(If you are receiving this twice, there was a delivery problem this morning that left many people without the post. Please excuse duplicates. And I hope everyone can read and enjoy today. Blessings to you!)
Today’s Revised Common Lectionary text is the Parable of the Rich Fool.
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" 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." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
Jesus was poor.
It seems strange to write that, because I’m not sure how often Christians stop to think about Jesus’ social status! He was the son of a carpenter. In the Roman Empire, carpenters — even if there were freemen — were usually lumped into the slave class at the very bottom rung of society. Any working carpenter with even a modicum of success was taxed at a crushing rate, a debt that functionally enslaved them to the state. Sons of carpenters were expected to follow their father’s trade — and inherited their father’s tax obligations as well. When Jesus teaches at the synagogue, some of his neighbors find his wisdom hard to believe, “Is not this the carpenter’s son?”
It wasn’t a compliment. A few verses later we learn, “And they took offense at him.” Jesus was speaking above his station. Even the poor in his own hometown looked down at him. He was that poor.
Jesus never says anything good about wealth. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” He flippantly dismissed Roman taxes with his “render to Caesar” comment. He said that wealth yields nothing, earthly riches are little more than targets for theft, and warned that “gaining the world” forfeits the soul. He sent away a rich young man seeking to follow him. He blessed the poor, praised impoverished widows, and insisted that undesirable people be invited to dine. “For where your treasure is,” he said, “there your heart will be also.”
Early Christians echoed his words with instructions like those found in I Timothy:
Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this!
Jesus was poor. And not just poor, but the despised poor.
He blessed the poor — his people, his friends, his neighbors. And he also invited them into abundance.
“I came that they may have life,” said Jesus, “and have it abundantly.”
Not money. Abundance.
Seeking wealth, storing treasure is foolish. But abundance? That’s wisdom.
The subject of money and abundance is fraught for American Christians. Our culture conflates the two. Any talk of “abundance” immediately brings to mind the prosperity gospel and huckster evangelists or wellness gurus.
But when Jesus speaks of money and abundance, he draws on the Wisdom tradition from the Hebrew Bible. This teaching begins with a referent to Solomon, the King-Judge of Israel — as a person in the crowd asks Jesus to solve a legal problem of dividing an inheritance (harkening back to Solomon dividing the baby). After warning his listeners about greed, Jesus launches into a story — a parable — about a rich man and his storehouses.
Parables are stories intended to upend conventional ideas and offer up alternative wisdom for a way of life with God. They function in the same manner as does the Wisdom literature — the writings (maxims, fables, poetry, and teachings) in Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. Indeed, three of the Wisdom books have been traditionally attributed to Solomon. So, Luke’s allusion to Solomon at the beginning of this Jesus story is a tell. To make sure you get the connection between Jesus and Solomon, the parable actually quotes Ecclesiastes 8:15 — “There is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves.”
While wealth and prosperity is often associated with blessing in the Hebrew Bible, the Wisdom tradition takes a dim view of this common belief:
He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. Ecclesiastes 5:10
The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. Proverbs 22:7
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. Proverbs 22:1
Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist. When your eyes light on it, it is gone, for suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven. Proverbs 23:4-5
A faithful man will abound with blessings, but whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished. Proverbs 28:20
Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me. . . Proverbs 30:8
The point seems clear. Money, especially greed, is the source of sorrow, sin, and suffering. Hoarding riches is foolish. Having enough — a good name, food to eat, living without debt — is blessing and abundance. And abundance is central to wisdom. Just enough. For this day.
In this passage, where he contrasts foolishness with wisdom and reminds his hearers of life’s vanities, Jesus is a wisdom teacher! “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you,” he said a few verses later, “even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”
Thus, to the poorest of the poor, in these teachings offered by a poor man, the promise of abundance is wisdom that exceeds even the wealth and insight of Solomon.
I hate to say this, but part of me roots for the rich man. My parents probably would have said that he was wise to save up in case of a rainy day, and that he was responsible to protect his “grain and goods.” I find Jesus’ harsh response to him difficult to grasp — it flies in the face of conventional wisdom.
But that’s exactly what biblical wisdom does — it turns over conventional wisdom like money-changers’ tables in the Temple. Despite my worry about the rich man, Jesus’ parable stops me in my tracks, turns my eye from bank apps and retirement accounts, and redirects my attention toward a different treasure: wisdom. The way of being “rich toward God.” Manna in the wilderness. Daily bread. Don’t hoard. Take what is needed. Give the rest away. Wisdom acknowledges the gifts of God, and doesn’t cling, doesn’t store up. Abundance receives, responds with gratefulness and thanksgiving, and lets go.
Who wants to be a fool? And who doesn’t desire wisdom, the gift of abundance?
How did I come to be
this particular version of me,
and not some other, this morning
of purple delphiniums blooming,
to meet these three dogs
asleep at my feet, and not others—
this soft summer morning,
sitting on her screened porch
become ours, our wind chime,
singing of wind and time,
feeding bees and filling me—
and more abundance to come:
basil, tomatoes, zucchini.
What luck or fate, instinct,
or grace brought me here?—
in shade, beneath hidden stars,
a soft, summer morning,
seeing with my whole being,
love made visible.
— Laura Foley, “The Once Invisible Garden”
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
— Mary Oliver
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE COTTAGE!
On August 4, the Cottage celebrates its first birthday as a reader-supported publication. Although I started this newsletter on Substack in May 2020, it wasn’t until August 2021 that I invited you all to contribute financially to this project.
In last year, the Cottage has posted midweek essays on religion and culture that have been viewed more than a million times, delivered Sunday reflections on a biblical text, hosted monthly Zoom gatherings and author conversations, invited readers into three seasonal devotional series, sparked national conversations on issues such as the role of religion in the Ukraine war, and raised important questions about the future of church and religion.
Every week, I receive messages and emails from readers around the world who are encouraged, challenged, and informed by the Cottage. (More than 200,000 people engaged in some way with the recent Mary Magdalene piece!)
Through all this work and encouraged by your remarkable response, I’ve stayed committed to the central purpose of the Cottage — to make space for heart-felt and thoughtful Christian faith that is hospitable, generous, and surprising.
To everyone here, whether you are an occasional reader (through a shared post or via social media), are on the free email list, or are a paid subscriber: THANK YOU. THANK YOU ALL.
No church, college, or media outlet pays me, no ads support this work, no algorithm stalks us here. You make this possible. You motivate me, you inspire me, you keep me writing. And you are making a difference not only in my life and vocation, but to and for each other. The Cottage exists because of and in community.
Next year, you can expect your favorite things to continue. And there will be some surprises as well. (Hint: I’m hoping to do some “Cottage In Person” events.) Leave a comment and let me know what you’ve loved and share ideas for what you’d like to see in the future.
If you are an occasional reader, I invite you to subscribe and receive the Cottage directly to your email.
If you are a free subscriber, I invite you to consider upgrading to financial support. Paid subscriptions are $5 a month or $50 a year (there’s also a “cultivating option” of $150). There’s no increase. Unlike nearly everything else, I refuse to raise the price!
If you are a paid subscriber, I invite you to continue your financial support this coming year. The good folks at Substack tell me that if you set up automatic renewal, you don’t have to do anything. If you didn’t set that up when you subscribed, you’ll get a renewal notice about a week in advance of your renewal date. Keep an eye out for renewal notices in your email (or be aware that an automatic renewal charge may show up on your credit card statement!). Renewals will begin on August 4.
Need help changing your payment details (like updating your credit card)? See detailed steps.
If you love the Cottage, you can give it as a gift to a friend.
The Cottage is a reader-supported publication. I invite you to consider a paid subscription. Thank you for making this work possible.