The Parable of Surplus Grain

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, “What shall I do? I have not place to store my crops.” Then he said, “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.” And I’ll say to myself, “ You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God. Luke 12

As we returned back to a small town in The US, there was something that stood out to us. The number of Storage facilities had multiplied since we last visited. In one small city, it seemed that there was enough storage for every person to have at least one unit. At the same time, it seemed as if the average house had increased exponentially with bigger and bigger and bigger houses everywhere.

In America, we like our stuff don’t we?

This parable doesn’t seem to start out with a conversation about stuff , but rather a man came to Jesus with a concern about justice. His brother refused to divide an inheritance with him. Chances are that the father had passed away without a will, thus making the older brother responsible for dividing the inheritance. However, it would seem the older brother was dragging his feet, so the younger brother cried out for justice, essentially saying, “Jesus, tell my brother to give me what is Mine!”

Notice how Jesus doesn’t bite on his request. Perhaps it is because in the brother’s quest for justice, he essentially is asking Jesus to bring further division to the relationship between he and his brother. It seems that this brother had come to Jesus looking for the final ammunition he needs to put his brother in his place.  But now, rather than fueling the man’s quest for justice, Jesus instead shares a story about greed.

Before we even get to the parable, it seems that Jesus is exposing us. How often do I come to Jesus ready to prove how I am right. I come to Jesus waiting for him to vindicate me in my form of justice. But in these situations, I must come to the conclusion that my definition of injustice is not important to God. Rather, God defines just and unjust. Rather than seeking my justice and any division that might bring between me and others…instead I am called to seek God’s view on the issue. And honestly, I might be surprised at His viewpoint, if I can just lay down my quest and desire His viewpoint, instead.

But then Jesus moves into this story with a meaning. He tells us a story about a rich man who had a bumper crop one year. But notice the language here. Jesus tells us that the ground yielded an abundant harvest. This man is not responsible for this huge harvest he had, but rather God is. While the man wants to take credit for this great harvest, it is not his to take credit for. It was a gift from God, as are our seasons of bounty, too.

This man quickly moves into talking about his ownership of this blessing. “My crops, My barns, My surplus grain…and I’ll say to myself.” This man saw himself as the owner and the possessor. This was his surplus and his affluence. This was his insatiable quest for more. While already rich, he was looking for more security, bigger barns, more…more…more. He felt he now had enough that he could take life easy and live off the fruits of his labor.

The thing that stands out about this man is how self-absorbed he was, especially to a first century audience.   When he decides to build bigger barns we read, “And I’ll say to myself.” These are not decisions that a person makes by himself in a communal society. Even in Ethiopia (which resembles Biblical settings in many ways much more closely than our American setting) people would never think of building a new house or moving to the city or even taking a new job without the thoughtful wisdom of friends and family around them.

That is,unless possessions had already become so important to them that they drew away from relationship with others in order to better enjoy “their” possessions. This man’s seeming success and riches were simply accentuating this man’s poverty of self and relationship.

And here is the nuance that Kenneth Bailey draws out. In his book, “Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes,” Bailey points out a word play in the Greek. The man describes his new found place of security as “euphraino.” In Greek,  the word “phr?n” is the “diaprhragm”. So, euphraino is when you can  you relax your diaphragm and give out the sigh of – “Ah, finally I can relax. I have arrived.”

But, while he is pronouncing euphraino, Jesus says here that God pronounces him an A-phron. A fool. This subtle wordplay points out to us the subtle nature of possessions and our quest for having enough.  For when the man finally reached the sigh of relief of having enough…he had already crossed over to being a godless fool who would lose his life.

All that he had worked for would be gone in a flash. The monument of those full silos of grain now would be handed over to people who could care less. It is interesting to note what Augustine of Hippo wrote about this man, “He did not realize that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns.” (Sermon 36.9)

Jesus’ point in this parable seems to be that we recognize that it all belongs to God. All of our blessings and bumper crops are gifts from Him. When we start to horde those things and use the language of My, Mine and Myself, we miss the point of the blessings God has poured out on us. We are given gifts by God to be used for Him. We are blessed to be a blessing. We are called to share in community rather than pressing for deeper security of that day when I can finally exhale and say, I have arrived.

Against our cultural understanding, instead “Arriving” is found in the open handed sharing of all that God has placed in our hands. In our quest for security, may we recognize how close that quest can be to futility and how hard it can be for us to differentiate in the moment.

Jesus, lead us, we pray. Lead us in the way that matters. Lead us in the way that sees our lives as gifts to be poured out for your glory that make a difference in your way.

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