They move around the apartment, avoiding each other as magnets push away if the poles are lined up right. The physical and emotional space between them has an invisible force, keeping them away from each other.
If you were to ask her why she is mad, she would have a hard time naming it. They both have jobs that they go to every day, but neither of them like them. There is never enough money at the end of the month. There is never much satisfaction at the end of the day. And when she came home angry about it again, he presumed that she thought it was his fault. That he didn’t amount to much. That he didn’t make as much as her father did growing up. That he couldn’t give her all that she wanted from life. That their apartment was too small. That their car was too old. That his friends were not encouraging him to live up to his potential, to ascend quickly enough, but instead drug him down to their level of mediocrity.
So, when she came home, banging around dishes and slamming doors. He didn’t even ask what was wrong this time. He presumed he knew, and reacted accordingly. He could slam dishes with the best of them. And swallow his emotion like she could. Turn down the volume all the way and turn on the silent treatment.
And so, they move around the apartment like magnets, repelling each other without saying a word. Both lived in the dialogue in their heads, arguing, presenting their points, and of course, in their own heads, they won the argument every time. The other was stunned by the power of their truth and their wisdom. “How could I have been so wrong?!?” each asks in reverence…in the head of the other.
But none of those words ever got spoken. The arguments never were presented out loud. Again, he fell asleep on the couch and she in the bed. His last thought haunted him all night. “Maybe she’s right.” And they were up again the next morning, just as angry and silent as the night before.
Jesus told all who had ears to hear that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. He was confronted by a man who felt wronged by his brother, a domestic dispute between them about who deserved to receive the inheritance. The irony of the passage is that there shouldn’t have been any real question about who received what. According to Mishnaic Law, the older brother received a double portion of the inheritance, and every other son a single portion. If there were two sons, then the older one would have received two thirds of the estate and the younger one third. It wasn’t nearly as complicated as our culture is, where the patriarch can more or less decide who gets what. It was already decided.
Yet, when this man came to Jesus, he quickly discerned that there was something going on. That behind the man’s question lay the beast of greed. That twisted and snarling beast, that guards what it has, suspects those who might steal it, and always, always wants more. It is the beast that lies in the back of our minds and our hearts, fed by those who would tell us that a little bit more, a little bit prettier, a little bit nicer-looking house or car or job – that will make us happy. That will make us acceptable. That will make us loved. So, whether it was the man who asked the question or the other brother who refused to grant him his part, Jesus had rightly diagnosed the real problem: the beast of greed.
So, Jesus tells a story of a man who had allowed the beast to overtake him as well. A man who had been granted a bumper crop. But, instead of sharing or offering his gratitude, the beast within him guarded what he had, suspected those who might steal it, and always, always wanted more. But, instead of more, he got less. In the middle of his plans to create the perfect protection plan for his wealth, his life was demanded from him. And God called him a fool. For life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
Which, of course, begs the question, “what does life consist in the abundance of?” What, then, should we store up in barns? What should we hoard? What should we protect at all costs? According to the passage, there are at least two things.
First, is a word I made up. “Receivement.” In my mind, regardless of what Webster says, the definition of the word is the polar opposite of achievement. We are taught to make our lives about achievement, are we not? Achieve a little more money. Or possessions. Or friends. Or status and prestige. A little better body…if I could just lose those 20 extra pounds. These are the marks of success. These are the things that bring us happiness. Success. Achievement.
But that is not what the Bible tells us. Listen to M. Craig Barnes speak of the power of Scripture:
“From the beginning we have been created to be receivers, not achievers. Nothing is more countercultural to contemporary Americans. We have been raised to set our goals high, work hard, and achieve our dreams. Clearly there is merit to this work ethic, but it has limits, and the greatest one is that it seduces us into thinking that we are the creators of our own destinies…Every page of the Bible presents God as the achiever and us as the receivers of this sacred, good work.”
Receivers. Not achievers. So what should we hoard instead of achievement? Of course, the opposite: “Receivement.” Now, some of you might quibble that this is not really a word, but, hey, it should be.
For the opposite of a life that requires achievement for happiness is one that realizes that all that we have in life is received. From family, from community, and foundationally from God. As Barnes says, this is not to put down work ethic and goals. But it is to name the danger of suggesting that it is our work alone that brings us blessings or happiness. In the parable, notice how the man got rich. It doesn’t say he worked hard, or he produced, or he formed a salient business plan that anticipated the market brilliantly. It says the land produced abundantly. The man was just the receiver.
Whenever the man in the parable talks, he uses personal pronouns. I. Me. My. He is the achiever.
Whenever Jesus talks, God is the achiever. We are the receivers of God’s goodness and grace.
Jesus is offering a new standard of wealth. Instead of the standard of possessions and prestige, he suggests that we must live life as receivers of God’s blessings. Our goal is not achievement. But receivement. It is the fundamental difference between seeing ourselves as Creators and created. When we talk of being created in God’s image, we are fundamentally saying that God is the one who has achieved. You are an achievement. Of God’s grace. You have enough. You are enough. You are imago dei…created in the image of God.
Beginning to see how that changes the way we approach the culture that assumes that we must achieve? It’s a made-up word, but think about how life might look different if you go day by day in an attitude of receivement instead of achievement.
The second thing is just as important. What should we hoard? Store up in barns? Protect at all costs?
Gratitude. How quickly we can look to the life around us and assume that we simply do not have enough. And we never will. Things change when we start to believe that we have enough. A quote from Thomas Merton hits home with me:
To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us – and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.
The end result of a life of receivement is gratitude. It was the thing that the man in the parable didn’t have. And his life was all the more foolish because of it. Instead of working so hard to be or accomplish or achieve, how different would life be if we were simply thankful for what God has achieved in your life! Instead of trying to accomplish and achieve your own worth and happiness and peace – what if you stopped long enough to say thank you that God is the one that gives you your worth, fulfills your yearning. In a few moments, when you receive communion, I invite you to understand it as an act of gratitude. Thankful for what God has done and is doing in your life. As Merton says, that is what makes all the difference.
On the way to work that morning, something switched for both of them. It was yet another morning up and out early to beat the traffic, but little did they know today would be different.
They had agreed together to read a devotional book. Each day had a Scripture passage and a quote from some author. They started out thinking that they needed to get on the same page spiritually, in order to stop arguing so much. But it quickly dissolved to once every few days, and if then if they were lucky, once a week. Then once a month. Now, if they ever read it, it was separately, when they saw it on the coffee table. Never at the same time, never together.
Like today. Today, it happened to catch his eye as he made the morning coffee. He read the day’s devotion while it brewed. And left it on the counter, where she saw it and did the same. As they read, both of them caught on the same paragraph. And it made all the difference.
It was a quotation from M. Craig Barnes. And it read:
“Every day this week you have to decide if you want to achieve your life or receive it. If you make achieving your goal, your constant companion will be complaint, because you will never achieve enough. If you make receiving the goal, your constant companion will be gratitude for all that God is achieving in your life.”
Try as they might to stay in a bad mood, this challenge stuck with them through the day. Thinking about their fighting over the last week. Dealing with co-workers, who just went on and on about climbing the company ladder. Then, as they drove home, one from the north and the other from the south, they both saw an absolutely incredible sunset. And for the first time in a long time, gratitude became their constant companion. And God became the achiever.
When they saw each other that late afternoon, they met each other’s eyes and at the same time said “I’m sorry.” Of course, it didn’t change everything. And the conversation and healing was just beginning. But it was beginning. With a new starting point. Not of achievement and accomplishment and possessions and control. But as they started anew, the beast of greed slowly began to starve. And a tree of gratitude, of grace, of love, began to grow.
“we don’t make a living. We receive it through our participation in the Christ, who has brought us home to communion with the creator”