In 1888, Alfred Nobel opened his newspaper and read his own obituary entitled “The merchant of death is dead.” The obituary had been written in error, of course, in response to the death of Nobel’s brother Ludvig. Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite and owned an armaments manufacturer. He would live for eight more years after the obituary was written. Imagine reading your own obituary and learning that you would be remembered in such a negative way! Nobel responded by changing his will and using his great fortune to create the Nobel prizes to recognize significant accomplishments that brought “the greatest benefit on mankind.”
I wonder if Jesus’ parable functions a bit like Nobel’s obituary for us. In response to a question about inheritance, Jesus told this parable about a rich man who needed larger barns to store the abundance of his crops. The man has a conversation with himself, giving his soul a dose of hedonistic permission. Relax, eat, drink, be merry! The man doesn’t realize this will be his last night before death and his stored treasures will be left sitting in the barns, likely to be inherited by his children who will argue about how to divide the abundance.
I’m intrigued that the man talks to himself. He doesn’t talk to anyone else about how to handle his abundance. He doesn’t ask his family or friends. He doesn’t pray and seek God’s guidance on his stewardship. What does this tell us about dealing with our own abundance? Often in our culture, we are more comfortable talking about sex than we are talking about money. Do we seek the wise counsel of Christian community when we face a decision about our own abundance?
When churches develop and approve budgets, who do they talk to? Is all of the conversation internal (the church talking to itself? Do we seek God’s will for our church budgets and abundance? Do we ask the outsiders, the neighbors, and the community leaders to hear what they might suggest? As long as we are talking only to ourselves, our church budgets will reflect our own conveniences and preferences.)
The good news is that Jesus told the parable to a man who was trying to get his share of a family inheritance. The parable becomes an opportunity for the man to question the back story on the inheritance. How was it accumulated? What priorities does it reflect and what needs were ignored? The parable also becomes an opportunity for the man to consider his own legacy. What will his obituary say? That he had very large barns full of grain or that he was generous and faithful in building up God’s kingdom? As a pastor who has officiated a lot of funerals, those are two very different journeys.
I was raised as a member of the Moravian Church. One hallmark of Moravian cemeteries is that all headstones are made of the same size and material and placed flat over the grave without any additional ornamentation. The cemetery is an embodied theological truth: in death, we are all equal. As Psalm 49 reminds us, the wise and the foolish perish together and all will leave their wealth to others. We might give it away for the kingdom or we might build a barn that somebody will be part of a legal inheritance battle. “Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases. For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them” (Psalm 49:16-17). All of the tombstones are flat and unadorned because when we die, abundant possessions no longer matter. Only abundant faithfulness will matter.
Questions for reflection:
- Have you written your own obituary? How do you want to be remembered?
- When you face a major financial decision, where do you seek advice? How can you develop faithful relationships with other disciples so that you can support one another in your stewardship of resources?
- Many people in our communities live without any extra abundance. How do you think they hear this parable? What do they hope for?
Want to receive lectionary content in your inbox on Mondays? Sign up here.