Peter Grimwood reflects on Jesus’ story of the rich man and the bigger barns, and its application to today’s economy.
The story of the bigger barns in Luke chapter 12 is a shock – conventional ways of thinking are turned upside down. A lot of Jesus teaching is like this -paradoxical, strange and profoundly counter-cultural. Christianity does indeed proclaim an alternative society – we call it the Kingdom of God.
The parable teaches about property, money and economic growth, and Jesus has a lot to say about these things. As Jesus says, “where your treasure is there will your heart be also”. And where is our treasure? In the bank, in the pension pot, in the equity growth plan or in stocks, shares, units or bonds. When Jesus speaks it’s not always easy to understand him – or perhaps we’d rather not understand him.
Reading this parable compels one to ask oneself some questions: where do I find myself in all of this? Does this story hold up a mirror to our society and indeed myself? What are these riches before God of which Jesus speaks?
The character at the heart of the parable is described as a fool, but wherein lies his folly? At one level he sounds quite sensible: building bigger barns, accumulating reserves and making provision for the future. It sounds quite wise and prudent.
Folly takes two forms here.
First, listen to the man’s voice. He’s wrapped up in himself. He’s talking to himself. I saw a notebook with a humorous cover recently which read “Of course I talk to myself. Sometimes I need expert advice.” But the way of Jesus is not the way of self. We are called to reject hedonistic individualism and look outwards in the name of love and mercy. The way of Jesus is the call to love others and find fulfiment that way. It’s not a manifesto commitment establishing our entitlement to be loved ourselves.
The fool in the parable is looking inwards and his self-love is fuelled by greed and avarice. No mention of his employees who will actually do the work of building and filling the barns. It’s all about him.
We should not underestimate the popularity of this man’s folly to the modern mind. Listen to the politicians who want your votes. Bigger barns they promise you, lower taxes and more economic growth. That’s how they think they can win votes, including yours.
Secondly, there is the folly of misreading the reality of the situation as he understands it and Jesus re-interprets it. For Jesus suggests a re-interpretation of reality. Get real, you might die in the night! What then will be the status of your ambitious plans?
We might add some additional considerations. Inflation could destroy your pension pot, civil unrest could upset your business plan, climate change could and probably will destroy everyone’s plans, and fraud is an ever present reality. Bigger barns may no longer be needed in an age of just in time inventories and containerisation etc., etc. No doubt you can think of other considerations. ‘Get real’ is a good message. Reality is stranger than it used to be, but be of good cheer because Jesus is the new reality.
Then thirdly – those riches before God. What are they? God is the ultimate giver. He gave us life and everything that enables life. So to have riches before God is an invitation to draw close to him and share his life of giving. To give and not to get. To live selflessly rejecting superfluous stuff of which the greedy can never have enough.
Here is a famous story from Russian Orthodoxy.
Once upon a time there was a woman and she was wicked as can be. When she died the devils took one look at her and threw her into a lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood by thinking: “What good deed of hers can I remember to tell God?”
Then the angel remembered and said to God, “Once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman.”
And God answered: “Now take that same onion and hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold of it. If you can pull her out of the lake she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks then she can stay where she is.
The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. “Here,” the angel said, “take hold of it and I’ll pull.”
The angel began pulling carefully and had almost got her out when others in the lake saw her being rescued. They all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was as wicked as wicked can be and she began to kick them with her feet. “It’s me who is being pulled out. It’s my onion, not yours.”
No sooner had she said it than the onion broke and the woman fell back into the lake and was lost.
And the angel wept and went away.
Riches from God are what you can give, not what you’ve got.
What then must we do? We must remember. After all that’s why we come to Church: to remember, to get our bearings and to chart the way forward.
All things come from God, not from our skills; still less from our sense of entitlement. The ultimate source, measure and guarantor of our good life is not our wealth, but God’s goodness. Tuning into this will help us address the environmental crisis, because the roots of that crisis lie in our refusal to see nothing and no one above our own desires.
But be of good cheer – God is with us and he delights to welcome us home and restore us to our right mind.