Luke 12:13-21 – ‘In ??? we trust’

A reflection by Josh Olds.

Recently, I came across a story that both intrigued and horrified me. It is a story about a tragic misplacement of trust by a man named Gary Hoy, it’s a true story, you might’ve come across it. Sadly, the events of Gary Hoy’s death are remembered much more than his life. Gary Hoy was a corporate lawyer in Toronto, who each year was tasked with showing prospective law graduates around his firm’s office building. One of the features that Gary made a point of highlighting to each year’s graduates was the building’s ‘unbreakable glass windows,’ he did so by playfully hurling himself at one of the windows on the 24th floor. Each year, to the gasps of his audience he would bounce off and continue with the tour. You might be able to see where this is going… In July of 1993, Gary Hoy was again leading a group of law graduates through his firm’s building, stopping once again perform his party trick, once again the window did not break. However due to the repeated impact of Gary’s body over the years, this time around the entire window frame gave way leading to Gary Hoy’s tragic and fatal fall. One of the structural engineers involved with the inquiry into Gary Hoy’s death was quoted as saying something along the lines of “no building code in the world expects a window to withstand a grown man’s bodyweight being thrown against it.” Yet Gary Hoy unfortunately and mistakenly trusted the window’s integrity with his life.

In our gospel passage this morning, Luke 12 Jesus tells a story. A story which, I think, bears some natural parallels with the story of Gary Hoy. It is a story which also features a figure associated with misguided trust. As noted at the beginning of Luke 12, a large crowd had gathered to hear Jesus. Someone from within the crowd asks Jesus to settle a family inheritance dispute, in response to this Jesus offers a stark warning against materialism and greed. To ground this warning Jesus tells this story, this parable. The main character of which is a rich farmer who sought his life’s security and fulfilment in his abundance. The farmer’s misguided trust is brought into perspective as God reveals an impending threat on the farmer’s life, highlighting just how meaningless his surplus wealth and abundant possessions are in such a situation. Jesus concludes the parable with an ominous caution that “this is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” Here, Jesus illustrates the perils of placing trust in things that are less than God.

At first glance we, as contemporary readers of this parable might find little in common with our wealthy, barn-building farmer friend. But as we look a bit closer some similarities begin to emerge. While our context might differ from that of a first-century middle eastern crop farmer, this passage reveals to us that some of things we’re prone to mis-place our trust in are in fact timeless. In this parable we read of three things that the farmer places his trust in that are less than God, things that are no less relevant in our contemporary context, the fulfilment of materialism – in our possessions we trust, the security of wealth – in our savings we trust, and the provision of autonomy – in ourselves we trust. I want to consider each of these.

Firstly, the fulfilment of materialism. Before Jesus actually gets to the story of the barn-upsizing farmer, he foreshadows the parable with a warning – verse 15, “be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” from which he then proclaims that life does not exist in an abundance of possessions. And it’s important to start here, rather than just looking at the parable in isolation. Because to some degree, when we read of a farmer who manages to generate such an abundant harvest, that he must construct new buildings to store it, we may quite naturally conclude that this isn’t a story of a rich fool as it often titled, but of a shrewd and astute businessman. In some ways, had Jesus not framed the parable with a caution about abundance and greed, the farmer may have been looked upon with aspiration. While undoubtedly agriculturally and financially successful, Jesus uses the farmer as an example of someone who’s greed led him to seek life in his abundant possessions, someone who looked for fulfilment by having lots of stuff!

Materialism, consumerism, things not at all unfamiliar to our contemporary context. In preparation for this sermon I went and read this passage in a local mall. When I opened the passage, I did that thing where I read the same sentence about 9 times without taking it in, I was too distracted by the bright, unavoidable advertisements that I was surrounded by. By the time I made my way through the passage, what I was most aware of was that Macpac jackets were 40% off! We live in a context where we’re constantly fed the rhetoric that the more we have, the more we own, the more delighted we’ll be. Materialism is a vicious cycle, the more we get, the more we’re aware of what we don’t have. In our possessions we trust, a mantra easy to refute, but a reality much more difficult to avoid. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have nice things, or enjoy our possessions, but I am suggesting we pause to take stock of the place that our possessions hold in our lives. Is our happiness, our fulfilment, our sense of security tied directly to them? What good is all that you’ve prepared for yourself when your life is demanded from you? God asks the farmer…

Secondly, the security of wealth. Take life easy; eat, drink, and be merry. I quite like the sounds of that, sign me up! I think that’s probably what we all want – peace, rest, delight. But notice what underpins the farmer’s determination that it was OK for him to take life easy, it’s his wealth – in verse 19 the farmer says to himself “you have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” In other words – ‘right, I’ve squirrelled away all that I need, I’m safe, my future is secure so I’ll kick back, put my feet up and enjoy the fruits of my labour.’ While he has “plenty of grain stored up,” his wealth cannot guarantee many years of taking life easy that he hopes it might, as we see God exposes the farmer’s wealth as the illusion of security that it really is, as an attempt to try and control what ultimately cannot be controlled. I hear echoes here of Ecclesiastes’ “chasing after the wind.”

I’m a big grass guy, love my lawn. I think I’m on track for eventually installing a “keep off the grass” sign in my front yard. That makes autumn and winter frustrating seasons, where I’ve literally ended up chasing the wind, spending countless hours picking leaves that had blown onto my lawn. I eventually concluded that I was fighting a losing battle, that I was no match for the wind and the seasons, that I ultimately needed to make peace with the fact that there are leaves on my lawn this time of year! Similarly, no amount of money can ever truly make us secure, it’s a pursuit of something that can never be achieved, like a leaf free lawn in autumn. In an age of financial recessions, housing crises, and rising living costs, financial stability is an increasing concern, as such we can easily fall prey to the sentiment that our life’s security is found in our financial health, in our savings we trust. That’s of course not to say that we shouldn’t be wise with our money and manage it well. But it is worth considering whether we’re seeking something in financial stability that it cannot ultimately provide, assurance of our safety and security. While our finances may not be able to secure our lives, in Jesus, God offers us, not the promise of safety, but the hope of eternal security.

Finally, the provision of autonomy. It’s interesting to note that whenever the farmer talks throughout the parable his speech is only ever directed towards himself, we see a repetition of personal pronouns – what shall I do? I have no place to store my crops, I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones etc. Jesus specifically targets this display of autonomy as he concludes the parable in verse 21, construing it as an active choice to seek material treasure as opposed to the treasures of God. In the passage immediately following our parable in Luke 12, Jesus encourages his disciples to not worry about their material needs, but instead to seek first the kingdom of God trusting that in doing so their needs will also be met. Easier said than done, I know. We swim in a context that highly values autonomy, to be self made is to be admired – ‘life’s what you make of it.’ . We even see similar expressions of this coming through in the church – ‘God helps those who help themselves’ type thinking. As New Zealanders we lap this up – we even have an acronym for it “c’mon mate, do it yourself! DIY; it’s in our DNA.” While I don’t think Mitre 10 is secretly trying to peddle idolatrous propaganda, this “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” sort of attitude can lend itself to a mindset similar to that of our farmer. In ourselves we trust.

It is not the farmer’s abundant harvest, or surplus grain, or big barns that made him a fool, but that he lived as though his he had no need for God, that his autonomy was all that he needed. We see the short-sighted results that this thinking produces – an accumulation of abundant possessions that are quickly proven worthless at the expense of the eternal treasures found in the Kingdom of God. The point here is not that ambition and initiative are destructive, no, quite the opposite, they are important values, one’s I’m trying to foster in my kids! But the question is what or who is our ambition serving? Maybe one of Jesus’ earlier teachings fits here – you can’t serve two masters, is our autonomy exercised in seeking God, or exercised in place of God?

Materialism, security, autonomy. To be clear, I am not suggesting that trust in God cannot go hand in hand with enjoying what we have, being financially savvy, or personal initiative and ambition, but what I am saying is that these things, if left unchecked, can slowly begin to take the place of God in our lives, or become idols to put it in biblical language. We see this right throughout the biblical narrative, humankind constantly looking to something other than God, looking to something less than God. We see it mostly notably at the beginning in Eden, humanity portrayed as trusting its own judgement instead of God’s in Genesis 3. We see the Israelites God’s chosen people, continually turning away from God in search of protection, comfort, guidance. We see it with the early church – seeking righteousness through strict adherence to the law instead of faith in Christ. And if we’re honest, we see it in ourselves today, our tendencies to trust our possessions for fulfilment, our wealth for security, and ourselves for provision. In this parable Jesus illustrates the perils of placing trust in things that are less than God: our possessions, our savings, our DIY autonomy, all things that promise fulfilment, hope, protection, but all nonetheless things that are less than ‘in God we trust.’