Sermon for the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost, August 4, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 13-14; 2:18-23+Psalm 49:1-11+Colossians 3:1-11+Luke 12:13-21

Back in the early 2000’s when I had given up my regular role as a church musician and instead did supply work when and where I pleased, Tim would make his way on Sunday mornings to Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia. It is one of the largest and most wealthy of Presbyterian churches, currently has six clergy and 27 staff members, but that’s not why he went there. Tim, being Tim, went to hear the preacher, the Rev. Dr. Eugene Bey, who could weave a sermon together like nobody’s business. Speaking in front of several hundred people at each service, he would call out his well-heeled congregation on hoarding wealth and isolating themselves from the concerns of the world. They must have liked him alright because he served there for 17 years.

Now, you may have noticed that Tim sits in the same seat every Sunday, he always has and always will, and he did the same at Bryn Mawr. It just so happened that sitting in the pew in front of him and a little to the right was one of the congregation’s wealthiest members who also sat in the same pew every week. His name was Jack Bogle. It may be a name familiar to you, because Mr. Bogle was the founder of the Vanguard Group and is credited with the invention of the index fund. Now, you’d have never known to look at him that he had great wealth. He gave an extraordinary amount of it away to charity, the church, and the schools he attended, and left much of his estate to charity following his death last January.

In 2008, Bogle published a book entitled Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life. He starts his book this way:

At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel “Catch-22” over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have…enough.”[1]

Enough. When is enough enough? When three men in this country own as much as the bottom 50% of Americans? When ten men in the world have wealth that is higher than many countries, including Switzerland? When the richest 1% own 45% of the world’s wealth? When a median African American family in the U.S. owns just 2% of the wealth that a median white family does?[2]

When is enough, enough? This story Jesus told his listeners is known as the Parable of the Rich Fool. In truth, to be rich in 1st century Palestine might have meant that you owned a couple of goats, maybe a patch of land, a few sheep. Poverty was so pervasive, that ownership of much of anything could count one as wealthy.

What makes him a fool is not really his wealth. It’s his stance towards his wealth. Notice how many times he uses first-person pronouns and possessives here:

“What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops” (12:17)?

I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (12:18-19).

I count eleven times…in three sentences. He has an abundance of crops and engages in a conversation with himself about what he’ll do about it. There is no consideration of who else might benefit from these crops, who might not have such a great harvest, who might be hungry. He’s only worried about looking out for #1. I think the writer of Ecclesiastes might have had this guy in mind when he wrote, “all is vanity and chasing after the wind” (1:14).

Remember, Jesus and his companions are on the road to Jerusalem. There is a sense of urgency. “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you” (12:20). This was a real threat, both when Jesus was walking the earth and when Luke’s gospel was written some fifty years later. There is not time to hoard what you have. Your job as a follower of Jesus is, in Luke’s telling, to “bring good news to the poor” (4:18), not to build bigger barns.

When you’re on the road to Jerusalem, when is enough, enough?

Of course, our reading starts this morning with an argument about sharing an inheritance, and Jesus clearly has no time for that. There are plenty of inheritance laws in Torah to settle any dispute. The one doing the asking is clearly not the one the law designates as the heir, which would be the eldest. No, a younger son is trying to get what the law says he should not and is trying to use Jesus as the moral authority in the matter. If Jesus made some kind of judgment for him, it would set brother against brother. Here Jesus has been trying to prepare people for what lies ahead, and this guy is focused on his inheritance. Tone deaf, at best.

The late New Testament theologian Kenneth Bailey rewrote this parable of the two sons in a way that points to reconciliation and hope rather than greed or brokenness.

“A certain man had two sons. One was rich and the other was poor. The rich son had no children while the poor son was blessed with many sons and many daughters.

In time the father fell ill. He was sure he would not live through the week so on Saturday he called his sons to his side and gave each of them half of the land as their inheritance. Then he died.

Before sundown the sons buried their father with respect as custom required.

That night the rich son could not sleep. He said to himself, “What my father did was not just. I am rich, my brother is poor. I have bread enough and to spare, while my brother’s children eat one day and trust God for the next. I must move the landmark which our father has set in the middle of the land so that my brother will have the greater share. Ah—but he must not see me. If he sees me, he will be shamed. I must arise early in the morning before it is dawn and move the landmark!” With this he fell asleep and his sleep was secure and peaceful.

Meanwhile, the poor brother could not sleep. As he lay restless on his bed he said to himself, “What my father did was not just. Here I am surrounded by the joy of my many sons and many daughters, while my brother daily faces the shame of having no sons to carry on his name and no daughters to comfort him in his old age. He should have the land of our fathers. Perhaps this will in part compensate him for his indescribable poverty. Ah—but if I give it to him he will be shamed. I must awake early in the morning before it is dawn and move the landmark which our father has set!” With this he went to sleep and his sleep was secure and peaceful.

On the first day of the week— very early in the morning, a long time before it was day, the two brothers met at the ancient land marker. They fell with tears into each other’s arms. And on that spot was built the city of Jerusalem.” [3]

This entire section of Luke is less about ownership of possessions than it is about ownership by possessions. It is a fearsome thing to be trapped by golden handcuffs. Joseph Heller understood this when he said, almost lamenting, that the wealthy party host would never have something he – Heller – had, which is enough. Enough to see us through each day. Enough to share with our neighbor. Maybe when we can all say that we have “enough,” the new Jerusalem will come.         


[1] John C. Bogle, Enough: True Measure of Money, Business, and Life. (Hoboken Wiley, 2008) 1.

[2] https://inequality.org

[3] https://www.spiritualityofconflict.com/pdfs/readings/196_ordinary-18.pdf

ASEPSermon for the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost, August 4, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas