The God Who Gives
Text: Luke 12:13-21
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s an old Scottish fairy tale called “The Girl and the Dead Man.” In it there are three sisters who decide to go out into the world and seek their fortune. As it always goes in fairy tales, the oldest sister goes out first. Before she goes, her mother offers to bake her a bannock, or loaf of bread for the journey. She asks her daughter whether she’d like a small bit of bread and her mother’s blessing or a large bit of bread and her mother’s curse. The daughter, being very practical, asks for the large loaf and a curse. As she set out, night began to fall, and a mother bird and her babies came to her. They asked if she could spare some of her large portion of bread, but she refused, saying there wasn’t enough. That night she tried to sleep in the cold; but being chilled and miserable, it wasn’t very restful. When she got up in the morning, she saw a house and realizing that she could make her first wages, she offered to be a maid there. Her task, given to her by the mistress of the house, was to watch over the body of the mistress’s dead brother all night because he had been cursed with spells to get up and cause mischief at nighttime. But, unfortunately, after such a poor night of sleep, she wasn’t up to the task; she fell asleep, and ended up dying for her failure in the task. The story repeats with the middle sister.
The younger sister, however, when given a choice by her mother, opted to take the small loaf of bread and her mother’s blessing. When met by the birds, she told them she had plenty to spare, and shared her bread with them. They nestled around her that night so that she was warm and safe, giving her a good night of rest. When she came upon the same house, the mistress offered her the same task given to her two older sisters. But because she was well-rested and blessed by her mother, she was able to stay up and watch the body, whacking it with an enchanted stick to keep the dead brother under control. In the morning she received a modest fortune for her wages, along with a potion to raise her sisters from the dead.
What is the difference between these sisters? It has to do with their attitude toward basic physical needs. The older two, being covetous, wanted the largest possible loaf of bread they could have, even if it meant they’d have a curse on them. And, because they refused to share any of their large portion with the birds, they suffered in the long run and it cost them everything. But the youngest saw that even a small loaf of bread was more than enough—enough to live on, enough to share, simply enough. She lived with an attitude of contentment and thankfulness, and it served her well.
This is in our parable today too. Jesus tells us about a rich man whose land produced a bumper crop—more than he would ever need. So what is the rich man’s reaction? “I will do this,” he said, “I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” His first thought at receiving more is to tear down his smaller barns—plural barns, mind you; which already held enough wealth that he was already known as rich, so that he could have larger barns, to hoard even more. His plan is lay up all this bounty so that he can draw from it for years and years; eating, drinking, and being merry.
In truth, the rich man in the parable was already likely to have been able to do this for a long time. But his hunger for more and more is never satisfied. He already has enough. He has multiple barns full of grain and goods. But when he sees the opportunity for more, he seizes it, without a thought for anyone else. He could have given some of this enormous harvest away, taking care of the poor and needy, the widows and orphans that all God’s people were commanded to care for. He could have left larger portions of it out in the field for those who were living off gleaning and gathering what the harvesters left behind. He could have thrown a luxurious feast for everyone to celebrate with him how good God had been to them. But no, he chooses to close his fist around it all, saying that this finally will give him peace, comfort, joy, and many long years.
Of course, we who have heard the whole parable before know better. “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” So Jesus reaches the point of the parable: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
This is nothing new. It’s how the world has always been. King Solomon, the wisest and richest king that Israel ever had, wrote about this in our reading from Ecclesiastes today: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity! I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?” Jesus repeats that lesson here: coveting and striving for temporary things will only lead to vain trouble, and you don’t even get to keep it when you die. In his letter to the church, James, the brother of our Lord, writes this lesson again, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” And yet, even with this repeated lesson, we still so often behave as if it’s not that way. We would be next in line behind the man talking to Jesus in the Gospel reading, the one who kicked this whole thing off with his obsession over stuff: “Teacher, tell my brother, my employer, my fellow citizens, to divide the wealth with me.”
Covetousness is a tricky thing. We have two commandments about it, at the end of the Ten Commandments. Why are they there at the end? Because we might outwardly keep the others. We might not get caught robbing anyone or physically hurting someone. We might keep ourselves out of beds of adultery and not tell any lies out loud. But covetousness, those commandments when we’ve reached the end, that is a purely inward sin. It’s in the heart, where it can grow and fester even when things look good on the outside and our words all sound right. For who doesn’t experience a rush of breath at the thought of getting a comfortable fortune—or losing one? Who of us isn’t enticed by a life of ease, never concerned about money again? Who of us reconsiders how much we give charitably, especially when markets are bad? For generations now, pollsters have known that a good indication of elections are not a candidate’s platform or morals or personal conviction. It’s how people’s bank accounts are doing. Covetousness has got us all. That’s why it’s at the end of the commandments. It closes the circle around each and every one of us.
But here’s the thing about all that: it’s never enough. That glittering idol engraved with dollar signs will always demand more and more from you—more time, more energy, more concern, more attention, more work. And when it’s time for that idol to do what we’ve paid it to do, it can’t. It can’t save, any more than the man’s barns could save him in the parable: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you prepared, the things you spent your life to get, whose will they be? They won’t be yours. The things you worried about so much won’t give you a second thought as they pass to the next set of hands, the next owner, the next bank account.”
The parable ends with a confrontation of two gods—or rather, a false god and the true God. The false god, demanding bigger barns, more and more and more—that god loses. It can’t save. It can’t give life. It can’t even make its worshippers happy. But there is another God. This God is the opposite. This God doesn’t take more and more and more. This God gives abundantly to the rich man to make him rich. This God makes the land produce plentifully. This God gives and gives and gives. He surrounded the man in the parable, the sister from the story; He surrounds each one of us with more than we could ever need. He blesses us with daily bread every time we pray for it. He’s given us safety and comfort, peace and forgiveness, riches in this life and in the life to come more than we could even begin to fathom or count. And He surrounds us with people to share those blessings with, making them multiply, touch more lives, opening more hearts, paving the way to sharing the good news that there’s always more that our God wants to give: more life, more salvation, more forgiveness, more of Himself, always, forever. This is the God who gives Himself for us, who makes Himself poor so that we would be rich, not only here, but also rich toward Him. This is the God who shares Himself with the world so that He’s willing to die on the cross, giving everything, so that we would have everything. And He still gives more. He rises from the dead to live forever so that His generosity has no limits, no end. And a truly beautiful part of that is He lets us in on it. He makes us part of His work, so that we can be His instruments to bless others. Be His hands this week. Share your daily bread and see if you go hungry. You won’t. He still gives, out of grace, out of love, out of His infinite abundance. The idols of this world, the objects of coveting, can never do that. Only the God who gives Himself can. And He will, forever. In the name of Jesus, who has given us everything, Amen.