Barn building

Pentecost 11 – 2013

Luke 12:13-21

Marian Free 

In the name of God in whom is our life and salvation. Amen.

Studies have shown that while a certain degree of income is required to provide peace of mind, income above that base level does not appear to contribute significantly to a person’s happiness. Other studies have revealed that the people who express most satisfaction with regard to their work include the clergy and others whose jobs while occasionally stressful involve making a difference in the lives of others. The tiny nation of Bhutan does not measure its GDP as a measure of its wealth but instead measures the happiness of its people. Just recently in Australia, there was a Happiness Conference. Increasingly, happiness is becoming something which psychologists such as Martin Seligman study and sell. There is even a website called “The Happiness Project” on which the author (as far as I can tell) lets her readers know what makes her happy – the assumption being that what makes her happy will make other people happy.

All of this begs the question: what is happiness and how can we attain it? Does our happiness depend on what we earn or own or is it related to satisfaction with what we do and contentment with what we have?

Sometimes it takes a crisis or a disaster to help us to focus on where our priorities really lie, to discover what really makes us happy. People who face a life-threatening illness often report that news of their illness forced them revisit their priorities. Many say that their lives until that point were too focussed on the accumulation of wealth, possessions or status and that now they realize that in striving for such things they were missing out on the simple pleasures of life – family and friends, walks in the park. Others who have come out the other side of a major disaster like fire or flood are able to recognise that they are blessed – even if they have lost everything – so long as their family members are spared. They know (or learn) that relationships are more important than possessions. 

A reading of Luke and Acts would, on a superficial reading, seem to indicate that the author has a negative attitude towards wealth. For example, the first chapters of the Book of Acts imply that the early church encouraged wealth sharing and include the account of a couple who are struck dead because they withhold from the community some of the proceeds of the sale of their property. The Gospel of Luke includes the account of the rich young man and today’s “example story” of the barn builder who dies before he can enjoy the fruits of his labour.

However, to make that assumption would be to misjudge Luke. It is true that Luke does seem to have a concern about wealth, but his concern has less to do with what and how much people earn or own, and more to do with the attitude they have towards what they have. In other words, money itself is not the issue, but a person’s attitude to money. Do they depend on their possessions to provide a sense of contentment or to give their life meaning or do they find real happiness in relationships, job satisfaction and so on?

Today’s gospel reading implies that a focus on material (rather than heavenly) things is the barn builder’s primary fault. (“So it is with all who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”) However, to place this statement in context, we have to remember that the rich man himself is addressing his soul (something which might be considered the place of his relationship with God). However God does not seem to play a role of any sort in the man’s present or his future.

The barn builder appears to be drawing on two assumptions: one is that wealth alone will feed the soul and the second is that in preparing for his soul’s future, he need only consider his present, physical comfort. Our fictional character, has not considered the possibility that his life is finite and that he cannot take his wealth with him. His soul might be well catered for in this life, but what about the next? Has he thought about whether he has given as much time to building his relationship with God as he has to building his wealth? Has he thought about the health of his soul or only the wealth of his soul? Has he considered the fact that he may not live forever, and asked himself whether if his end should come he would be content with the life he has lived? 

These are the sorts of issues that Jesus raises in response to a demand from the crowd: “Tell my brother to share his inheritance with me.” Jesus is suggesting that there is more to life than wealth and possessions and implying that a focus on building riches can detract from a focus on more important things – including one’s eternal salvation.

It seems to me that the story of the barn builder raises a number of questions as to how we ourselves live our lives, and challenges us to think about what we would do differently if we knew that our life was coming to an end (or indeed if we recognised that our lives could end at any time. If we were to live as if everyday might be our last, how would our values change? What would we do differently if we knew that we were to die today, next week or next year? If we were to die today, would we feel we had lived a life without regret? Would we be ready to stand before God and answer for how we had spent our time?  If we knew that we were living our final days would we be content that the life we had lived was a life that prepared us for life eternal?

At the end of the day what matters is not how many possessions we have, but whether we possess them or they us. What matters is not so much how wealthy we are, but whether we understand that our wealth, like our life is transitory. What matters is whether we are preparing our souls for eternity, or our lives for longevity?

Where do our priorities lie and does this story challenge us to change them?

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