Am I Rich or Poor? a sermon

based on Luke 12:12-29

There is a complexity to Jesus’ parables. Do you remember the pictures we had as children, the ones that when held one way, looked like one picture, but if you slightly adjusted your perspective, became something else? They came as prizes in Cracker Jack boxes among other places. Apparently, they were called flicker pictures or wiggle pictures. But their real name is Lenticular pictures. 

Jesus’ teachings are just like that. The stories look different from different perspectives.

First, let’s look at the story and parable:

Someone in the crowd says to Jesus, “Rabbi, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus replies, “Who made me judge and jury? Be on your guard against greed, because life isn’t about an abundance of wealth.” Then Jesus tells the parable of a rich man. He had such abundance of crops that he didn’t have any place to put them. So he tore down his small barns and built larger ones, thinking that after they were built, he could relax. But surprise, surprise, on the day that the bigger barns were completed, the man died. And God says, “You can’t take it with you.”

Then come our admonitions to not be anxious, to not worry about the food we’ll eat or the clothes we’ll wear. Christ calls us to seek God’s kingdom.

Who do you think Jesus was talking to? And what do you think he was talking about?

At first glance, it seems Jesus is talking to a rich person, the person in the crowd who wants his brother to divide the family inheritance. Our translation says, “Don’t be filled with greed.” And we see that chasing after material goods is fruitless. (That was a bad pun, for those of you who didn’t get it).

But let’s look differently. What if, instead, Jesus is answering the question of a man who is facing poverty and need because he isn’t being treated fairly, who hasn’t received his promised inheritance?

And let’s go a little deeper. What if Jesus is talking to all of Israel? They are a people who haven’t had their inheritance. Their inheritance was to be a land of milk and honey, where they had political and religious autonomy, where they could worship God in safety and security. They do not have that. They are poor, governed by pagans, unsafe and insecure.

Jesus isn’t talking about personal faith and wealth management. The rich are getting wealthier and are storing it up for themselves. And the poor are worried about tomorrow. Jesus is talking about systemic injustice. And this systemic injustice is mostly visible along gender, race, and class lines. In Jesus’ time, those at the bottom of the wealth system are women and children, then there are the poor Jews, then there are the priestly class of Jews, who make their livings by stepping on the poor Jews, then the Jews who are in collusion with the Romans, like the tax collectors, and then we have the Romans at the head of the system, with the most money and security.

The Jews of Jesus’ time are disinherited. And the answer they receive in reply to the question, “Who am I?” is negative. You are nobody. You are cursed. You are a liar. You are a thief. You are poor. You are less than a person.

Our disinherited man from this moment in Jesus’s life is living with three things: fear of violence and lack, an instinct to deceive because of his own fear, and hatred for those who have. He probably has levels of hatred, too. One level is those around him who are not in need (perhaps his brother) and another level for those who support the system which robs him of his inheritance. 

The people of Jesus’ time are also living in fear, deception, and hatred. Out of their own need to survive, they fear the Romans, they have to deceive in small ways in order to stay safe, and they hate Rome and what it stands for. And they hate anyone who is in collusion with Rome.

But back to our disinherited man. He’s looking to hate Jesus. 

But Jesus says, “Who appointed me your judge?” Then, Jesus answers the man’s pleading for his inheritance, saying this in Greek: “Be seeing and be guarding from the more having.” Why should he watch out? Because the haves are storing up goods on earth that will come to nothing. And the have nots are storing up the more haves, which lead to fear, deception and hatred. 

So we have a system in the world built on class and race and wealth, and it’s built to exclude people, it’s build so that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I see the answer to our problems as having an ethical solution… recognize the problem and begin to change yourself to stop being racist, stop judging people based on the color of their skin or where they come from, to stop favoring people who look like we do. But that’s not the solution. 

So what’s the solution? Another one is for the rich to sell all they have and give it to the poor and for the poor to trust in God. But it’s really not that easy, or everyone would be doing it.

But really, there’s only one solution. And it comes from God. It comes from understanding that you are a beloved child of God. That God loves you so much that God took on the body of a human being—a poor, low class, dark skinned man—to come show us what it means to be loved. And believing that you are a beloved child of God helps you trust that same God to always look out for your good. 

And being a beloved child of God, when God’s love flows through you, you begin to see that all around you are beloved children of God. Not just in your neighborhood, but in the slum around the corner. Not only in your church, but also in the temple and mosque down the street. Because  when you see that each person out there is beloved by God like you are beloved by God, you are no longer able to lump people into categories: male, female, Jew, Gentile, slave, free, rich, poor, haves, have nots, bule, Balinese, white, brown, good, bad, in, out, bald, or with hair. Everyone of you is a beloved child of God. EVERY. ONE. OF. YOU. IS. A. BELOVED. CHILD. OF. GOD.

*some of the thought for this sermon was based on Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited.