Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. Maybe so, but not every person is philosophically minded. That is probably a good thing, for not much would get done if they were. This text, however, invites all of us to step back and do a little life-examining. It raises a fundamental question about human existence. The text does not ask it directly, but your sermon could. “Of what does my life consist?”
The text gets to this question by means of the negative. Jesus names what life does not consist of, and in doing so he gets to something near and dear to our hearts as Americans—our possessions.
It begins with a man asking Jesus to arbitrate an inheritance dispute. It is a reasonable question, but only if you misunderstand Jesus’ mission. Jesus is not interested, first and foremost, in economic equality. He is interested in life. And life is not about the abundance of possessions—earned or inherited. In fact, Jesus says in the text, when it comes to possessions, we should guard ourselves against πλεονεξίας. The ESV translates this word as, “covetousness,” but it could also be translated “insatiableness.” I find “insatiableness” helpful because it captures the inability of possessions to satisfy. As the agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents persons from living freely and nobly.”
To help make his point about life, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool. Jesus does not identify this man as an American, but he could have (check out this report about the exponential growth of self-storage facilities over the last decade). The problem was not this man’s possessions, however, as much as it was how he thought (and acted) with respect to his possessions. Notice the pronouns and the verb endings in verses 17-19. The man thought almost exclusively about what he was doing with his stuff and his well-being. He exhibited no conception of God’s ownership of all things, or his responsibility to use his possessions to serve others. “I need bigger barns,” he reasoned, rather than, “I need less stuff,” or, “I should share some of my stuff.” The tragic result for this man calls to mind James 5:1-6.
Verse 21 is significant. The fool is the one who, “lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” We are familiar with, “laying up treasure for ourselves.” But what about being, “rich toward God” (εἰς θεὸν πλουτῶν)? This phrase is somewhat unique. πλουτῶν refers to being plentifully supplied with something. In 1 Timothy 6:18 the something is good works. Here, the something is God Himself; which is how you might proclaim the promise of God from this text.
To be a Christian, to live fully, is to be plentifully supplied by and with God Himself. This is God’s gift to us in Christ. He graciously supplies us with His life and His Spirit. 2 Corinthians 8:9 puts it well: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
This conception of the Christian life cannot help but impact the way we think of and act toward our possessions. The fact is, most Americans (preachers included) do not need nearly as many possessions as we have. All of us could be using our possessions more fully in service to others and toward the glory of Christ. A sermon on this text, therefore, would also call its hearers toward a more generous existence.
*One more thought. If you are going to preach on the Gospel this week, you may want to consider preaching on the Gospel next week, too. Luke wrote them together, and they should be read in light of each other. You might, therefore, preach a two-part series of sermons. You could describe them as a two-part lesson on life and possessions with help from some unlikely teachers. This week we learn from a rich fool. Next week we learn from well-fed birds (more on that in my reflection next week).
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 12:13-21.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 12:13-21.