When I read a scripture passage that is directly relevant today, I am unsettled in a strange way. Our scriptures were written so long ago that I expect a bit of interpretation to be necessary to relate them to what’s happening now. When this is not the case, it’s unnerving. How is it that human beings have not changed over a couple thousand years? How is it that a parable Jesus spoke to his companions in ancient Israel can be so clearly meant for modern ears? I’m amazed at the wisdom and understanding of human nature then, and I am disappointed that in the intervening 20 centuries we haven’t been able to change all that much.
This week’s gospel lesson is a prime example. It’s all about the need for stuff and how it gets in the way of valuing what is really important. I like my stuff, too. I wonder how I would get along without my laptop, my smartphone, my cooking appliances, my car, and a whole bunch of other things. I am also very well aware of the deceptive desire for more stuff, better stuff, even though I already have more than what I technically need. I also know from experience that I question my own value when I lose the majority of things I have accumulated. I wish this were not true.
I’d like to say that society has made this tendency to want “bigger barns” more pervasive today. But if Jesus took the time to mention this problem, I’m guessing it isn’t new and probably no worse than it ever has been. I think what is worse is the nature of the things we want and why we want them. The farmer in the story wanted to store his excess grain against future need. He went a bit overboard to the detriment of others who had need of more grain in the present, but his reasons for wanting to store his grain seemed sound enough. I don’t think most of us want to store up our stuff against a time of future need.
This culture of excess is a symptom of a deeper need, a need that no amount of stuff can meet. I’ve often heard modern western society described as becoming increasingly narcissistic. Well, yes, on the one hand, it does seem that people are a bit more self-focused than I seem to remember in years passed. However, I don’t think narcissism is an accurate diagnosis. I think we are a society adrift. Whether our barns are full to overflowing or we have nothing to claim as our own, our longing for stuff belies a greater need for identity. Or as Jesus put it, a lack of true richness toward God.
Every day I tell at least one of my psychiatric patients that she (or he) is more than her diagnosis, her past, her losses, her bad choices, or any other way she chooses to devalue herself. “You don’t know me so you can’t say that!” is often the response I get. I don’t have to know you to know that you have value, that you matter, that you are God’s beloved child.
I want to tell people who overextend their credit buying things they don’t need to show their success. I want to say this to our governments who vie for power and place in a world that has more than enough of everything for everyone, and they just keep trying to build bigger barns. I want to say this wherever anyone feels threatened by any group of human beings fighting for equality and justice. I want to say this anytime anyone chooses material goods over human needs.
However, I realize that words are easy. And if words could change human nature, then surely Jesus’ words would have changed us all by now. I feel like there should be a real action to take here, but I don’t know what it is. What will help us value one another more and material goods less? So, I ask all you church members, believers, seekers, and doubters out there this question: How do we show one another that we are more valuable than our bank accounts, our stuff, our achievements while also demonstrating that we are also far more than our failures, our weaknesses, our struggles, and our pains? What does storing up treasure in heaven look like today?
RCL – Year C – Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 4, 2013
Hosea 11:1-11 with Psalm 107:1-9, 43 or
Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14; 2:18-23 with Psalm 49:1-12
Barn photo from pdphoto.org