Digging in Deeper: Luke 12:16-20

“Then he told them a parable: ‘A rich man’s land was very productive. He thought to himself, “What should I do, since I don’t have anywhere to store my crops? I will do this,” he said. “I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones and store all my grain and my goods there. Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.'” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared – whose will they be?”‘” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Context matters. A classic example of this is a man who pushes an old woman in the middle of the road. You might judge him as the kind of man who pushes old women, but what if he was pushing her out of the way of an oncoming bus? Then his act was not one of villainy, but heroism. Context matters. Just like for this man pushing old women, context matters in your life. Why you do what you do matters. Jesus helped us understand that through a jarring parable. Let’s talk about it and what it means for us.

Let me give you a little peak behind the curtain on the process of creating this content each morning. The kernel of an idea for each post comes out of time I’ve spent in the Scriptures in the weeks before it actually appears on the website and in your email inbox. Sometimes I’m writing about something I’ve read and thought about a few days before, but usually I’m running on ideas I first had three weeks before or more. I spend some time with whatever passage my devotional has taken me to on a particular day (and every so often I’ll spend several days with a single passage because I want to make sure I’m not missing anything in it), and then write out what usually becomes the first paragraph of the post. That gets saved in my Bible app and when I turn to it a few weeks later, hopefully I still remember what the idea was when I first wrote it well enough that I can flesh the rest of it out in a few hundred words.

I say all of that to tell you this: Occasionally, through no intention of my own, I’ll have ideas that are really pretty similar in a fairly close calendar proximity to one another. Sometimes I’ll recognize the similarity when I’m doing my initial writing, but sometimes I won’t remember it until I’m actually sitting down to flesh the idea out into a full post. This similarity isn’t usually because I’ve looked at the same passage. Often it comes out of two very different passage. They simply struck the same thematic chord in my mind while reading them. And although I have simply deleted an idea kernel when I’ve discovered this, usually I go on and write the second post on the assumption that God must be trying to tell me something…or perhaps He’s trying to tell you something.

Well, as a matter of full disclosure, this is one of those posts. Writing about the Tower of Babel a couple of weeks ago, I focused my attention on the reason behind the things we do. Whether we do them for God or for ourselves matters. That was a lesson from a passage fairly early in the Genesis narrative at the very beginning of the Bible. It was first recorded on paper sometime in the vicinity of 1500 B.C. This morning’s passage came out of a parable Jesus told about fifteen centuries later. And it sparked basically the same idea. It’s almost like this is something humans have struggled a bit to get right over the course of our history. And if we needed to learn the same basic lesson spaced out over 1500 years, I have a sneaking suspicion that roughly 2,000 years later, we could probably use a refresher course.

Jesus’ parable here is about a rich man who struck it even richer. He already had a lot of land. His land was already really productive. He had a lot of grain stored up. He was successful by every social measure. And then he had the bumper crop of all bumper crops. In his wildest dreams he had never imagined he would see his fields produce so much food. This, however, brought him to face a problem. He didn’t have anywhere to store this incredible crop. If he couldn’t put it up properly, he stood to lose a fortune to waste. He couldn’t bear the thought of that. This would be a little like your winning the Powerball Jackpot when it had swelled to close to a billion dollars only to realize your bank only let you hold an account of $250 million. And if you didn’t figure out how to create an account big enough to hold all the money, everything that didn’t go in your account would just go back in the pot for the next winner.

The man thought long and hard about a solution to his problem and finally hit on one: He would simply tear down his existing barns and build even bigger ones. Then he would be able to successfully store all of his crop and wouldn’t lose any of it to waste.

And then God comes along in a dream, calls him a fool (which, in context, was not a commentary on his mental facilities, but rather his moral ones), tells him he’s going to die that very night, and then mocks him a bit for coming up with such a terrible idea.

This ending is so jarring and abrupt that it gives the reader a bit of whiplash. No doubt Jesus’ original audience gasped in shock at the unexpectedly harsh judgment handed down by God to the man. Surely what they were expecting to come out of God’s mouth when He visited the man in his dream was words of praise. When Jesus said, “God said to him,” what they were expecting to follow was something like, “That was such a good idea to not let what I provided for you go to waste that next year, I will make your harvest even more abundant. And every year going forward your fields will stay this productive because you were so wise in handling the resources with which I have blessed you.” Instead, the man got deadly judgment and mocked over the deeply ironic loss of all that he was working so hard to save. What gives?

The key to properly understanding what Jesus is getting at here comes in getting our minds around the rich man’s self-talk. It’s subtle, but when you listen closely to what he says to himself, he is very much focused on himself. This man is selfish and self-centered. He’s on a mission to look out for himself and no one else. Rather than delighting in how the abundance of God was going to allow him to share abundantly with others, there’s no mention of God at all in the man’s thinking. The only thing on his mind is what he is going to do with all of his newfound riches. His solution has no sense of benevolence to it. There is no thought of others. There is only a storing up of treasure so he has enough for many years to come. He imagines himself to be wealthy enough now that he can live completely as he pleases without thought or concern about anyone else. He doesn’t need anyone else now and that includes God. He is entirely self-sufficient now. He has plopped himself firmly down on the throne of God in his life and is ready to live out the rest of his days in ease and plenty. So, God reminds him who’s God.

The challenge here, is that in a strictly practical sense, what the man decides to do makes sense. In fact, it’s a really good solution to his problem. He doesn’t have the space to hold all the grain his fields are going to yield, so he creates more space. He is sincerely endeavoring to make sure all of this perfectly good food doesn’t go to waste. What could be wrong with that?

Context.

Had the man thought to himself, “This incredible harvest has come from nowhere but God Himself and is going to allow me to be incredibly generous in my community and beyond. But I don’t want to let any of this go to waste so that I can help as many people as possible. I know what to do! I’ll build bigger barns to hold it all. In fact, I’ll build several big barns and space them across the community so my neighbors and the poor in this region don’t have to travel so far to gain access to this treasure. Then I will be able to sit back, relax, and delight in the glory God will receive because of all of this,” God’s response to him would likely have been very different. But that’s not what he said. The same actions undertaken with an entirely different motivation resulted in a very different outcome.

What we do is important. But why we do it matters a great deal more. What we are forced to do here is reckon with a terribly significant question: What is motivating you? What is it that drives you to do the things you do? The things you do themselves may not change very much depending on your answer, but the response of the people around you to those things – and the response of God to those things – is going to vary fairly wildly. Whether your intent is to honor Him or yourself matters. That one goal will shape the kind of person you become. More than that, it will shape where you will spend your eternal destiny. The things themselves may be the same either way, but context matters. Make sure your context is one of honoring God and seeking to glorify Him in all that you do. You will most certainly be glad it is.

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