Bigger Barns

For me, it’s books. I just cannot get enough. Not only are there new ones that I always want to read, but I want to acquire my own copy. And I never let them go. You never know when you are going to want to re-read or consult them again. And so I need more and more bookshelves. But where is the boundary between a legitimate need for books (or whatever we are tempted to accumulate) for ministry and pleasure, and greedy acquisition?

The Gospel today shows us in parable form what the “greed that is idolatry” looks like. The author of Colossians urges us to “put to death” this vice as we “put on the new self” that is Christ. In the Scriptures, there are many texts that underscore that having riches is not sinful; it is what one does with them that determines virtue or vice. Abraham, for example, was said to be highly favored by God, because he had great flocks and herds, a large family and a great number of servants (Gn 13:2; 26:13-14).

In the Gospel story, however, the rich man with the bountiful harvest is shown to be isolated, oblivious of both God and his fellow human beings. His soliloquy reveals his self-centeredness. Rather than consult those whose lives are intertwined with his, he asks himself, “What shall I do..... I do not have space.... I shall do.... I shall tear down.... I shall store.... I shall say to myself....” The focus of his reflection is “my grain...myself.”

In a world of limited good, his solution is shocking: He will tear down his barns and build bigger ones, where he will stockpile his goods for many years. First-century Palestinians did not operate within a system of capitalism. There was no expectation that all could keep getting richer. They considered all goods limited, so that if one person acquired more, it necessarily meant that others went without. Hoarding, for them, was a clear sign of greed, the vice most destructive to community life.

The rich man’s self-centered plan for stockpiling and spending for his own enjoyment is interrupted by a startling apparition by God, the only such divine intervention in a Gospel parable. “You fool!” comes the accusation, with the notice that this very night his life will be demanded. The critical question is: “All the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” The clear biblical answer comes from Ps 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds, the world and those who live there.” Everything belongs to God; even life itself is given us on loan. In the end the greedy man has no benefit from all he has acquired, and his heirs will be left haggling over it.

The parable also hints at how the miserly man will meet his end. If Jesus was addressing this parable to poor peasants, whose backbreaking labor did not result in their own benefit but only increased the riches of the landowner, their answer to the question of ownership would have a different ring. Would not the land and its fruits, which come from their toil, belong to them? Is it the peasant workers who, in an uprising, are demanding the life of the rich man?

The parable cuts two ways: to those who are blessed with abundance, hard questions are posed about legitimate use, greediness and just distribution of resources for the common good. To those on the underside of privilege, there is encouragement to take action to unmask vicious greed and to engage in efforts to bring about economic justice, while heeding an implicit warning that violence and killing are futile means for achieving just ends.

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