In a former profession I received a 6-figure bonus from a business interest I was pursuing. I was a relatively new Christian and was not actively involved in a church. Perhaps superstitiously, I felt it incumbent to tithe my bonus to a charity. It was a substantial sum, and I took to heart Jesus’s words in Matthew 6:2–4 which reads,
2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
I therefore donated anonymously, routing my donation through a secondary foundation so that my gift could not be identified with me. My non-recurring windfall turned in part into a homeless shelter’s windfall. However, as unintended consequences would have it, the organization took their windfall as a sign of special, continuing favor. My secrecy did not allow them to recognize it as a one-time gift. Instead, the homeless shelter decided not to reduce its large debt as I had thought it obviously would, but instead took the full amount and started a new operating program. That new program would require new funding in additional years at the same amount as my one-time gift. Within two short years of my gift, something I never intended happened: the organization became functionally bankrupt, its debts exceeded its assets and its cash flow couldn’t fund its current liabilities. Now, there were other, prior financial and management problems at that shelter that brought on the bankruptcy, but my unexpected windfall hastened the collapse by enticing management to undertake more program offerings than for which it could generate contracts.
Because I felt responsible, I and some others stepped in with renewed effort, giving, and lending that rolled back the bankruptcy, so that the shelter is on a firm foundation today, a decade later. However, I learned an important lesson about windfalls. They seduce us into thinking there is an angel behind their unmerited favor.
Windfalls tempt us into thinking that the universe is not only especially benign, but that we begin to count on this unearned favor each and every season. I knew this wasn’t the case with my windfall, but my friends at the shelter didn’t know that about my tithe. They accepted the gift that came with no warning and with no conditions and assumed that it was a signal of an angel donor who was with them every year.
Note what today’s parable of Jesus does NOT say: that the wealth of the barn raiser is somehow ill-gotten or illegitimate. The windfall harvest is from God. What this parable notes is that the windfall is UNEXPECTED, and that the fool meets it with an attitude of poverty: What should I do? This question should lead to reflection on the nature of wealth and the source of its bounty, and such a reflection would lead perhaps to the understanding that windfalls are TESTs of our character.
The landowner in the parable asks at the bounty of his harvest, “what should I do?” as if confronted with a dilemma, as if confronted with a perplexity of poverty. He then makes a foolish plan: to tear down his barns and build bigger ones, in order to take his ease, eat, drink, and be merry. Such a plan is not concerned with practical matters and fails to give thanks to God as the provider of this windfall or to tithe from the harvest’s first fruits to God’s favored. The landowner is a fool with a “big barn” attitude. He is a foolish steward of the gifts that God gives. As Psalm 24:1 notes: The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.
Church father Cyril of Alexandria notes that it is the nature of fools to (quote) “not look to the future. He does not raise his eyes to God. He does not count it worth his while to gain for the mind those treasures that are above in heaven. He does not cherish love for the poor or desire the esteem it gains. He does not sympathize with suffering. It gives him no pain nor awakens his pity.”
Windfalls are dangerous to our moral fiber. They divert us from our normal concern with practical affairs and the needs of others and instead seduce us into reckless living, such as the rich landowner a humble 1st C peasant dares call fool in today’s parable. The fool is one who wants to live as if struggle only pertains to others.
Yet struggle is part of God’s plan, and struggle, even pain, is necessary for human growth and progress. Seeking to eat, drink, and be merry ethically diverts us from the Prophet Micah’s (6:8) pronouncement to “do justice, … love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.” This ceaseless enjoyment of eating and drinking celebrates our own supposed success, and mistakes divine providence for our personal shrewdness and supposed merit.
Isaiah chapter 5 claims how even legitimately gotten wealth accompanied only a sense of hedonism and no sense of stewardship or fair distribution corrupts, leading one to foolishness and woe:
8 Ah [woe], you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!
9 The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
10 For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah.
11 Ah [woe], you who rise early in the morning
in pursuit of strong drink,
who linger in the evening
to be inflamed by wine,
12 whose feasts consist of lyre and harp,
tambourine and flute and wine,
but who do not regard the deeds of the LORD,
or see the work of his hands!
Several studies have demonstrated that consummated feelings of wealth make us worse people.
Our tendency and urge to lie, cheat, and steal increases the more wealthy we are. Experiments that rig amassing even Monopoly play money show anti-social behavioral increases in the favored player.[i] Stories are rife on the internet of lottery winners whose lives were destroyed by their windfalls. The story of recently convicted insider traders Raj Rajaratnam and Rajat Gupta note their “lust for zeroes” to add to the magnitude of their net worth, their fascination with the really big money–the really big barns–that would display an aristocratic profile to others and show others that they had really arrived.
The recent movie version of The Great Gatsby demonstrates these arrivistes’ great wealth that leads them to sumptuous displays. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, it is the wealthy of fictional West Egg who they play the rest of us for fools. Fitzgerald describes the big barn old money Tom and Daisy Buchanan as “careless people [who] smashed up things and retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Of that consequence, another recent experiment[ii] demonstrates how reckless driving is associated with luxury car brands.
From Fitzgerald we might learn how the pleasure seeking rich are forfeit of their souls. They are not living spirits, struggling and progressing in practicality and life-affirming sociality, but decaying and spoiled fruit romping in their frozen illusions of paradise, driving drunk in smash ups and having their lawyers bail them out.
What do our checkbook and credit card statements say about us? It’s not what a person has, but what a person does with his or her possessions. For Luke’s Jesus, the demand of discipleship is not about the perfect response or the giving away of one’s last dollar, but our spiritual orientation to other’s needs and our responses to them. Disciples act on the idea that all of life belongs to God, and the wealth to sustain it comes from God’s providence.
How then do we exercise our stewardship over our time, talents, influence, and resources? Today’s parable is not proposing that eating, resting, drinking, and merriness are without a place in our lives, but a life solely so devoted is not human. It is static and anti-social. It is unjust as it diverts us from our appointed tasks to live beneficially for others. It is unwise in the sense of the aphorisms found in the Book of Proverbs.
Some 70 times Proverbs speaks of fools.I don’t often hear Proverbs preached, so allow me to note some positive wisdom to which Jesus likely refers against the folly illustrated in today’s parable:
Prov. 13.8: The redemption of a man’s soul is his riches.
Proverbs 13:11: Wealth hastily gotten will dwindle, but those who gather little by little will increase it.
Proverbs 27:18: Anyone who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and anyone who takes care of a master will be honored.
Proverbs 27:23–24: Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds; for riches do not last forever, nor a crown for all generations.
Proverbs 28:27: Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse.
I read an article last month in the Presbyterian Outlook by Tom Ehrich, [iii] a church growth consultant. In it, he asserts that congregations must change their public face in mission, worship, and fellowship to attract younger members, especially those yet to start families. This is not a problem for this church, I want to be clear, but that some congregations are set in their ways and don’t want to change. Ehrich notes that these congregations will ebb and die, with no one to turn the lights out and bury the survivors. Again, not this church, but many congregations may grow too fond of their static illusions.
They may become foolish in becoming attached to forms that do not progress with the times and the culture of new generations. This attachment to past forms is impractical. It is usually prefaced by claims that we are comfortable with the old ways and don’t want to struggle to understand, accept, and encompass change. But this parable, I submit, challenges us to understand that without practical struggle we are due to wax, wane, and even lose our souls.
Where in our lives are we in a rut? Where in our lives do we choose comforts and familiar celebration to authentic growth and progress in stewardship? There is both a corporate and an individual ethical message in this parable. For me personally, I know God is patient but not enabling of my spiritual lethargy and illusions, and God rocks my world when I fall asleep in some material or spiritual comfort. Do I think I know what spirit and church is all about? Some perhaps, but there is always more, as many facets as there are in the sands in the sea, stars in the heaven, and people on the earth. When we shrink back from stewarding wisely our time, talent, resources, and influence, we get stuck in our illusions of Kingdom Come, of living large in Zion. Our parable makes it clear that God will not have it so.
As I mentioned at the outset, I have learned the unintended consequences of my windfall gift to the homeless shelter that hastened pain and struggle there. It was too large and too tempting and it tested the prudence of leadership. All of us in that organization learned something about windfalls from that gift. I learned that communication is necessary to convey intention for such a gift, an intention to reduce debt–normal prudence. The shelter learned to think through expansion decisions practically, in a way that did not presume on the familiarity and beneficence of donors. I’m not sure either of us is inoculated, though, from the temptation of windfalls even now. Whether ours or others’, great wealth is best approached with a hardy and vigilant skepticism– and this message may even guide our politics as we confront the explosion of inordinately great wealth in this society.
As Disciples we are to focus on our windfall of gladness from our redeemed relationship with God. What makes you glad? Is it something inert like material goods, or big barns, or spoiling or rusting like hoarded commodities? Or is it something that is alive and makes and keeps you and others alive and thriving, like relationships, family, the gift of life and livelihood to others?
Frederick Buechner’s quote from the cover of today’s bulletin highlights of what our stewardship consists. Buechner writes, “The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Our big barns, rightly constructed, are spiritual silos of happiness and gladness in what God has given us. Our storehouses are the surplus that may be applied to the hungers of the world, both spiritual and material.
Greed and self-centeredness divides, love gathers. The character of the wealthy self-centered soul encompasses those tragic, foolish actions that devolve from the misuse of resources. Gathering provisions into a big barn so to eat, drink, and be merry cuts one off from social relations and social obligations. It is the ultimate in self-love and suggests hatred of others. It does not gather in with others, it does not gather in with the world’s deep hunger. It does not invite others in to share a banquet. It is not neighborly, but is cut off, divided from neighbor and God. It is indeed foolish.
F. Scott Fitzgerald gave America its glimpse into the existential soullessness of the suddenly and hugely wealthy. The fool in today’s parable forfeits his psyche—his soul– immediately upon giving his life to orgiastic living and thoughtless hoarding. He has failed the test of wealth. To my mind, it’s not the mass of us who fulfill Fitzgerald’s pessimistic historical fate, rather it is the people he profiles that are the wrong side of history, those soulless predators of others’ livelihoods devoted to grasping wealth, those who continually “run faster, stretch out [their] arms farther — so [they] beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
It is God in judgment who makes this tragic metaphor real. God takes our souls if we are complicit in this greedy grasping. Our complicity with grasping the common fruit and rain of the earth while claiming it all as our personal ownership, which is the dominant neo-liberal economics, is truly on the wrong side of history. It will be beaten back ceaselessly into the oblivious past where the god of Death resides. But for those who choose life and sharing, the blessed saints are accorded a place in the immortal memory and future home of the Living God.
May it be so for you and for me.