Preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison
at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields
September 19th 2021
So today, in Luke’s Gospel, we have a harvest story that arises out of a family economic dispute. Family arguments over money are just the worst, aren’t they? Someone in a crowd asked Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ (12:13) There are echoes there of other family disputes: Martha asking Jesus to make her sister Mary to help around the house (Luke 10:38-40), or, in another parable, a prodigal child demanding their share of the family property now, so that they can go and blow it all on ‘dissolute living’ (Luke 15:12, 13).
And Jesus responds to this request not with an order, or with an offer to arbitrate, but with a story. It’s a harvest story about a rich man for whom things have gone well. The man’s land had ‘produced abundantly’ (12:16), so much so that his storage facilities could not cope with the quantity of the crop (12:17) What to do? What to do? Well, expanding the farm was his answer: ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and all my goods. And I will say to myself, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink and be merry.’ (12:18-19)
And the first thing to say is that in this story, this parable, the rich man broke no specific rules or laws. No other person owned the land, the buildings or the crops. But there is a hint that not everything is quite right. Jesus, when asked to sum up the law, said that it meant you should love God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. Yet in the story, in this parable, the rich man talks only of himself, with not a mention of the neighbours. For him, it’s my barns, my grain, my goods. Nor does he give God a mention. Instead he even speaks of ‘my soul’.
It’s as though, as far as the harvest is concerned, he has forgotten God exists; he calculates about the crop as though God does not exist. In his attitude the farmer personifies the opening verse of Psalm 14 – ‘The fool says in their heart, There is no God.’ And so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that in Jesus’s parable ‘God [then] said to him, You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And these things you have prepared , whose will they be?’ (12:20)
You see, the problem is not that the man is rich. There’s no problem with the man enjoying his riches, which is good news for us, because, in world terms, we too are rich. No! The problem is that having much more than enough for his needs, and also for his enjoyment, he still wants to hang on to the surplus, even whilst others (his neighbours) live in poverty and are hungry. On top of that, he wants to give himself all of the credit for his happy situation, forgetting the part that God has played. God placed him in his fortunate situation in life, providing the processes through which food grows and human (and other) life is sustained. The farmer refuses to be ‘rich towards God’; a God who has been rich towards him; a God and who is rich in love towards all the other creatures of the world i.e. the man’s neighbours.
So how might all of that apply today? Well, this passage must have inspired many a harvest sermon over the years, about how we should share our share of the world’s harvest with our neighbours in this world. After all, Jesus tells the parable in response to a question about an economic sharing dispute within one human family. I’ll guess that some of us here have unhappy personal experience about how bad that can be. But, on this harvest Sunday, we can apply the story more widely, acknowledging its relevance about how the bounty of the earth – the world’s harvest – is shared within the family of humankind.
As I thought about this Bible passage, and how to apply it in a harvest sermon today, one current situation came to mind. I found myself thinking about how, during this last year, we in this country have been richly blessed with a mighty harvest of anti-COVID vaccines; acres and acres of Astra Zeneca, fantastic amounts of Pfizer, mountains of Moderna, and the like. And having jabbed (or ‘jagged in Scotland) the majority of this country’s population, not once but twice, we are now planning a whole set of booster jabs. Meanwhile, though, as some have been pointing out, in some poorer countries in the world today, most of the population have not yet received one, never mind two, doses of vaccine.
The rich man in the biblical parable thought only to store “his” surplus food in his barns rather than in the stomachs of his neighbours. It seems to me that as we celebrate – and we do celebrate – the amazing harvest of vaccines, arising from human scientific, technological, and organisational achievement, that have helped to safeguard so many lives, we need to give deep thought to what Jesus is saying about how we distribute and share it. Will we store the whole harvest of vaccines in our own arms, or instead work to place our surplus of them in the arms of other members of the human family? ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’
This harvest parable from Jesus does not suggest that all people are required to plunge themselves into poverty. It does suggest, though, that when you’ve brought in a rich harvest – of food, or vaccines, or other goods – then your next thought should be how to share them, in love, with your neighbours, with your fellow members in the family of humankind; people that God loves. So, may God, who has rich to us in giving us this harvest, give us the strength and wisdom to share it with others. Amen.