There is nothing that divides families so much as sorting out the inheritance when someone has died. When I take funerals, I am sometimes aware of the tensions building up over the division of the property. And then comes the broken relationships, people who won’t speak to each other any more, because, as far as they are concerned, their rights have not been respected.
So no wonder the man in the crowd who asked Jesus to sort out the family inheritance was feeling frustrated. But if you listen closely to the story, the man doesn’t just want Jesus to arbitrate, he wants Jesus to sort things out to his advantage: “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me”, he says. The man is demanding his rights. The way property law worked, when the father died, the sons were expected to share the property and live together working the land. However, if one of them wanted to divide the property, then they would go their separate ways and live separately. The fact that the man is asking for the property to be split between them, suggests that the relationship between the brothers had already broken down.
But Jesus refuses to go there. He won’t get involved in dividing the property. His ministry is about reconciling people, not dividing them. It’s one of those situations where someone asks Jesus a question, and his reply doesn’t answer the original query, but takes you to a different place entirely.
Jesus goes on to talk about our relation to material possessions. Having more than we need doesn’t make life better or more enjoyable. Abundant possessions do not lead to an abundant life.
And Jesus tells a story. Once upon a time there was a rich man. It was a good year and the land produced a bumper crop. It wasn’t his land. It was God’s land, and God had lent it to him. The bumper crop would mean that there was going to be more than enough to feed him and his dependents and to fulfil his obligations. There was going to be so much left over. But he didn’t go and discuss with the local community about how the crop might be used. Instead, the rich man began to plan in his own mind what he was going to do with the surplus. A bit like that game you play when you wonder what it would be like to win the lottery. You might give so much to the church or to a favourite charity. But the rich man in Jesus’ story isn’t planning to share his surplus with the needy – there is plenty of storage there! He begins dreaming of bigger and better barns in which to store his crops. It is no longer God’s land and God’s bumper crop, but his, the rich man’s, land and his crops. He is self-sufficient, not dependent on anyone. And he tells himself how much he is going to enjoy his wealth. He has made it in his own eyes and the eyes of the world. But he is alone, isolated from his community. He may be rich, but his relationships have broken down.
And there’s something else he has forgotten, just as he has forgotten that his land and the good crop have come from God. He has forgotten that his life is also a gift from God, a temporary loan. And at the end of the story, God is calling back his soul. The rich man with the big barns is going to die. He will never be able to enjoy his wealth. It won’t do him any good in heaven, though it might have done, if he had shared it with the poor.
And if you were to imagine what would happen next in the story, it would be the argument amongst the rich man’s heirs about who would get what and how much, and the sickness would pass to the next generation.
If we really want to build up treasure in heaven, then how we live now matters. The way we relate to material things, to money and possessions, matters. We are stewards of God’s property. It isn’t ours to cling to. God gives us what we need and more, and invites us to share with those who have need. Bonds with family and friends are too precious to waste over wranglings about money and inheritance. To want just a little bit more than we have, a little bit more than we really need, is such a subtle temptation and most of us fall into it. It is so easy to forget the needs of others.
There was a lovely story on Facebook yesterday about a London hairdresser, who takes his scissors and combs with him in a back pack, and he stops and offers a hair make-over to homeless people, for free. It may not turn their lives around, but it makes them feel loved, appreciated and listened to, and it gives them a little bit more self-esteem and confidence. I found it really moving, the way he got alongside people who are – literally – in the gutter, and used his skills to give them a boost. And I do not doubt that he can learn from the people he offers care to and benefit from them – it works both ways.
Once upon a time a young man left university and went to work in the city, buying and selling shares and commodities. He did well for himself and earned huge bonuses each year. He had a lovely house and a splendid car. He wanted for nothing. Everything was of the highest quality and the very latest fashion. One thing offended him and marred his beautiful life and beautiful world, and that was the beggar who used to sit at the entrance to his office holding out a battered paper cup for coins. Our young man, who was not quite so young any more nor so slim and healthy, never dropped so much as a coin into that cup, on the grounds that it would only encourage the beggar.
One day, however, as he left his office, he remembered that he was still carrying the sandwich he had been too busy to eat for his lunch. He was going out to dinner and had intended to put the sandwich in the bin, but dropped it instead into the beggar’s lap as he hailed his taxi. He never made it to the restaurant. The unhealthy lifestyle and stress wreaked their own revenge and he had a massive heart attack and died.
He woke up to find himself in a magnificent restaurant, finer than any he had known in life. A waiter showed him to his seat. The menu card showed that the restaurant was called “The Kingdom of Heaven” and he was attending a great banquet. But inside the menu card was blank. The waiter arrived back with a large plate covered by a silver dome.
“This is your meal, sir”, said the waiter, and he removed the dome and placed the plate in front of him. The plate contained only the dried up sandwich he had given to the beggar.
The man was furious, “What’s this?” he said. “I didn’t order this. This is no meal for me!”
“I’m sorry, sir”, said the waiter. “At this restaurant, people are served only what they gave away to others in life, and all we could find on your record was this measly sandwich.”