Do you know what I always think of when I hear this story about the Rich Fool? Self-storage units. I picture rows and rows of storage units in all the storage unit complexes that have sprung up all over the place. The “Self-Storage” industry is big business in the U.S. It brings in $38 billion in revenue every year. There are close to 52,000 storage complexes in the U.S., with 1.7 billion square feet of space to put all your extra stuff in. Nearly 10% of families in the U.S. have a storage unit, and you’ll be happy to know that Toledo is the cheapest city in Ohio to rent one. But don’t worry if you think you might not be able to get one when you need it; construction spending on new complexes has zoomed up from about $1 billion in 2014 to over $5 billion last year.
If you want to know what people are keeping in there, there are at least four TV shows that will give you a peek. Why do we need all these storage units? The easy answer is that we don’t have enough space to keep all our stuff in at home, even though our homes are now 74% larger than those built a hundred years ago. But a better question is, “Why do we keep acquiring so much stuff that we need bigger barns to keep it all in?”
I think Jesus knows an answer that comes from a deep place in our hearts, and the answer is, “Fear.” Fear that the world is an unpredictable place, and the stuff we accumulate can help protect us from whatever is coming; after all, you never know what you might need down the road. We’re afraid that although things are going pretty well now, we might not be able to get what we need later on, so we’d better get it while we can. We’re afraid that that we can’t depend on anyone but ourselves, so we better have what we need on hand because we can’t count on someone else to provide it. We’re afraid of what other people will think of us if we don’t have all the things that mark a successful life, so we pile up the stuff that makes us fit in. Fear drives us to count on the wrong things as the basis for a good life.
Jesus was speaking to people who probably were afraid. He’d been speaking specifically to his disciples, but at the time he was in the midst of a crowd. And this wasn’t just any crowd. This was a giant crowd, a rock-concert-, Super-Bowl-sized crowd. Luke describes it in the first verse of Chapter 12: “…the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another.” Jesus and his disciples were surrounded by a sea of bodies, with people clamoring for Jesus’ attention, like in movies and videos where reporters or paparazzi are shouting out all at once.
As Jesus spoke to the disciples and those in the crowd who were within earshot, he had reminded them of the reasons they had to be afraid. He had spoken of how it would be impossible to keep their faith in him under wraps—that one way or another their secret would be exposed. He’d spoken of the coming judgment, and how anyone who spoke against him or the Holy Spirit would not be forgiven. He’d spoken of the likelihood that his followers would be hauled into court to defend themselves.
He had offered words of comfort, too—that his followers were more important than the hairs on their own heads or the sparrows that God numbered one by one. He had assured them that the Holy Spirit would guide them when they were in difficult situations. But have you ever been in a situation where you heard something that kind of hijacked your attention, and then you didn’t hear anything that came after that? You hear the doctor’s dire diagnosis and your brain seizes on that, so you miss the optimistic treatment plan? You stopped listening when your boss said your job was being eliminated, and so you didn’t hear about retraining or buy-outs? the agent said your insurance premiums would increase, and you never heard what the added coverage would provide. Then, once your fear response was activated, all the other fears you’d been keeping on the back burner suddenly boiled over.
I wonder if that’s what happened to the man in the crowd. He heard the scary things Jesus had been talking about, and one fear led to another until he got to the problem of an inheritance he’d been counting on. He’s afraid he won’t get what he’s entitled to. As the younger brother in the family, he has to wait for his older brother to divvy up his dad’s estate, and the older brother doesn’t seem to be moving fast enough. The younger brother sees his chance to do what was common in that time and place: ask a rabbi for a legal decision. And this isn’t just any rabbi, but this rock-star rabbi, Jesus. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
But Jesus declines to give the man the answer he wants. It’s not because Jesus doesn’t know the right answer or because he didn’t think he had the authority to make a legal decision. It’s because he sees into the heart of the man and knows he has a bigger problem than an inheritance question. He’s afraid. He’s afraid that he won’t have enough. He’s afraid of his own powerlessness. And that fear motivates him to demand what is legally his. It sounds greedy. And Jesus’ next words to the crowd suggest the same thing. Jesus says to the crowd, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
But the Greek word Luke uses for “greed” is telling. It doesn’t just mean acquisitiveness. It means an insatiable desire for more. It’s like a sickness or an addiction. It even sounds like a pathological condition: pleonexia—the condition of always wanting more. Jesus warns the crowd about the dangers of this illness. It’s a condition that always leaves you hungry for more, no matter how much you consume. Jesus warns them about the danger of counting on their possessions to sustain them, because when you suffer from pleonexia, you’ll always be afraid of not having enough.
My dad used to say that “many a truth is told in jest,” but for Jesus it’s more like “many a truth is told in a story.” So, he tells the crowd a story about a wealthy landowner. You know the guy in the Monopoly game? That’s how I picture the landowner, which is kind of funny because the Monopoly guy was actually modeled after J. P. Morgan, one of the richest guys around at the time the game was created. The rich man of Jesus’ story may not have been carrying around a bunch of moneybags, but I always thought of him as being pretty self-satisfied.
But now I wonder if his question to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” was motivated more by worry than smugness. He’d had a great year that produced an enormous harvest. Clearly, he must have had good harvests that made him wealthy, and his barns had sufficed before now. He could give away some of the excess. He could share it. But, who knew how next year would turn out? His wealth could evaporate, and then how would he live? How could he make sure he had something to count on if he couldn’t store up his extra possessions for a rainy day? What would other people think if he didn’t have any evidence of his success?
Because it sounds like he didn’t have much of anything or anyone else to count on. He’s a landowner, but there’s no mention of those who actually did the sowing and tending and reaping, with whom he could share his windfall. There’s no mention of friends or family to enjoy his wealth with. There’s no mention of a community that could benefit from his abundance. There’s no mention of God. For the landowner, there’s just “I” and “my.”
It sounds as though the only thing he thinks he can count on is what he can store up. And so, he’s relieved and joyful to arrive at a solution—a solution that can alleviate his fears and allow him to enjoy life. He’ll tear down the old barns and put up new, bigger ones! He’ll not only rent a storage unit, he’ll build an entire complex! And finally, he’ll be able to relax. He’ll be able to maintain his self-sufficiency. He’ll be able to let go of the fear that drives him. That’s what he thinks, anyway.
I think the growth of the storage unit business is a symptom of our own fear that there’s not much in the world we can count on. Studies show that Millennials—people roughly in their 20s and 30s—learned from the recession that they can’t count on home ownership for security, they can’t count on their education to get them a good job, and they can’t count on good performance to move ahead. Their parents learned that they couldn’t count on the investments they’d made for the future. Their grandparents learned during the Depression that they can’t count on having enough from day to day. Daily, we hear that there are people out there who want to take away what we consider ours. So, we stockpile what we can, thinking we can count on our own self-sufficiency and our belongings to see us through.
Sometimes it’s not even physical things we rely on. It can be connections—not necessarily to the rich and powerful, but connections within our school system or our workplace or in the community, connections that make us feel like we have some power or control. It might be our credentials—not necessarily an impressive resume but anything that makes people look up to us, like our family history and or our background.
St. Paul himself had once counted on all those things, as he wrote in his letter to the Philippians: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless,” not to mention that he was a Roman citizen. Paul, like the rich landowner of Jesus’ story and the questioner in the crowd, had built his life around his material and social possessions.
But Paul learned the lesson that Jesus taught, that all the things he counted as gains were losses when compared to the harvest he had found in Jesus. We can learn that lesson, too: that wealth and connections and family history are nothing compared to our relationship with God. They don’t count, and they can’t be counted on. Every one of those things can be taken away from us in this life, and they will be meaningless when our earthly lives end. Jesus reminds us of that in the story when God says to the rich man, “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Jesus steers us away from the illness of pleonexia—the condition of wanting more and more stuff. He turns us toward wanting more and more of a connection to God. He turns us away from piling up stuff that we cram into bigger storage units and longer resumes and more names in our contact lists, and points us toward being rich in our relationship with God.
We can never have so much love for God or from God that we won’t know what to do with it. If our hearts are the barns where love is stored, we know exactly what to do with our abundance. We don’t build bigger barns; we give away what overflows. We share with those whose material and spiritual harvests are small. We remember those who helped us become rich in faith in the first place. We have a healthy sense of humility—that we aren’t self-sufficient, but that we need God in all things. We understand that Jesus is asking us to give our lives over to him every day, and to count on him alone to provide what we truly need. When we know that life doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions, but in an abundant love for God, we know what counts and whom we can count on.
In a few moments, we will come to Jesus’ table. When we do, we will share in an abundance that satisfies the deepest needs of our hearts—the need to know that we are loved. The abundance of this table is the cure for pleonexia, hunger driven by fear, because the perfect love of Jesus casts out all fear. As we come to the table, we will experience once again the love and forgiveness and grace offered to us by the One who can be always counted on. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young