"Bigger Barns and Weak Links" – Luke 12:13-21
(Contemporary English Version)
A man in a crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to give me my share of what our father left us when he died.”
Jesus answered, “Who gave me the right to settle arguments between you and your brother?” Then he said to the crowd, “Don’t be greedy! Owning a lot of things won’t make your life safe.”
So Jesus told them this story:
A rich man’s farm produced a big crop, and he said to himself, "What can I do? I don’t have a place large enough to store everything.” Later, he said, “Now I know what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, where I can store all my grain and other goods. Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You have stored up enough good things to last for years to come. Live it up! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.’”
But God said to him, “You fool! Tonight you will die. Then who will get what you have stored up?”
“This is what happens to people who store up everything for themselves, but are poor in the sight of God.”
Grace, peace, and mercy to you from God our Father, from our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit who unites us in faith. Amen.
One of my favorite authors is Malcolm Gladwell.
He is a journalist who takes complex and often-hidden realities about social structures and human thought and distills them into fascinating stories and revelations. His latest project is a podcast series called “Revisionist History” that can be downloaded for free through iTunes or his website.
I would have loved to play his episode from July 20 called “My Little Hundred Million” in its entirety for you this morning because it is particularly insightful with regards to today’s gospel story; but I’ll do my best to give you the abridged version.
Gladwell tells the story of Hank Rowan, who, in the early ‘90s, gave $100 million to Glassboro State University – a tiny, almost bankrupt school in New Jersey to which he had no significant connection. This monumental gift ushered in a period of unprecedented large-scale giving to colleges and universities. What makes this story unique, however, is that almost all of the largest gifts to higher education since that time have gone to the richest colleges and universities such as Harvard and Stanford. Gladwell spends the episode examining why no other donors took Rowan’s example and also explores the ramifications of the richest American colleges and universities getting even richer.
What it boils down to, for Gladwell, is a contrast of two ideological systems: weak link systems (think soccer) and strong link systems (think basketball).
In soccer, the worst player on the team can do more damage to the team than a superstar could make up for. The team is very dependent on one another. Therefore, in soccer, upgrading the weakest players on your team instead of finding even-better superstars will result in more goals for the team.
Contrast that with basketball, which is superstar-driven. In basketball, paying for the superstar is worthwhile because one person can dominate on behalf of the team. The right superstar can overcome a handful of weaker teammates.
Here’s a brief clip to explain a bit more…
Gladwell goes on to provide more examples of how strong link theory dominates our world – particularly in regards to education – but how in reality the weak link argument is often the approach that would make the most difference.
When the ultra-rich donate to ultra-rich schools like Stanford, Princeton, or Harvard (schools whose endowments virtually guarantee their perpetual existence even if they would not charge any tuition ever again), that money accomplishes far less than it would have if it were given to a poorer school that would open up opportunities for more students. As a nation, we would all benefit more from the lifting-up of the bottom than we would from a handful of elite students getting an even better education at an elite school.
I’m obviously glossing over a lot of other information and I do encourage you to listen to this podcast episode in its entirety sometime soon. But for our purposes here this morning I hope this information provides a set of lenses through which you can look at today’s gospel story.
In this story as told by Luke, Jesus is asked to settle a financial dispute between brothers fighting over their inheritance from their deceased father.
Instead of stepping in to the middle of the argument or choosing a side, Jesus tells a story about a rich farmer (and trust me, as someone who was raised in rural Ohio, I know how much of an oxymoron the title “rich farmer” is).
The rich farmer had another bumper crop and asks himself this question, “How can I make room for all of my stuff?” The farmer decided to tear down his barn and make a bigger one – an investment in the future which absolves him from any hard work or responsibility from that day forward. Instead, he’s going to “Live it up!”
Then God comes in with the bad news: “You fool! Tonight you will die. Then who will get all your stuff?" God doesn’t provide an answer to that question, but it’s safe to assume in this scenario that the people who will get the rich farmer’s stuff are the people whom he should have been generously sharing with all along.
The rich farmer building the bigger and bigger barns is a strong link thinker. In fact, the rich farmer represents the end game of strong-link theory. His primary goal is the accumulation of more and more. The stuff he accumulates has only one purpose – to keep him fed and usher in age of freedom from responsibility from work or responsibility to care for others. That is how you win the game if you are playing for only yourself.
But according to Jesus, this is not how his followers play the game because no one wins at the game of life. Death will come to us all. No amount of hoarding and accumulating will truly allow us to live forever. As long as we have the faculties to do so, we will never be free from the responsibility to work or the responsibility to care for others
Bigger barns have one purpose – to consolidate resources and power. And there are any number of ways we try to justify this power grab. We claim, “I earned it” or “I’m the only one who can be trusted with all this” or “God has blessed me with this.”
Jesus tells a story in which a successful man was driven by greed, a desire for power, and a life of ease apart from anyone else. This man will die and everything he withheld from others will end up going to them anyways. “This is what happens to people who store up everything for themselves, but are poor in the sight of God.”
After reading this story from Luke, it is clear to me that the benefits to weak-link theory are not solely financial or social, but are also moral and spiritual. The accumulation and consolidation of wealth at the expense of others is a character trait of a fool and it leads to isolation from God and one’s neighbors. God’s blessings are intended to be shared so that the weak among us can be made strong.
This is a story told to remind us of a greater story…
– a story that show us we are better when all people have equal rights, opportunities, and access;
– a story demonstrating the power of generosity;
– a story demonstrating the evil of greed;
– a story reminding us that in order for our generosity to do the most good, it has to be cast wide into as many lives as possible;
– a story reminding us that our value to directly tied to those who are the poorest and most in need in our society.
There is a good chance that none of us will ever be in a position to give 100 million dollars to a university; but each day we are all presented with numerous ways to be generous in sacrificial ways that will strengthen the weak links in our society. May our eyes, hearts, and hands be opened to these opportunities, in the name of Jesus Christ who alone liberates us from sin and the power of death.