You Are Heard; Eighth Sunday After Pentecost; Rev. Chuck Myers; July 31, 2022

Friends, it has been four years since I stood over there and preached.  Four years since I preached, period.  Think of all that has happened in the last four years.  I have a few things stored up.  I have no expectation that you would want to hear them all.  But I beg your indulgence should I ramble a bit.  Preachers have been known to do that, am I right?

But just to list some of them, in the last four years we have had: natural disasters, some made worse by climate change; created disasters, among which I would highlight deaths by firearms; civil unrest, contentious elections – and an insurrection; increasing economic inequality; a pandemic that is still taking many lives while isolating us from each other; multiple wars; attacks on what we consider to be our rights and liberties.  Plus, having to do things electronically—glad as we are to have friends joining us over the Internet—that are better done in person.  Probably I have missed some.

The lectionary gospel reading today is merely a fragment from a sermon of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.  I recommend you read the entire sermon.  I would always recommend you read an extended block of text around any short lectionary passage.  In this case, you will find a sermon, or arguably an extended rant, about wealth, and its uses and abuses, but also about life and the meaning of life, and hypocrisy, and power, and war, and family conflict, and condemnation and salvation.  Jesus is addressing a large crowd . . . thousands of people . . . and some of them are hostile.  He is covering some very heavy issues, and he may be putting himself in danger.  And in the middle of this, somebody interrupts to ask Jesus to intervene in a property dispute, the division of an inheritance, with his brother.  The reading is actually Luke’s account of Jesus dealing with, not an enemy, but an off-topic heckler.

Never let anyone tell you there is no humor in the Bible.  There is plenty of humor, and the original audiences would have recognized it.  The texts were meant to be read aloud, to be performed.  Luke’s original audience would have laughed at the man who interrupts Jesus with a specific personal concern and gets told off by, you know, Jesus.  With a parable in which a rich man conducts a monologue to his own soul.  And yes, the expression “Eat, Drink and Be Merry” (For Tomorrow You May Die) is a dissenting interpretation of this text.  When God calls the rich man a fool, the audience is thinking, “No kidding!”  Try acting this out (sometime when you don’t have to wear a mask).  See if you can keep a straight face.

But perhaps the audience would not have laughed a great deal.  Perhaps they would have realized that Luke has Jesus speaking to them, too.

While disciples did follow Jesus around, listen to him, and try to imitate him, no one transcribed what he said.  Disciples remembered noteworthy things he had said and done and passed these on orally.  This was normal; it was an oral culture.  Later people wrote down collections of individual things Jesus was remembered as saying or doing.  Still later, the evangelists put these into narrative orders and, in some cases, extended speeches by Jesus.  They added the theological interpretations they knew at the time.  Their goal was not to present a “journalistic” account—a concept that did not exist—but to present to a specific audience a truthful and persuasive image of what Jesus taught and did, how he went about this, who he was, and why he was of unique importance.  Luke says as much in his introduction.

So as he assembled narrative and dialogue, Luke was attentive to his audience.  But he was also careful to show Jesus as attentive to his audience.

What would Luke’s audience have been concerned about?  Many things . . . life in an empire; for many, life in exile; gross inequalities in wealth and power; slavery; war; persecution for their faith and, for Jewish Christians, alienation from Jewish communities . . . the list could go on.

What would Jesus’ audience have been concerned about?  Many of the same things, but with Roman colonial domination, and cooptation of Judean leaders, in place of later displacement and alienation.  Jesus’ audience probably could not imagine things getting any worse.  (But they did.)

The man who interrupts Jesus is concerned about the division of an inheritance.  Presumably his brother is older and, by law and custom, stands to receive the largest share—unless he is persuaded to give up some of it.

Jesus shuts him down with a parable about the impermanence of both wealth, and this life.  And gives the entire audience something to think about—the injunction against greed, and the parable, are addressed to the entire audience.  Jesus is not trying to give advice on agriculture—probably a hypothetical rich landlord would be considered wise to build new barns.  No, this rich man is called a fool—by God!—because he thinks he can take care of his soul (as well as his physical comfort) by economic means.  (In some translations, God calls him “insane.”)

Does this bring anyone to mind?  Perhaps entire classes of people?  Perhaps entire states?  While we can’t really know another’s mind, another’s soul, it seems as if some people believe that if they can keep themselves and their immediate families comfortable, they can ignore everything else.

Also, the rich man in the parable is not thinking of the larger effects of his economic decisions; he is not thinking about justice.  If he dies tonight, who indeed will get his crops?  His heirs?  Maybe, if he has heirs.  Maybe not.  His tenants, workers, slaves?  Maybe, maybe not.  Maybe they will take it from the heirs.  Maybe they will quarrel with each other, fail to protect the harvest, and lose it.  Maybe the rulers will take it all away and those who actually produced it will starve.  The rich man has no way of knowing.  He can only make plans for contingencies by entrusting others with those plans—and caring for others—and he has not done so.

But before telling this parable, Jesus does something much more important.  He speaks directly to the man who interrupted him—a man he could easily have ignored.  “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  He sees this man.  He hears this man.  Before telling this man and the crowd what they should be concerned about, he acknowledges what this one man is concerned about.  Then Jesus suggests there is something better to be concerned about, something that is “good news” for his entire audience.

And so it is for us, in our joys and in our very real anguish.  We care for others—I hope we care for others—and we work for justice—I hope we work for justice—not only because we believe these are the right things to do for others, but also because they are the hopeful things to do for ourselves.

We need to believe that our lives have meaning.  With the Preacher (which is what Ecclesiastes means), we need to dispel the idea that “all is vanity”—and we need to do that again, and again, and again, even as evidence mounts in support of that idea.

Doing for others—caring for others directly and promoting justice for all—gives us the ability to trust that God sees us, hears us, loves us, will care for us.  Not because we can earn good things by doing good—we cannot.  Not because we can count on seeing the results we seek—it’s possible but by no means guaranteed.  Not because justice is good for everyone—it is, but people are highly resistant to believing that.  Not because we can all agree on what justice is—evidence suggests otherwise.  Not because we can avoid doubt; we cannot.  No, because as the prophets knew, as Jesus taught, as, praise God, many people have discovered, caring for others and seeking justice produces the strength to go on and the trust that God will give meaning to all of our efforts, to all of our lives.

May it be so.  Amen.