This week’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.
Let me tell you something about my brother: he’s a jerk. I mean, really. A world class jerk.
Everything in life has just been handed to him. He was always dad’s favorite: the eldest son, good looking, charming, and everything else you could want a son to be. Dad doted on him. He always bragged about him to his friends: “My son this… my son that…”
Well, what about me? Ain’t I his son, too? I’ve played second fiddle to my brother for my whole life. Both of us followed in Dad’s footsteps, taking over the family business. I work just as hard as he does, but he gets all the credit. He gets to be in charge and call all the shots.
But in these past few years, as Dad has gotten older and sicker, has my brother even lifted a finger to help take care of him? No. Not even once. That was my job.
I checked in on Dad every day. My wife went over to help Mom with the cooking and cleaning so she could be with Dad. And then, when the end came and Dad finally passed away, I was the one sitting by his bedside, holding his hand and saying prayers. My brother was off tending to the business. I had to send one of my kids to tell him that Dad had died.
At the funeral, he made a good show of grief and all the neighbors came by to comfort him. They talked about how proud my Dad was… of him. I got the obligatory handshakes and clichés like, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
But that’s not even the worst of it. After the funeral, when Dad’s estate was being settled, all of the inheritance went to him. Nothing was left for me or my family. Just him. Where was he when Dad got sick? Where was he when Dad died? Both of us run the family business, so why I didn’t I get at least a portion of the inheritance?
It was humiliating. I would be dependent on my jerk of an older brother for the rest of my life, without a nickel to my own name. I would live like a beggar, even though I work for a living.
I went to the village rabbi with this issue, but he wasn’t any help at all. He just quoted this rabbi and that rabbi, saying that oldest sons were entitled to the largest share of the family estate. It’s like they didn’t even care about what was right, only what was legal, according to the dictates of the Torah.
I had just about given up hope when I heard that this traveling rabbi named Jesus was coming to town. I thought to myself, “Aha! This guy can help me! This rabbi Jesus has a reputation for speaking his mind and telling it like it is. He stands up for the common people and fights for what is right.” Surely, I thought, he would be able to knock some sense into my brother and make him give me what’s coming to me.
So, Jesus came to town and it was amazing. He was healing people left and right. I saw things I had never seen before in my life. My brother was there. Jesus was preaching to the crowd about the justice and mercy of God. He said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
And I thought to myself, Yes! This is it! This is my golden opportunity! So I stood up and shouted, “Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.”
And then Jesus just stopped. He looked at me, looked over at my brother, and then back at me again. I just stood there, like I was frozen. All of a sudden, I felt kind of small. You know what I mean?
And then Jesus said to me, “Mister, what makes you think it’s any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?” Turning to the crowd, he said, “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”
And then he told us a story. It was about a rich man who owned a lot of property. For a minute, this made me really excited again because people like me knew all about these rich jerks. They made their money, not by hard work and sacrifice, but by exploiting the poverty of their fellow farmers who were down on their luck.
You see, if a farmer had a bad year, he would take out a loan from one of these big business moguls. As collateral, he would put up the only things he had to his name: his land and his body. If the next year was a good year, then everything was fine. But if it was another bad year for the harvest, the farmer would have to take out another loan. Eventually, the poor farmer would get so deep in debt, he could never hope to pay it off. The creditors would foreclose on the loan and the farmer would lose his land. If he was lucky, he could go back and work the land as a tenant, but all the profits would go to the creditor. If he was unlucky, the farmer and his family would become slaves. Either way, the end result was that the rich would get richer and the poor would get poorer. The whole system was exploitative.
So, I was glad that Jesus started by talking about these rich jerks and how they took advantage of poor, working folk like me. I hoped my brother was listening.
And then Jesus continued:
The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’
“Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’
“That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”
After that, Jesus went on to say some other things, but to be honest, I kind of tuned him out. Something about that story stuck with me. Actually, it made me uncomfortable (somebody told me later that Jesus has that effect on people a lot). I had a sneaking suspicion that Jesus wasn’t talking about my brother; he was talking about me.
It wasn’t so much what he said that bothered me; it was what he didn’t say. Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines on this, but it occurred to me that the rich farmer in the story never gave thanks to God for the big harvest he had just hauled in. He seemed to assume that this abundance of crops came from his own hand, as if he himself, and not God, had made the rain to fall and the sun to shine that year.
It reminded me of a passage from the Torah that we used to hear in synagogue services every year:
Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.
The second thing that occurred to me from Jesus’ story is that the rich farmer seemed to want to hoard all of this wealth for himself and not share it with others. Didn’t he know that other people in his community, especially the families of those poor farmers he was exploiting, would probably go hungry that year? Didn’t he realize that God sends the rain and the sunshine on everyone so that so that all of us can enjoy the fruits of the earth together?
This reminded me of another passage of scripture we used to hear in synagogue: God spoke to our ancestor Abraham and said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
God blesses us, not so that we can be rich and comfortable, but so that we can be a blessing to other people in need. This is what we should be thinking about, as God’s chosen people.
And then it hit me: I was like that rich farmer in the story. The rich farmer was me, not my brother. I came to see Jesus that day, not to bear witness to what God was doing in our community, but to get something for myself. I thought it was my responsibility to make my brother do what I wanted him to do.
Not only that, I didn’t really care about what happened to my brother or his family; I just wanted to have what was owed to me. I kind of forgot that he’s my brother. We’re part of the same family, so a blessing for one of us is really a blessing for both of us. And my rotten, selfish attitude was only making it less likely that I would benefit from this mutual blessing in the future.
I’ve got to say, I didn’t get what I came for when I met Jesus that day, but I did get something. His words reminded me of what is most important in life: that we are family. My brother and I are sons of the same Father, and that means something. And you know, if you think about it, all of us human beings are kind of like brothers and sisters. We are the children of God, our Father in heaven. And the blessings that God pours out upon the earth are meant to be shared by all, not just a few of us. I’m grateful to Jesus for showing me that.
Ever since that day, things have been a little bit different between my brother and me. Not dramatically different, but a little bit. I eventually let drop the whole thing about splitting the inheritance. To be fair to my brother, he’s been okay about the whole thing too. When we fell on some hard times with the family business, my brother dipped into his inheritance to help the whole family out, so that we wouldn’t have to go one of those loan sharks. We wouldn’t have made it through if it hadn’t been for him.
Don’t get me wrong: he can still be a jerk sometimes, but he’s my brother after all.
I went to Jesus that day because I wanted to be proven right. Instead, Jesus showed me how wrong I’d been. More than that, he showed me that there is more to life than what I can get out of it. He showed me that I am loved, that I am part of a family, God’s family that reaches around the entire earth. And God’s desire is that all the children of this family would share generously in the abundant blessings that have been poured out for all.