You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead

Luke’s gospel brings us some of the most familiar and most compelling parables that Jesus tells, and there are several that only appear in this Gospel. It is also one of the few parables that Jesus tells where the heavens open and God’s own voice is heard. And God has something to say. There is this farmer. His great trouble is how to deal with an abundance; fruitful fields and a great harvest. He is a planner and so he decides to expand his operations and build bigger barns and safely put away today’s produce for tomorrow’s need. And that’s when God intervenes. “You fool,” he says. Harsh words from anyone, but from God? Devastating. You fool.

So how exactly is this person a fool? Certainly not in working the land and carefully planting, tending and nurturing crops. And not in taking stock of what he has and making provision for the future; that is commended more than once in scripture and often provides survival in times of famine. “You fool,” not because of what he had done but because of his complete absorption in himself. Listen to his comical speech: he addresses himself, who else is worth talking to? And the whole conversation never gets outside his little head. What do I have? How can I keep what is mine? This is my plan and now I am secure and nothing need trouble me, aren’t I special? There is no act of gratitude, no taking the first fruits to the temple as a sign that land and life and all is a gift from God. There is no mention of laborers’ wages or interest in the craftsmen who built his barn. Here there is no talk of neighbors or family brought in to rejoice together. Think of other parables Jesus tells. The woman who found the lost coin? She throws a block party to celebrate what she found. The king whose dinner guests beg off? He sends servants into the streets and byways to find someone to come and share his meal. And that other farmer, the father whose younger son crawls home, disgraced and desperate? He kills the fatted calf and throws a party big enough to offend the elder brother. Jesus’ parables are a riot of festival and rejoicing. Not this farmer. No, his plan was carefully laid out for his own comfort and security. He could rest in his own accomplishments and confide in his own plans, and spend no time or money or produce on things like gratitude or compassion or community. He was rich and secure. Until he wasn’t.

“This night, your life will be demanded of you, and then whose will these things be?” Whose will they be? The parable has circled back to the question of how an inheritance is to be divided, and maybe now we see why Jesus was so impatient with the question. Settling an estate can be a point of gratitude for the past and of strengthening the bonds of those who continue. It can also be a point where old resentments and current anxieties press hard against the ties of friendship and family. Here, Jesus wants us to see one thing more. The question that the rich fool couldn’t answer was exactly that, “Whose will they be?” and the implied answer is simple: they never were yours, not in any absolute way. You received them and then held them until you had to put them down. They were yours by the creative goodness of God from the shared work of a community that made your work possible. They were yours to be used for good, your good and others. And they were only yours for a time.

Flannery O’Connor wrote a story, actually one about the aftermath of a death, and its title is enough of a story in itself: “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead.” So the rich fool’s life was demanded of him and the next morning, when those field hands he didn’t mention paying got up, when the craftsmen who’d built the new barns heard about it, when the neighbor’s he’d pretty much ignored saw the hearse driving away, they were all still in possession of whatever little bit they had. There was, we can assume, food on their tables as they shook their heads over the news. But the rich man, he was dead, and that’s as poor as you can be.

Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, Jesus says, because it is greed that cuts us off from life. For life is not the weight of possessions, nor is it secured in bigger barns, and it is not sustained by what we clutch. Wealth (or the overwhelming longing for wealth), overweening ambition, or even just prudent planning empty of gratitude and generosity is like an addiction, and like an addiction it will choke out every competing interest or concern. Greed will blind a person to what is good in the very thing that greed grasps. Money and wealth can do good things, but greed refuses to see the source or the point. Greed makes an idol of its focus and as scriptures insistently reminds us, idols are cold, dead things that can do no one any good. The biggest lie that this idol whispers in our ears is that we are invulnerable, that what we have isolates us from need. Maybe it places us above those who have less in this culture. It means we are secure and in control. And when we hear that, and believe it, we cannot hear God speak. Well, the rich farmer couldn’t until those fearsome words, “Fool, this night your life is demanded of you.” You can’t be poorer than dead.

But that was him, and it was a parable, and so where do we stand? Paul says we have died already, so we are one step ahead of the foolish farmer. We have died and our life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, we will appear with him in glory.

When Christ appears, we will appear with him. When people introduce themselves one of the things we do is give a name and then some identifier: where we are in school, what sort of work we do, where we might be from. We listen and then share our own, quietly sizing each other up in other categories depending on the reason we encountered each other. But Paul insists that all of that – some of it profoundly important and life-enhancing, some of it simply realities of where we fall in the structures of the world, some of it the result of good or bad decisions – the ways we introduce ourselves or size each other up are finally as irrelevant as the rich fool’s wealth. When Christ appears, you will appear with him. After calling on us to live lives that turn away from evil and corruption, from lies and deception and from greed, Paul takes us one step further into poverty: there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and free. We can no longer claim those identities, either as our privilege or another’s shame. They can no longer hold us back from each other. Christ has gathered all of that up in his incarnation. Nothing human is foreign him who was made “truly man.” The fullness of humanity bridges all of that and the fullness of humanity now in Christ is hid in God. You have died and your life is hid with Christ in God, and when Christ appears, you will appear with him. Anything we do that breaks down suspicions and heals divisions we do because whatever the division, Christ stands on both sides. If we confess and repent our own prejudice or pride or if we stand against the structures of a divided society, we are simply seeking Christ in whom all are one and who is in all. When Christ appears, we will appear with him, and then the beauty of every distinction and the gift in each particularity will be seen in the blessed unity that the Holy Spirit strives to perfect. Christ is all and in all.

Christ’s appearing is never far from hand: a passage of the Gospels, the blessed grace we encounter in the sacraments, the holiness of beauty, the joy of work that matters, the compassion that heals, the cup of water given in his name. Christ appears for those who have eyes and ears to perceive, and when we see and know Christ, we know ourselves. We know ourselves transformed, Paul says, we will appear with him in glory. And there we who are as poor as dead become heirs of a kingdom, and there in Christ’s transfiguring beauty, people like us shine with a glory that no riches and no earthly status can claim.

That is what made the rich farmer so foolish. For all that he had and for all his prudence, this is what he needed: a heart grateful enough to see God’s hand as the source of every good thing, and then a compassionate heart, that in knowing his own poverty he could see in others the needs he could meet, the good he could do, and the gifts he could give. “You fool,” God says, to the one who counts possessions, but not as blessings and gifts; to the one who builds barns and storehouses, but not for the well-being of others. “You fool,” he says to the one who forgets that all of this and even the ways in which we define ourselves is passing away, ours for the day and then to be given back into the hands from whence it came. And yet in baptism, our death is already behind us, drawn into Christ’s own life. Our poverty is enriched with his grace, and our true self remains to be received as gift, to be seen as revelation, to be revealed in glory when Christ who is our life is revealed.


Preached by Father David Cobb

31 July 2016

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia


Posted on August 2, 2016 .