Proverbs 6:6-11 November 2, 1997
Luke 12:13-21 Byron C. Bangert
Not too long ago, the following anonymous message was found posted on a bulletin board: "This life is a test. It is only a test. Had it been an actual life You would have received Further instructions on Where to go and what to do!"
Somehow, I am not persuaded. It seems to me this is an actual life. It obviously requires some assembly. But there are plenty of instructions. However, the instructions don't always seem very clear. And even when they are clear, they sometimes seem very hard to follow.
Consider, for example, this morning's two scripture texts. Surely they provide a study in contrasts. They seem to be saying two very different things about how to live. Our text from Proverbs is a warning against laziness, a call to industry: "Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways and be wise." The ant labors diligently. The ant prepares while it can for the days that lie ahead. The ant stores up food in summer to see it through the winter. Smart fellow, this ant. It knows that you must work hard now if you want to be rewarded later. Wake up, you lazybones! Stay lazy "and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior."
In our text from Luke, on the other hand, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool. In the first place, here is a man who has an abundance with which to provide for himself. In the second place, he is clearly thinking ahead. The future is not going to find him wanting for anything. He makes plans to store his burgeoning harvest for a long time to come. He will be well taken care of, not only through the winter but long into his golden years. Then he will eat, drink, and be merry. Smart man, we might suppose. But not so, according to Jesus. In God's eyes, this fellow is a fool. He is not going to make it through the night, yet alone the winter. All his preparations will prove for nought.
What's going on here, in this parable of Jesus? Does Jesus really think we can do without preparations for the future? Is it just that the rich man went too far?--that he tried to accumulate too much? Is it just that he had in mind a carefree existence somewhere down the road? Is it that he planned to keep everything for himself? What is it about the rich man's approach to life that calls forth such unmitigated judgment: "You fool!"?
There's a familiar saying that "A fool and his money are soon parted." This fool and his money will soon be parted, according to Jesus, but not for the reason usually expected. The man is not about to lose control of his wealth. No, the man is about to be parted from this life and everything in it. He is about to make a quick exit from this world. He is about to lose his life, leaving all his possessions behind.
One of the things that is clearly going on in this parable is a critique of conventional wisdom. This is something we find a lot in Jesus. He was a wisdom teacher, but his wisdom is usually a rejoinder to conventional wisdom, often at odds even with the conventional wisdom teaching of the Old Testament. It is conventional wisdom to plan ahead. It is conventional wisdom to save up for the future. It is conventional wisdom both to work while the sun shines, and to put something away for a rainy day. At the very least, Jesus is calling such conventional wisdom into question. I have this uneasy feeling that Jesus might actually say we should make no preparations for the future. But whether or not he would go so far as to say that, I am fairly certain he would say that we tend to carry such preparations too far.
The teaching in Proverbs about the ant is one to which all middle-class Americans can surely relate. It calls for a good work ethic. It warns against the failure to provide for oneself. In terms of our cultural history, the ant is an exemplary Protestant. The ant teaches us the lesson of delayed gratification, of the need for accumulation, of the virtue of present sacrifices for the sake of future rewards. Untold millions of people would have better, more stable, more secure, healthier lives if they would only follow this advice. We could do away with most poverty, homelessness, and hunger if only the ant's lessons were more widely taken to heart. The behavior of the ant is what makes possible the accumulation of wealth, and it is such wealth that makes our capitalistic economic system go.
Jesus did not know about the Protestant ethic, or the spirit of capitalism, but he did know that there is a major pitfall to this way of looking at life. The parable of the rich fool is told in response to the request of a man who wants Jesus to ask the man's brother to divide the family inheritance with him. The request seems reasonable enough. The man is not asking for anything unfair or unjust. He simply wants a share of the family wealth, which apparently his older brother controls. But Jesus sees in this request a desire for something more than what is fair. He sees in it an attachment to wealth or material things. He sees in it an assumption that the good life consists in an abundance of possessions. And he sees in this desire to have more of this world's goods the danger of losing out on life altogether.
Let's try to imagine, in terms of some economic metaphors, what are some possibilities for living life. One of the most popular seems to be the "buy now, pay later" plan. Actually, this is not much of a plan. It is a kind of ad hoc arrangement that makes it possible to enjoy some things now before we have acquired the means to pay the bill. Let's call this the "use your credit card to the max" approach to life. Live it up as much as you can now, spend and consume as much as you can now, worry about the consequences later. Some people seem to live life on borrowed time (as well as borrowed money). They are typically in debt in their social relationships and responsibilities. They have not carried their weight. They have taken more than they have given back.
Jesus also told the parable we call "The Prodigal Son." Here was a young man who quickly spent an inheritance that should have lasted a lifetime, throwing it away on loose and high and riotous living. Soon he was reduced to feeding pigs in order to survive. His life had basically been lost, until he came to his senses, returned home, and received his father's forgiveness. The "buy now, pay later" approach to life may be fun while it lasts, but it cannot last long. And when it fails, we see that many of its benefits have come at the expense of others.
Another approach to life is to work hard and save now, and plan to enjoy it later. This is the delayed gratification approach to life. This is the approach that keeps thinking tomorrow will get better. All the labors and sacrifices of today will someday prove worth it. Better to suffer now, so that we can celebrate later. Better to put off doing the things we would like to do, the things we think should be done, the things we would most enjoy, until we have more time, more money, more provision made for our future. This is the "some day" approach to life: "Some day I will do this." "Some day I will go there." "Some day I will make good on my visions and dreams." "When I'm twenty-one." "When I get a new job." "When I've put the kids through college." "When I've paid off the mortgage." "When I get a promotion." "When I retire." For some people, this "some day" when may finally come. But for many people, it never arrives.
There is at least a third major approach that we can take to life. The alternative either to going into debt or saving up for some future that may never come is to "pay as you go." The alternative either to living life on borrowed time, or postponing life until some indefinite future time, is to live as you go. "Living as you go" is an approach to life that combines a trust about the future with an awareness and appreciation of the possibilities of the present.
A trust about the future means we don't have to try to pack all of life into today, or tomorrow. We won't lose out on life just because we have not done everything, experienced everything, seen everything, before our next birthday. Granted, we don't have forever, it's not forever we need.
An awareness of the possibilities of the present means we don't have to wait until "some day" before we can enjoy the riches of life. Each day has its own possibilities, its own promise, its own joys. Each day is a learning experience, another chance to practice living. Chances are, if we put off living until some future time, we will not know what to do, or how to live, if we ever get there. Life is not something you first have to learn how to do, and then you can start doing it, life is something that you can only learn how to live by doing.
Let me offer some examples of living as you go. One comes from Don Beisswenger, a Presbyterian minister, now retired former Director of Field Education at the Vanderbilt Divinity School. During a worship service in the Benton Chapel of the University some years ago, Don asked Laura McCray, an 83-year old black woman who formerly taught at Tuskegee Institute and was running a Nashville soup kitchen at the time, what were her plans for the coming year. Ms. McCray answered, "I'm planning to deepen my relationship with God." She wasn't resting on her laurels, and she wasn't proposing to complete every unfinished task before her, and she wasn't calling it quits. She was planning to deepen her relationship with God. She was still learning to "live as you go." [Personal account]
Then there is the story about Clarence Jordan at the other end of his life, as he was just beginning his ministry. Jordan was the founder of Koinonia, an inter-racial community in Americus, Georgia, dedicated to overcoming racial divisions and hostilities in the deep South. While still a student at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Jordan served as student pastor of a small church in the town where Jim Beam products were manufactured. His salary often consisted of live chickens and garden vegetables from the impoverished church families. He spent much of his time in that setting counseling men who worked for Jim Beam, helping them deal with their alcoholism, and did such a good job that the company made him an offer that seemed impossible to refuse. They asked him to go on salary at the distillery to do counseling with the employees. Jordan prayed about this attractive offer that would have rescued him from his own economic hardship, but finally turned it down. He could not sell his soul to the very source of the horrible problem that he saw as destroying the lives of the men and their families whom he served. He said "no" to economic security and whatever promise it might hold, because it did not seem right to him. He refused to give up living today for the sake of whatever it might gain him tomorrow. He chose to live it true to his values, with integrity-- to "live as you go." [William Wilcox message on PresbyNet]
"Living as you go" is a matter of trying to live each day the way you would want to live the whole of your life. A few years ago the following letter appeared in Ann Landers' column:
I learned three weeks ago that I tested positive for HIV. I decided to take the test when a dear friend with whom I have had a close relationship for several years informed me that he has the virus.
When I received the test results, I was stunned and angry. Then I had a long talk with myself. It went like this: "You can do either of two things. You can be depressed, bitter, and spend the rest of your days being miserable, or you can decide to live every day to the hilt." I chose the latter.
I now look at life in a totally different way. I no longer take for granted a sunny day, a beautiful flower, or the small kindnesses of friends. I go out of my way to do favors for people. I am much more forthcoming with compliments and much less prone to make hurtful remarks. To put it bluntly, the virus has opened my eyes and made me a better person.
My doctor tells me I could go on for years and not feel sick. . . . At this moment I feel terrific. I stopped smoking, and I have given up alcohol. I have lost five pounds I didn't need, and I have never looked better. I now eat sensibly and get enough rest. The AIDS virus has been a positive influence on my life.
I am writing this letter to urge your readers to appreciate good health and enjoy every day. I wish I had gotten smart sooner.
--San Francisco [12-22-91]
I have in my files two versions of a statement titled, "If I Had My Life to Live Over." You can probably guess what sorts of things these statements say. But let me just cite a few of the lines that really bring this message home:
I would have talked less and listened more.
I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded.
I would have eaten popcorn in the "good" living room and worried much less about the dirt when someone wanted to light a fire in the fireplace.
I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth.
I'd dare to make more mistakes next time.
I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.
I would perhaps have more actual troubles but I'd have fewer imaginary ones.
I would travel lighter next time.
I would have cried and laughed less while watching television--and more while watching life.
There would have been more "I love you" . . . more "I am sorry."
[Conroe Church of Christ clipping and Nadine Stair in CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL, 287-88]
In conclusion, a story that supposedly is true, though it sounds a bit apocryphal. In any case, take it as an exhortation to start learning how to live, and to start living as you go--the sooner the better, because the stakes are pretty high.
Sam Jones was a Methodist preacher/evangelist in the Cartersville, Georgia, area many, many years ago--around about 1920. One day he was asked to visit an ailing member of the local Methodist church who did not have an honorable reputation and had not been to church in years. Preacher Jones entered the hospital room and the conversation supposedly went something like this:
"Oh, Brother Jones, pray for my healing. If God will only heal me I'll straighten up my life. I'll quit drinking and smoking and I'll get back to church every Sunday. I'll start tithing and quit running around on my wife . . . etc. etc."
At the conclusion of this patient's promises, Sam Jones said nothing, took the man's hand, kneeled at his bedside as was his custom and prayed:
"Lord, you've heard Brother Brown's promises of what he'll do if you heal him. If he means it, cure him. If he doesn't, kill him. Amen."
Sam Jones got up and walked out of the room without uttering another word!
[Edwin D. Bernard, posted on PresbyNet in "Eculaugh", 2-18-96]
"Living as you go" is a matter of trying to live each day the way you would want to live the whole of your life. Live as if there is no tomorrow and it will soon catch up with you. Live as if there is only tomorrow and you may never arrive at all. Life must be lived as you go. AMEN.