When I was in college, I had the fortune to study with Dr. Stirling, a living legend in the English Department. He was the kind of teacher who drew you in so completely that you were shocked when the class was over because it felt like you’d only started a moment earlier.
I remember one day we were reading a poem by Thomas Hardy. He read the poem aloud, then led us running through a maze of a discussion that not only delved into the various levels of the poem, but opened out into sprawling debates about faith, doubt, life, death, and so on. When the time was up, Dr. Stirling held up his hand. “Does anyone have anything they need to add before we end?” he asked. One hand shot up immediately, urgently. Dr. Stirling nodded at him. “Will this be on the test?” the student asked abruptly.
I’ll never forget Dr. Stirling’s reaction. He stared at the student so hard that I thought the guy might burst into flames just from the sheer burning intensity of his gaze. After a long pause, he finally said, “It already was.” He kept staring for another moment or two, then swept his book from the podium and left us sitting in the room in awkward silence.
I understood Dr. Stirling’s frustration with such a bad student. He was a bad student first because clearly he hadn’t been engaged by any of the beauty or power of the poem itself. And second, he clearly had no idea whether or why the poem was important. What sets the good students apart from the poor ones isn’t necessarily that they’ve mastered everything; it’s that they’ve recognized and mastered what’s important. A good student never has to ask whether something will be on the test; they already know, because they know what matters.
That’s what this parable that Jesus tells to these sons who are fighting over their inheritance is about: the question of what matters. This story is often misinterpreted to be a critique of people who waste their resources on self-indulgence and luxury. But that’s not correct. This produces a bumper crop with his fields, and when he does, he doesn’t use the unexpected surplus to build a bigger house, much less waste it on unnecessary luxury items. That would be foolish; you never know when a bumper crop will be followed by a famine, and he wants to be ready. So he tears down his old barns and replaces them with bigger ones rather than just adding more barns so that he doesn’t take up more land that could be cultivated for future harvests. So what’s the problem?
The problem is one of faith; that’s what matters. When I was in Zimbabwe about ten years ago with a Mission Partnership Team from my former church, one of the more memorable conversations (and there were many) was with a man who was probably about 80 years old. He had retired on his government pension in the early 1990s, when Zimbabwe was considered a relatively stable, relatively prosperous country in sub-Saharan Africa.
But at the time of my visit, Zimbabwe was experiencing some of the worst hyper-inflation in the history of the world. The exchange rate was spiraling into the millions against one U.S. dollar, and growing worse every day. People would spend money as soon as they were paid, before they even went home, because their money would be worth noticeably less the next day. When I met him, he told me that his entire monthly pension check, what he had spent his entire life working towards to give himself security in retirement, was not worth enough to buy a single loaf of bread.
Well, I honestly had no idea how to respond to that, so I simply asked him how he was living. “Through faith,” he said simply. “But Jesus’ faith, not mine,” he chuckled; “mine is not strong enough for life in Zimbabwe these days.” I replied that while man does not live by bread alone, bread is still pretty important, and asked how he’s eating.
“Well, that is how I know Jesus is faithful,” he said. “Today my chicken lays a few eggs, and my neighbors and I eat. Tomorrow someone else finds some flour and makes biscuits, and my neighbors and I eat. The next week someone else picks some corn from their garden, and my neighbors and I eat.” He looked at me, and he smiled. “There is a reason Jesus taught us to pray this day for our daily bread, my friend; it is when we need bread today that we really need God’s help, not when we plan to have bread years from now.”
The problem with the rich man in this story is not a problem of stewardship; it is a problem of faith. His faith is in himself and his stuff: he believes that if he works enough, plans enough, conserves enough, he can save his own soul. That may sound like a stretch, but just listen to what he says: “I will do this,” he says: “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.’” He’s literally reassuring his soul, “Hey, Soul, don’t worry, once I’ve built these barns you can relax and enjoy life without worrying about the future.”
But, of course, he was wrong. God shows up, demands the very soul the man is trying to reassure, and then asks, “And the things that you have prepared, whose will they be?” Well, perhaps his sons. And perhaps they, too, soon enough, will be fighting over inheritance, over who gets what out of those bigger barns.
It sounds ridiculous; this man talking to his soul like it is a frightened child, reassuring it that nothing bad is going to happen to it, that everything’s going to be okay. But, just like a frightened child looking to us for comfort, it is very tempting to say anything to reassure a fearful soul, even when we know our promises are beyond our power. Now, I’m not suggesting that our retirement plans should be living on faith and the goodwill of each other. My friend in Zimbabwe planned very carefully and responsibly for a comfortable, worry-free retirement. He didn’t plan to spend his retirement trying to scrape together enough food just to get through the day, then doing it all over again, every day. But he was prepared for it. He was prepared for it because he never had to ask, “will this be on the test?” He knew that it already was, and he knew that he had answered it.
The true test is not a crisis or event looming ahead of us that we must prepare to pass. Long before such things happen, the true test has already been given. The test is not about whether to give away a surplus instead of trying to keep it for yourself; it is about whether to give away your life instead of trying to keep it for yourself.
That is where my friend succeeded; that is where the rich man failed. Our true hope for the future is that whether our treasure chests on earth hold piles of silver or piles of sand, our lives, our souls, belong to God; and in God’s hands, they will be safe. Not safe from doubt, or disappointment, or suffering, or even death; nothing can keep us safe from those things, least of all our possessions.
No, but in God’s hands our lives and souls will be safe, certainly, from loss: loss of meaning, loss of purpose, loss of identity, loss of community, loss of hope, and certainly safe from the loss of God’s presence and love. Not through our faith, of course; our faith is not strong enough for that. But in and through the faith of Christ, Christ’s faithfulness to and through death, we receive faith in times of fear, and hope in the midst of despair, and life in the land of death, and bread to sustain us for the journey through them all.