Tell It Slant, III: You Can’t Get Enough of What You Don’t Really Want
And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’
This is not the sweetest of Jesus’ homey little stories, is it? It is not as harmless as his yarn about the mustard seed, nor as universally acclaimed as his story about the famous oxymoron, The GOOD Samaritan.
It does not have a happy ending. Here’s how it ends: “You fool. This very night your life will be demanded of you. And these things that you have piled up, whose will they be?” “You fool,” says Jesus. As my son might say, “Dad, you’re harshing my mellow.”
Let me start by tangling with Jesus on the point of his story. The villain in this story, the guy God calls a fool, is a hard-working, sensible, long-range planner. He is a man of tomorrow. He is the exact opposite of the prodigal son, who squandered his inheritance on riotous living until there was so little left he had to eat the slop they left for the pigs. This guy doesn’t squander; he saves. He’s an early prototype of a modern-day capitalist. People like him are the heroes of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Excess capital, stored up against the future and then invested in other enterprises, slowly crushes poverty and leaves some in vast riches, most in the middle class, and only a few behind. Grain in silos is money in the bank. It is education for your children, stimulant to the economy, security against old age when your knees become too wobbly to drag a plow through stubborn clots of earth. Why is Jesus so hard on this guy?
Jesus is hitting a little close to home, isn’t he? First of all, Kenilworth is the land of the bigger barns. True, our barns don’t hold grain anymore. They hold people—very comfortably, with lots of extra space to roam around.
And not only is Kenilworth the land of the bigger barns, it is also home to the guardians of tomorrow. That is to say, for many, many, many of us, our work is to silo precious resources in safe places. It’s not grain anymore; it’s money; but that’s what we do, the same thing the ‘FOOL’ in Jesus’ story. If you work for Northern Trust, or BMO Harris, or Morgan Stanley, or Fidelity, or Merrill Lynch, your job is to find safe havens for excess capital so that your clients will have it for their futures, for their retirements, for their children. Because, after all, a thousand shares of General Electric stock is just a paper silo, right? It’s where we store our surplus capital. For many of us, our job is to build bigger barns; they’re paper barns, but if you don’t make them bigger, you get fired.
What is Jesus’ problem with this guy? Well, let me look with you seriously at why Jesus got his knickers in a twist, because for all that is right and good about this guy in Jesus’ story, Jesus does have a point, doesn’t he?
First of all, God calls the guy in the story a fool because of his misplaced self-congratulation. Did you notice how Jesus begins his pointed little story? “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” The land of a rich man produced abundantly. It wasn’t him. It was the land. He didn’t earn it. It was a gift. Now, Jesus doesn’t say the rich man didn’t work hard for what he had. If you’re a gardener you have sympathies with the farmer who coaxes nourishment from the recalcitrant dust with sweat and an aching back. You know he worked hard. That’s not Jesus’ point. He’s just gently reminding his hearers that it was all gift.
It was the fecundity of the soil, the heat of a star, the almost miraculous generativity of the necessary rains, the photosynthetic alchemy by which inert nitrogen and hydrogen and carbon morph into consumable energy. George Buttrick puts it like this: “This man was carried to fortune on a fecundity, a light, a heat, a constancy of nature’s cycles, which are boundless mysteries of blessing—and he called them ‘mine.’
All of this and he never once pauses to acknowledge that he is the recipient of an unstinting largesse. His instantaneous response: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” He skips the thanksgiving and jumps straight to the business plan. So that’s Lesson #1 from Jesus’ little story: if you find yourself to be the beneficiary of extravagant blessing, could you take a moment to praise the Giver before you busy yourself with figuring out how to extract the greatest profit from the gift? Maybe your first response could be “Thank you, God!” instead of “Three cheers for me!”
Second lesson: Jesus wants us to know that “we can never get enough of what we do not really want.” We think we want so many things. We want Venice; we want Waikiki; we want a Lexus. We want 7,000 square feet, 6 bedrooms for four people, the tennis court, the swimming pool. We want Ralph, Calvin, Fendi, and Prada.
But that’s not what we want. These things do not give us joy, make us complete, or bless us with peace. What we want can’t be touched. What we want can’t be put in a bank. What we want is God.
And Jesus understands that this guy is trying to slake his thirst with the wrong brew. That’s how Schopenhauer puts it: “Money is like sea-water,” he says. “The more we drink the thirstier we become.” We cannot get enough of what we do not really want.
Don’t you notice how often we are undone by that with which we are most blessed? In a strange twist of expectation, we are defeated not by what we don’t have but by what we have too much of. Think of the long litany of disgrace: Bernie Madoff, Maria Sharapova, Barbara Byrd Bennett, Alex Rodriguez, Phil Mickelson, the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois, the United States of America, all leaving shameful debt for their grandchildren to pay, or not.
We are commonly undone not by what we lack but by what we already have too much of. Did The Real Housewives of Wherever really need all that plastic surgery? Weren’t they beautiful enough with what God originally gave them? Undone by too much beauty.
Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen ends one of his courses with a lecture called “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Jesus could have used that title for his little “Bigger Barns” parable, right? “How Will You Measure Your Life?”
Dr. Christensen is also a Harvard alum, and in the last lecture in his business course, he tells his students about attending Harvard class reunions. He says that when he went to his fifth reunion at Harvard, all his classmates were happy and thriving. They’d all married spouses who were more attractive than they were. Most of them didn’t have children yet. They were all having a blast.
But then Dr. Christensen says that things had changed by the 20th, the 25th, the 30th reunion. Many of his classmates had gotten a divorce, or two, or three. Their ex’s had taken the children to the opposite coast where these children were being raised by strangers. Many of his classmates had no meaningful relationships with their children.
And then Dr. Christensen goes on to point out that none of his classmates had set out upon graduation to obtain multiple divorces or to raise children who hated their guts. They were all bright, ambitious, well-meaning professionals. It’s just that raising a loving family is harder than pursuing a successful career and takes a lot longer.
Work gives us intense and instant gratification. Building a happy marriage or raising a beautiful child, on the other hand, takes about 25 years, and because we are human, we will always spend most of our time and energy attending to the things in our lives that bring the quickest return. So over and over again, we will choose overtime over spouse, and another business trip over the musical your fourth-grader is singing a solo in.
This all happens invisibly, gradually, subconsciously, precognitively. We cannot help ourselves. Only wise and vigilant and mature persons will make harder, slower, but ultimately much more rewarding, choices. Dr. Christensen reminded me once again that we cannot get enough of what we don’t really want.
Third lesson: notice how lonely the man is. Did you notice that there is only one character in this parable? Well, God’s in it, but that doesn’t count. There is not a hint of family or friends or neighbors. He is all alone. Look at the little soliloquy he makes while he’s trying to figure out what he’s going to do. It is an internal monologue, a torrent of first-person singular pronouns. “This is what I will do,” he says. I will build bigger barns, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to myself, “Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”
In a soliloquy of exactly 63 words in my version, 11 of them are ‘I,’ ‘me,’ ‘my,’ ‘mine,’ and ‘self.’ There is not a mention of a wife, a friend, or a neighbor. Someone put it like this: “This man has the money to buy a vacuum and live in it.” “Relax,” he says to himself, “Eat, drink, and be merry.” The thing is, there’s no one to party with. Do you know somebody who is the only character in his own story? How are you finding him? Are you having a good time?
Fourth lesson: notice that while working for tomorrow is a good thing, all we have is today. There is such a thing as balance. You never know when, as the story puts it, “your life will be demanded of you.” Jesus rudely says, “You fool! These things that you have piled up. Whose will they be?” When you’re gone, what they gonna do? Have a rummage sale for your huge pile of stuff?”
Back in the fourth century already St. Ambrose put it so aptly. “The rich man didn’t need bigger barns,” said Ambrose. “If he’d only looked around at his neighbors, he would have found ample storage for his grain in the mouths of the needy.”
We never know when our life will be required of us, and when it is, will we suddenly realize, too late, that we’ve spent so much time earning a living that we never lived a life? At the end of the story, this guy is rich, secure, relaxed, alone, foolish, and dead.
Let me close with another parable, this one from Fred Craddock, maybe the greatest American preacher of the late 20th century. This is the parable he tells:
I have never been to the greyhound races, but I have seen them on television. They have these beautiful dogs—I say beautiful, they are really ugly dogs—and they run that mechanical rabbit around the ring. When the dogs get to the point that they can no longer race, the owners put a little ad in the paper to see if anybody wants to adopt one for a pet. If no one takes them, the dogs are destroyed.
I have a niece in Arizona who cannot stand the thought of those dogs being destroyed, so she goes out and adopts them. She has several of these big old greyhound dogs in her house. She loves them.
Once I was in a home where they adopted a racing dog. He was a big, spotted greyhound, and he was lying there in the den. One of the kids in the family, just a toddler, was pulling on its tail, and a little older kid had his head over on that big dog’s stomach, using it for a pillow. The dog just seemed so happy.
I said to the dog, “You still racing?”
“No, no,” the dog said. “I don’t race anymore.”
I said, “Do you miss the glitter and excitement of the track?”
“No,” he replied.
“Well, what was the matter?” Did you get too old to race?”
“No, I still had some race in me.”
“Well, what then? Did you not win?”
“I won over a million dollars for my owner.” “Well, what was it? Bad treatment?”
“Oh, no,” the dog replied. “They treated us royally when we were racing.”
“Did you get crippled?”
“Then why?” I pressed.
He said, “I quit.”
“Yes,” he said. “I quit.”
“Why did you quit?”
“I discovered that what I was chasing was not really a rabbit, and I quit.”
He looked at me, and he said, “All that chasing, all that running around, running and running and running, and what was I chasing? It wasn’t even real.”
The dog put his head back down so that he could be a better pillow for the little boy.
You cannot get enough of what you don’t really want. It’s something to think about.
George Buttrick, “Life and Much Goods,” The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990), 130.
My paraphrase of Huston Smith, in Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), p. 172.
Slightly adapted from Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life, trans. T. Bailey Saunders (first published in English in London, 1890; this edition by Dover Publications, 2004), ch. 3.
Clayton Christensen, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” a Ted Talk at TedX Boston, http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxBoston-Clay-Christensen-How
Kenneth E. Bailey, in Through Peasant Eyes, in Poet and Peasant & Through Peasant Eyes (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983). p. 64.
Quoted by Kenneth E. Bailey, p. 65.
Fred Craddock, “But What About the Weeds?” in The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 30.