Our Hebrew forebears in faith were clear that it was blessed to live a long life, to have many children and livestock, and to dwell in your own land. But they also knew that how you came by that wealth and how it was shared among the community was important. On their good days they knew that those blessings came from Yahweh and they were grateful. On the not so good days and eras they went searching for the blessing without the relationship with God and it led to idolatry and despair. We are not so different.
The prophet Hosea (11:1-11) understood God to love Israel as a parent does a young child. And the prophet saw and called out the ambition of Israel to get their hands on the blessings of abundance where ever they found it, including their pursuit of fertility rituals with foreign gods like Baal. That was the unfaithfulness of Israel – their pursuit of wealth and success wherever they could find it while ignoring the invitation to loving relationship with Yahweh. And the wisdom teacher of Ecclesiastes (1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23) knew that success and wealth were ultimately but a vanity, a chasing after the wind.
The brothers who came to Jesus (Luke 12:13-21) asking for him to adjudicate an inheritance issue about what is a fair share find themselves treated to a reflection on priorities and attitudes to life itself. Jesus states that greed can eat away at all that makes for a good life, and the parable says why. Because the sort of hunger that greed is meant to feed actually is never sated: when your barns are full you will be tempted to build bigger ones; you think that you will enjoy the fruits of your labour but you never have enough to stop and enjoy; and eventually all your reward will go to another after you have died. What you desire to consume will consume you. And that seems to be Jesus’ main objection. For reading a few verses ahead (12:22-32) Jesus speaks of the plenty that is available to us and that God wants to give us and all creation.
What might Jesus have meant then that is still important for us now? I confess that my attitudes to money and wealth of all kinds is tangled in knots of desire, envy, anxiety, guilt and confusion. I think the extended teaching of Jesus reminds us that the nature of God’s world is that of abundance and plenty and that the intention of all that plenty is flow and interconnection for the thriving of the whole. All the plenty that surrounds us is for the enjoyment of all us creatures so that we can live fully and without anxiety, which is to be full and free. It is not the creatures or us, the environment or the farmer, but us as one creation. The world is an interconnected whole and abundance is the nature of creation. This is not quantified in any way except that it is enough to sustain life with beauty. And because there is plenty there is no need for anxiety.
We are called into material abundance that reflects the tenderness of God for us and all creation. Every day of the creation story God sat back at the close of day and saw that it was good. In choosing Israel God wanted the people to know the plenty and blessing of their own land. This material generosity was part of loving relationship and intended to shower the people of God with love. But they and we so often gave up before the blessings were received or forgot where they came from and pursued material blessing separate from relationship with the creator, the provider of all, and separate from our relationship with neighbour.
While Jesus assures us of the abundant nature of God he certainly is warning us of the foolishness, greed and folly of building bigger and bigger barns with our name above the door. If the nature of blessing is flow, movement from the creator to the creature and on to all creatures then whenever we put blessings in a barn instead of letting them flow through us we are attempting to stifle the spirit of the living God. Abundance makes no sense if viewed as the aspiration of the individual. Abundance is always about the group, the system, the whole and how goods, services and energy flow around the system.
As humans when we are anxious we tend to hold on tight to whatever we have – the love we already have, the money we have, the way of doing life that we have already mastered – but Jesus is telling his disciples that they are being sent out into a world which is unpredictable but abundant. It is such an anxiety testing moment – to cling to the little we have or let go of what we own and trust the world.
But this is not simply a spiritual test, although it is that. Whether we put what we have in barns or share with our neighbour is a matter of justice and mercy, a matter of survival and certainly a question of whether we can thrive or slowly and fearfully deplete our stores while our neighbours cry in hunger. And we need to get past slogans and single verse bumper stickers and find very real ways to share the plenty and take care of those resources such as water and air that cannot be contained even in barns.
Maybe we need to begin by practicing letting go of some of our individually owned goods and trusting the groups that we belong in to provide collectively what is needed. Maybe we need to ask more complex questions when investing about what and who we will be supporting or denying. Maybe we need to know more about where our food comes from, who grows it, who misses out, how much is wasted and how that could be different and more inclusive. And of course to grow more of our own and share with neighbours our abundance. Maybe those of us who are older need to start downsizing and bequeathing our plenty while we are still alive rather than keeping everything in barns until after our death when the moth eaten remains of our worldly goods are no good anymore. Mostly we need to practice non-anxious trusting in our good God and neighbours. And we need to grow in trust and dependence on our neighbours for we will not always be the ones doing the giving but sometimes it will be us who need to graciously receive what we require from the hands of others. As we try and consider different ways of thinking and living we begin to realise just how ingrained is the greed and anxiety for what can be stored in barns.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come lead us into the field that ripples with the plenty of our Creator and teach us to trust.