Building bigger barns

Luke 12:13-21

13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

            About three or four years ago my father did something that, if I was a good Christian, I would have spoken out against.  I should have been a prophetic voice and told him, “Thus sayeth the Lord…”  But I held my tongue and he went on to…build a bigger barn.

            That’s right, my father built a new freestall barn measuring 140 feet in length and 98 feet wide which will house over 100 cows.  But perhaps he didn’t do anything wrong, because he didn’t first tear down his old barn, he just built a bigger one.

            Now hopefully you don’t think that I am being serious.  I actually think that the barn that my father built was a great investment.  There was an improvement in efficiency, ventilation, herd health, cow comfort, and decreased feed loss.  The cows are happier, healthier, and producing more milk just because of these improvements.  This was not a sin, this was a good use of finances and good stewardship.

            So if the sin is not in building bigger barns, just what is Jesus critiquing in our scripture for today?  Let’s dig in to find out.

            The text begins with a crowd surrounding Jesus as he is teaching and a man comes to Jesus and says to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” (v.13)  We really don’t know what the situation is.  It is possible that the older brother has not distributed to his siblings the money, land, livestock, and other valuables that were owned by their parents after they passed away.  Or perhaps the younger brother thinks that he deserves a bigger chunk of the inheritance.  In the first century it would have been common for the younger brothers to get a smaller percentage of the inheritance. 

We don’t know for sure what is going on, but we do know that Jesus was not interested in being drawn into this argument.  Jesus replies to the man, “Friend, who set me to be judge or arbitrator over you?” (v. 14).  But I am left to assume that Jesus knew a little more about the situation than we find in the scripture because Jesus then says in verse 15, “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

So I assume that Jesus knew a little about the situation that these brothers were in because just based on what is asked, I don’t see this brother being greedy.  He is asking for his share.  But perhaps Jesus knew the heart of the one who asked for his share of the inheritance and he knew that he was asking out of greed.  Or perhaps when Jesus is speaking about being on your guard against all kinds of greed he isn’t just speaking to the crowd, but he is speaking directly toward the brother that is withholding a portion of the inheritance of the younger brother.  Perhaps he was taking on that role of arbitrator and was trying to address an issue of greed that he saw.  We cannot say for sure.

            So Jesus goes on to tell a parable.  I’ll say this about parables: I love parables and I dislike parables.  I love parables because they convey such deep meaning and they can be understood at different levels.  I dislike parables because they convey such deep meaning and they can be understood at different levels.  And this is one of those kinds of parables.  It has several possible interpretations, some of which I believe to be helpful.  So let’s look at this parable to see what Jesus might be trying to teach anyone with ears to hear.

            Jesus says that there was a farmer that had a great year in the fields.  It was a bumper crop.  I am guessing that this farmer was not working the land in the Staunton, VA area in the summer of 2010.  When the farmer sees his large crop, he decides to tear down his barns and build bigger ones so that he can store all of his crops.

            Now here is a confusing part of this parable.  Why did he need to tear down the old barns before building the new, bigger barns?  When my father built his new barn he didn’t tear down any of the old barns.  He built the new barn behind the old barn.  Couldn’t the farmer in the parable have built a smaller additional barn rather than tearing down the others?  Perhaps one of the points that we are to get from this parable is that this man is flaunting his wealth a little bit.  He is spending his money extravagantly…on a big barn.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus is trying to point out that what the farmer had before was adequate and that this large expenditure was not necessary.  There are people starving and living on the street, and this guy goes and tears down his old barns and builds bigger barns when maybe just a lean-to would have worked.

            But while this interpretation might be consistent with the previous teachings of Jesus, I don’t know that this is really what he is trying to emphasize in today’s scripture.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense to reply to the brother that was seeking arbitration by saying “Don’t spend extravagantly.”  So we need to keep looking for what Jesus’ point is.  What is the sin of the farmer that he is trying to critique? 

            The farmer in the parable’s sin is not in having a great harvest.  There is nothing wrong with having a great harvest, and it can and should be seen as a blessing from God.  And I would say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with building bigger barns and storing the grain.  As we read through the book of Genesis we find that Joseph, the son of Jacob, was sold into slavery in Egypt.  But through a series of divine interventions Joseph becomes second in command, second only to the Pharaoh of Egypt.

            While Joseph is second in command he begins a program of collecting and saving grain to prepare for the upcoming drought that was revealed to him through a dream that Pharaoh had received.  There were seven years of bumper crop and then seven years of famine.  So Joseph saved up the grains of Egypt, and though the text doesn’t say so, I am sure that he had to build bigger barns.

            At the conclusion of the story we find Joseph being reunited with his brothers, the same men that sold him into slavery.  Joseph has been able to provide enough grain to keep, not only the people of Egypt fed, but even people from distant lands, like his brothers from Canaan.  And Joseph delivers one of my favorite lines in the Bible when he says, “What you have intended for evil, God used for good.” (paraphrased from Gen 50:20)

            You see, storing up goods is not a bad thing.  The critique of the rich farmer is for hording it for himself.  Read through our scripture for this morning and count with me how many times the farmer refers to his stuff or my stuff.  Verses 17-19, “17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

            Mine, mine, mine, me, me, me.  It sounds like a bad Toby Keith song!  I want to talk about me.  The point of the parable isn’t that it is wrong to store things up, I would actually say that there are times when it is better to save for your future.  It would be poor stewardship not to.  But all this farmer is worried about is saving up as much as he can for himself so that he can take it easy.  Joseph was storing things up to help an entire nation, a nation where he was a resident alien.  I think that Jesus’ main purpose for telling this parable is because of greed and selfishness.

But I wouldn’t limit it to that.  Like I said, parables can have multiple meanings and teach at a number of levels.  If we look again at verse 19, the rich farmer seems to be planning his twilight years.  You might say that he is taking early retirement because he has had a good year.  He is going to relax, eat, drink, and be merry.

            Now I am not criticizing those that retire early.  If you have the means to retire at 62, that is fine with me.  My critique, which I believe is one of Jesus’ critiques in this parable, is of people that are looking to retire early so that they can have time to do absolutely nothing.  If God has blessed you with the means by which you can retire early, he has done so not so you can relax, eat, drink, and be merry.  He has done so that you might be able to serve him in a different way, perhaps in a volunteer position.  If you are physically able, or mentally able, then when you retire, please don’t just stop doing everything in order to relax, eat, drink, and be merry.  Don’t do that for the sake of the kingdom of God, and don’t do it for your own sake.  You have so much more to offer God and to offer God’s people.

            We probably all know some of “those people”; the people that never seem to age and are always on the move.  My grandfather was one of those people.  He will turn 91 this fall.  He is starting to show his age now, but did I mention that he is going to be 91 in the fall?  I don’t remember when the last time was that he helped around the farm, but I know that he was out helping bring in the harvest just five years ago, maybe even more recently.  He was around 86-years-old and he was driving tractors, chopping corn, bringing in the harvest.  I have never known my grandfather to not be active. 

            Grandpa would have retired when I was just a little boy, so I don’t ever remember him working, but I know that he did.  He worked in a factory for many years.  When he retired, he didn’t just sit back, relax, eat, drink, and be merry.  Sure, he did more relaxing things and he did take more vacations and travel more.  But he was always ready to help out when there was a need around the farm.

            I need to note that this is my maternal grandfather, my mom’s dad.  My dad inherited the farm from his father when my paternal grandparents both passed away at a young age.  So here was my father, about my age, with three young boys and a full-time job, and he inherits the farm.  So my maternal grandfather stepped right in to help, and he did so for about 25 years.  He never asked for a dime.

            I believe that all of the work that my grandfather did for my father is what helped to keep him young.  It is when you relax, eat, drink, and be merry that you age quickly.  That is when you get bored.  That is when you start to question your purpose and value.  But for some reason, so many Americans, so many Christians seem to think that this is a good thing!  We want to retire so that we can do nothing.  That isn’t a Christian virtue.  That is Hedonism, the relentless pursuit of pleasure.  But I believe that the only real satisfaction that we can find in life is in serving God and serving others.

            My grandfather spent his lifetime saving up for retirement, you might even say that he built some bigger barns.  But when he retired he spent the rest of his time volunteering to help someone else bring in their harvest, both figuratively and literally.  I don’t have any problem with retiring from your job, but you never should retire from serving God and serving others.

            Greed and laziness.  These seem to be the things that Jesus is critiquing by telling this parable.  And unfortunately greed and laziness, building bigger barns so that we can relax, eat, drink, and be merry, seem to be so common in our society today that when someone acts in the opposite way we seem to think that it is weird or we question their motives.

            Last week, my in-laws settled into their new home for the next three years.  They will be living in a two bedroom apartment in La Jara, Colorado.  They will receive a small stipend each month for food.  They are working, really, for nothing.  They are leaving two full-time jobs, a three bedroom, 1.5 bath home, two cars, and much more behind.

            When our families were in Virginia a couple of weeks ago for the baby dedication Sonya’s parents brought with them a trailer full of furniture and boxes, law mowers and tools.  Many of their earthly possessions were sold, donated, given away, or left behind.  And the thing that bothers me the most about the move that they made…is that it bothers me.  But even more than that, as Sonya’s parents told people what they were going to do, many of the people just didn’t get it.  Why would you get rid of your stuff, your security, your possessions to go out and not make anything?  Pretty much everyone that we tell what they are doing just seem to scratch their heads and ask “Why?”. 

            This bothers me because we find it so strange that someone might actually do the things that Jesus teaches.  And I understand that non-Christians would really see this as a strange move, but shouldn’t Christians who know the story of the rich young ruler, who know Jesus’ teachings about the love of money, shouldn’t they be able to better accept my in-law’s decision to sell everything that they own and serve the Lord?  How much have we bought into the consumerism of this world when even we as Christians can’t imagine actually selling everything and following Christ?

            I don’t like that my in-laws have moved 1,675 miles away and that it will take 26.5 hours to drive there, especially now that they have a grandchild here in Virginia.  I don’t like it because it is an inconvenience for us, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t applaud their boldness and faithfulness in doing this.  I preach from time to time that we need to be willing to sell all we own and serve others, to serve the Lord.  But I never imagined that my in-laws were listening!

     So I come to the last verse of our scripture for this morning where Jesus says, “21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  Building bigger barns in and of itself is not a bad thing.  Storing a few things for the future is not a bad thing.  What matters most is being rich toward God.  The richest person on earth might still be the poorest person in God’s eyes.  Being rich toward God means loving God and loving our neighbor; serving God and serving our neighbor.  So why save up for ourselves treasures on earth the will rust and deteriorate.  No, we are called first to seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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One Response to Building bigger barns

  1. Theresa Fronius says:

    I just wanted to say that I thought your insights and interpretations of this parable were outstanding. This has such great application and warning. I am writing this just after the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. I don’t claim to know why God has allowed this, but I do know that if He has allowed it, there is great purpose. One thing I do know, that this disaster is a huge reminder to all of humanity that this world is so temporary and all things will pass away. So much better to store up treasures that have no chance of passing away….to be rich in our relationship with God and others. Thank you again!

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