When I was in my senior year in high school, looking forward to graduation day, I was called into the principal’s office just one month before graduation. The principal told me that due to an oversight by the school, I never had an economics class, probably due to the fact that I had taken a language class in Latin each year. He said that the study of economics was a requirement for graduation and since I had never taken an economics class I would not be allowed to graduate.
I was stunned. I said, “Graduation is only four weeks away and you’re telling me that I can’t graduate? What do I have to do?” He told me that I could come back next fall and take the economics class then, but state law required that a student be in school for a certain amount of time each day. So, if I came back in the fall, I would have my economics class but, by state law, I would be required to spend the rest of the day in school, sitting in a study hall. I said, “That’s not acceptable.” He said that my only other alternative would be to take economics in summer school and graduate in August. So that’s what I did. I took my economics class in summer school. And I graduated in August with four other people who were also graduating from summer school.
I also had economics classes in college but I wanted to share that experience with you because today’s Gospel is, without a doubt, the best lesson in economics I have ever read. And economics is a hot topic these days, especially in light of the recent developments within the city of Detroit. It is sad to watch this once great city becoming an embarrassment to its former self.
In the 1950’s, the city of Detroit had a population of 1.85 million people and it had the highest per-capita income of any city in our entire nation. Today Detroit has a population of less than 700,000 and approximately half of the residents are now living below the poverty level. The city has 78,000 abandoned homes and it is $20 billion in debt. It is sad to watch the economic failure of one of America’s greatest cities. (Michael Snyder, June 16, 2013, The Beginning of the End) But there are those who are saying, “If you want to know what the future of America is going to be like, just look at the city of Detroit.”
If there is any truth in that prediction, we need to ask ourselves, what economic principle are we failing to follow? What are we doing wrong?
Today’s Gospel text can help answer that question for us because, when you look closely at this Gospel text, you will find that Jesus is really a great economics teacher. No, He doesn’t discuss the various economic systems like capitalism, socialism or communism; and He doesn’t probe the depths of economic theory. Instead, Jesus talks about economics from God’s point of view. He talks about money and possessions, the rich and the poor, and their relationship to the purposes and plans of God’s creation.
In today’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus was speaking to a rather large gathering of people. Jesus had just gone through a conflict with the Scribes and Pharisees and He was now speaking to His followers about the conflicts they will face in life. Jesus had just assured them that through their faith, they can be at peace no matter what happens externally.
Then, out of the blue, Jesus was interrupted by a man from the crowd who shouts out a question that had absolutely nothing to do with the lesson Jesus was teaching at the time. The man said, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” (Luke 12:13)
Now I would have expected to hear Jesus say, “What? That has nothing to do with what I am talking about.” But Jesus again does the unexpected. He doesn’t ignore the man but He declines to settle the dispute between the man and his brother. Instead, He takes the opportunity to give a lesson on understanding the will of God concerning economics in creation.
And Jesus does this by using a parable as a teaching tool. Jesus begins His parable by saying, “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. And he asks himself, what should I do? I do not have enough space to store my harvest.” (Luke 12:16-17) The very first thing you notice from reading those lines is that this is a problem that we would all like to have. What to do when you have too much.
We sometimes call this parable the story of the rich fool. But I think that title is very misleading. Pay careful attention to details in the story. Jesus says nothing bad about the man. He simply says that this was a rich man who had land. To you and I, this is simply a description, but to His listeners at that time and in that culture, Jesus is emphasizing a point. Identifying him as a “landowner” is saying to them that this man is very rich.
And this very rich man is blessed with a bountiful harvest; a once in a lifetime, barn bursting, bonanza. A harvest so great that the man is even forced to tear down his barns to build larger ones! Now to Jesus’ listeners, this could mean only one thing – a blessing, a miracle, a gift from God.
Bear in mind, as you read this story, the people in Jesus’ audience would have been intimately familiar with the lessons taught in their Torah, our Old Testament. To these people, the lessons learned were very clear. Great blessing implies great responsibility.
Notice also that the rich man in Jesus’ story has done nothing wrong. There is no graft or theft. No workers have been mistreated. This rich man is not a crook nor is he cruel. He is simply a very fortunate man who has become even more fortunate. And he is trying to be very careful to conserve and not lose what he has now gained.
To you and I and our culture, this man would be a success. He is rich and has now become even richer. But Jesus calls him a fool. Why? That’s a powerful statement. Jesus explains why he’s a fool and He does so in the story by making two points.
First, Jesus says the man is a fool because he has missed the meaning of what has happened. God in His infinite wisdom has created order and harmony in His creation. Jesus is pointing out the fact that surplus is granted to some for the sole purpose of making sure that there will be enough to go around for everyone. This rich man’s focus was on preserving and not losing what he has gained. There is no indication that he had the welfare of anyone else in his plans. He, therefore, had turned his back on the way existence is ordered and Jesus said that to do so is acting foolishly.
Secondly, Jesus says the man dies in his sleep that very night. But notice that Jesus says nothing about this being a divine punishment. Jesus never even hints that the man’s death had anything at all to do with the man’s actions. Jesus is simply pointing out the fact that the man dies an untimely death at a very inopportune time. There is nothing unusual about that for, as we all know, this sometimes happens. But the story says that the rich man was preparing to store all of his wealth so that he could eat, drink and be merry for many years to come. And obviously his plans were foiled by his untimely death. Jesus then makes His point. “And all these things you have prepared; to whom will they belong?” (Luke 12:20)
Everything in existence was created by God and therefore belongs to God. But God has assigned mankind to be stewards of His creation. We therefore are to be His managers. What has been entrusted to us individually and/or collectively we are to manage for Him.
Economics is an important subject to understand both in good times and in bad. The lesson that this parable teaches us is that, from God’s point of view, economics has little to do with the various economic systems or with economic theory, but it has everything to do with the utilization and management of God’s creation for the common good.
We need to clearly understand Jesus’ statement at the end when He says, “Thus it will be for all who store up treasure for themselves.” (Luke 12:21) Money and wealth in and of themselves are not the problem. There is no sin in being “well to do” or in being “financially secure”. That’s not the problem. The problem is in the attachments that we may have for things. What God has entrusted to us, individually and collectively, we are to manage for the common good. Sound economic policy, therefore, demands fidelity to these management responsibilities given to us by God.
That question of our fidelity to our God given responsibility is an important one especially in light of the two opposing world views, the one being Atheistic and the other being Monotheistic. The Atheistic world view of economics is profoundly influenced by the Darwinian Theory which says that over a long and slow process of evolution, things simply appear. If things can just appear then wealth should then appear also. Unfortunately, this philosophy has been repeatedly demonstrated by the management style of many of our elected officials. The Monotheistic view recognizes that everything comes from God and that the “wealth” of any community or society is simply built on the principle of free and fair exchange and consuming less than what is produced. In other words, for any city or nation to prosper, there must be free and fair trade and responsible management.
If Jesus is to be our economics teacher, we need to understand that our economic goal, our objective, as mandated by God, is to grow rich. Not rich in the eyes of the world, but, as Jesus says in the very last sentence of today’s Gospel, we are to grow “rich in what matters to God.” (Luke 12:21)
But how do we determine what matters to God? Jesus himself summarized what matters most to God in two simple statements: love God and love people. He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) A free and fair system of trade is a demonstration of the love and respect mutually shared by the participants. And in a system of Godly economics, all resources are managed for the common good.
The rich man in today’s Gospel needed to understand that when you move from this life into eternity, you leave everything else behind. All you take with you is your character. That’s why Paul says in Galatians, “The only thing that counts in life is faith, expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)
If we the people would listen to the world’s greatest economics teacher and would learn to live by the economic principles outlined by Jesus, all of the economic problems facing the city of Detroit and our nation would disappear forever. For fair and equitable economic practices are built on the love and respect that we are to have for one another. And the stewardship entrusted to us by God demands that our management style focuses on the good of all.