropriate answers to the problems of life” (Geering 2002:145).
And so it is for us.
Fromm, E. 1965. The Heart of Man. Its Genius for Good and Evil. London. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Geering, L. 2002. Christianity Without God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Grierson, D. 2009. How Secular Are We? Mulgrave. John Garratt Publishing. (Voices: Quarterly Essays on Religion in Australia 2, 2.)
Hedrick, C. W. 2004. Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics. Louisville. Westminster John Knox Press.
Reid, B. E. 2000. Parables for Preachers. Year C. Collegeville. Liturgical Press.
Scott, B. B. 1989. Hear Then The Parable. A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. Minneapolis. Fortress Press.