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18th sunday in ordinary time

Luke 12:13-21


When Enough isn't Nearly Enough



HOW MUCH LAND DOES A MAN NEED?

Pahom lived in a small village and managed a small farm. Through his hard work and a good harvest, the farm provided enough food to feed his family. One day he heard that a landowner of a large estate was selling her property. He decided to buy forty acres of her property. To raise the necessary money he had to sell a colt and half of his bee colony, hire out one of his sons and borrow from his brother-in-law. But the first year's harvest was bountiful and so he was able to pay off all his debts.

So he became a landowner, ploughing and sowing his own land, making hay on his own land, cutting his own trees, and feeding his cattle on his own pasture.... his heart would fill with joy.

But soon he had problems with his neighbors and he began to feel cramped and he wondered if he could buy more land. Later he heard that rich farmland was available beyond the Volga at an inexpensive price. So, he sold off his land and moved his family. He was indeed able to purchase more land than he had ever dreamed of owning and his wealth increased. But '...when he got used to it he began to think that even here he had not enough land." So, he decided to buy more land.

A few years later, he heard that another landowner needed to sell 1300 acres for a good price. Pahom talked to the man and they agreed on a price. Just before they finalized the sale, Pahom heard that he could purchase vast amounts of land for almost nothing. So, he set out for this country with his hired man. When they arrived the Chief offered to sell him all the land that he could walk around by day for 1000 rubles but there was only one stipulation. If Pahom did not return to his original starting spot by sundown, he would lose both his 1000 rubles and the land. 

The night before he would acquire his property, Pahom lay awake thinking about his new soon to be fortune. He fashioned plans on how he would use all the farmland. When morning came he met the Chief at the agreed upon location. The Chief placed his hat on the ground to mark his starting spot and Pahom set out. At first he did not know which way to go, he was tempted in all directions. Finally, he decided to go toward the rising sun. 

He walked for many miles. He thought of turning but the land was too good and would have been a pity to lose, so he walked further. At breakfast, he made his first turn and then walked until midday. He walked all morning. Just before lunch, he was about to make his second turn but he noticed a deep hallow. He thought to himself that it would be a pity to leave that out so he walked further thinking an "An hour to suffer, a lifetime to live."

After lunch, he realized that he made the first to sides too long so he decided to shorten the third. He toiled through the heat of the day. His body grew weary with each step. When he finally sat down to rest, he worried that he had blundered by trying to cover too much ground. After supper, he made his final turn toward home, his body weary, its strength nearly exhausted. Seeing the sun hanging low on the horizon, he began to run. He panicked thinking that he had taken on too much and was about to lose it all. 

His breast was working like a blacksmith's bellows, his heart was beating like a hammer, and his legs were giving way as if they did not belong to him. Pahóm was seized with terror lest he should die of the strain.

Soon he could see the people gathered round the Chief's cap and the sun just above the rim. Remembering his dream he pushed himself onward.1

Such is the tale the Russian author, Leo Tolstoy weaves to describe the passions by which we are driven to grasp for more. Money, power, and possessions have an innate power that tempts, corrupts, entices, and controls us. We are never satisfied with what we have. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that the greed of humanity is insatiable. And a Roman philosopher noted the progression of dissatisfaction that has taken place in the development of human civilization when he wrote, 

"We have lost our taste for acorns. So (too) we have abandoned those couches littered with herbage and heaped with leaves. So the wearing of wild beasts' skins has gone out or fashion....Skins yesterday, purple and gold today--such are the baubles that embitter human life with resentment."2

More recently someone once said, "Advertising has altered humankind. We've gone from caveman and cavewoman to craveman and cravewoman.3

These ancient and modern social critics each understand the power of possessions and the cravings of the human heart. Jesus also observed the enslaving power of the tentacles of possessions. In the brother's request, he heard the voice of greed disguised as a request for fairness and justice. Death coupled with the inheritance often combine to produce volatile and emotionally explosive relationships. Unresolved family conflicts emerge causing a breakdown in communication. Selfishness and greed may entice even the generous sibling. Jesus would not allow the brother to entangle him in the family squabble. So, he used the question to direct his disciples' attention to the enslaving temptation of material possessions by telling them a parable about a rich man who kept building more and more barns.

THE LORD'S PRAYER AND THE RICH MAN 

Located the week after our study of the Lord's prayer, the response of the rich man forms a striking contrast to the petition, 'Give us this day our daily bread.' The prayer accepts and even honors the limitations and boundaries of the present as natural components of human existence. It directs the pilgrim to enjoy life as it is. It requires us to surrender human power and control to the providence of a Divine Sovereign. The rich man only considered what he does not have. His happiness only flows out of his plans to expand and produce more. He relies only on his skillful forecasts and plans. His confidence is based in an egotistical self-reliance. And in his prosperity, he only considers himself.

We would like to divert the convicting thrust of the parable by excluding ourselves from the story. We are not part of the rich and famous crowd. A camera crew will not be photographing our home. Our net worth will not be spread out on the pages of Forbes magazine. We are plain simple folk. We struggle to pay our mortgage. Some of us cannot even afford a home. We lease our car because we do not have enough money for a down payment. We worry about having enough money to send our children to college or pay the property taxes due twice a year. However, we are not exempt. We live in the most prosperous country on earth. Even the poorest of us enjoys greater prosperity than most of people of the world. Our consumer-oriented society provides big screen TVs to watch our favorite shows, cell phones and pagers to stay in touch with family and friends, personal computers to keep track of our stocks, SUVs big enough to hold our all terrain bikes, camping equipment and personal gear and a complete selection of clothes for every activity. But even with our unprecedented affluence and unfretted consumption we are very much like the rich man who never has enough.

Jesus has an interesting way of teaching. He tells us a story about the temptation of greed but does not give us a simple set of how-to instructions for resisting. He grabs our attention with a convicting story but does not provide any answers. He forces us to discover for ourselves the meaning of the passage and how to apply it to their lives. Therefore, each of us must consider our motives for buying. What drives to want more? What inner need are we trying to satisfy?

TO WANT WHAT OTHERS HAVE 

The desire to have what others have is a natural human tendency. A small baby wants to touch the hand of his mother and feel her jewelry. Young children cannot resist playing with the objects they see their parents use each day. When they see another child with a new toy they want to play with it not out of envy but simple because it looks like fun. When we see the advertisement for a new computer, clothes, soft drink, or food, we want to have them because they appear interesting and exciting. New things are exciting and fun. "Examining something, taking it home, rearranging our homes to accommodate it-it's all part of what social psychologists describe as the human need to affect(and be affected by) our surroundings."4

With the first glance, we have not succumb to envy or greedy. We simply would like to enjoy life and its pleasures. But these innocent desires easily yield to the insatiable desire for more.

KEEPING UP

The movement from an innocent interest to an envious craving is subtle and often disguised. Just as the brother tried to conceal his greed under the cloak of justice and fairness, so too do we attempt to justify our true motives for the types of purchases we make. It takes intense honesty to admit to the truth of what drives us to buy and spend.

People are reluctant to admit that they buy things like new cars, new boats or some other new toy to keep up with the Joneses but underneath the surface lies a streak of status seeking in each of us. This is easy to see in children and teenagers. The child whose parents have not yet purchased a video game set feels embarrassed over inviting friends over to play with the old games. A teenager who does not have their own car does not feel equal to her peers who drive to school everyday. But how many men feel embarrassed about always asking another man to go fishing in their bass boat because they cannot afford to buy one. Or how many women are reluctant about inviting people for dinner because their furniture is old and has a worn look.

If we are not comparing ourselves to others than we are comparing ourselves to ourselves. Once purchased and used a luxury becomes a necessity. The luster of the new toy looses its shine over time. After the novelty wears off, we are driven to replace the familiar. This is as true for the young factory worker exchanging his basic cable service for 200-channel digital cable as it is for the junior executive trading in a BMW for a Mercedes.5

HONESTY: THE FIRST STEP TOWARD WHOLENESS  

A pastor once told me when I was a rebellious and cantankerous teenager that honesty is the first step toward God. It is also the hardest. We do not want to admit we are greedy. We do not want to disclose why we really bought something. We do not want to acknowledge that our motives may have been anything less than pure.

JUST ENOUGH TO BURY HIM

Pahom could see the people all standing around the fur cap. He looked at the sun and saw that a portion of it had dipped below the horizon. Terror gripped him. He thought, "There is plenty of land,' thought he, 'but will God let me live on it? I have lost my life, I have lost my life! I shall never reach that spot!" With one last surge of strength, he ran up the hill, when he reached the summit he saw the fur cap and the Chief. Just before darkness set, he lounged for the cap. His legs gave way but as he fell to the ground his hand touched the fur. The Chief praised him for his good fortune, "Ah, that's a fine fellow, he has gained much land." His servant rushed up to him to raise him from the ground but could not rouse him. Pahom lay dead. "His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahóm to he in, and buried him in it." 

How much land does a man need? Six feet from his head to his heels was all Pahom's servant needed to lay his master to rest. 

When enough is never enough, it does not take much land to lay a person to rest.



1 Leo Tolstoy, How much land does a man need? Online: http://www.ccel.org/t/tolstoy/23_tales/23_tales.htm.

2 Aristotle, "Politics", and Lucretius, "On the Nature of the Universe", both quoted in Goldian VandenBroeck, Ed., Less is More: The Art of Voluntary Poverty (New York: Harper & Row, ]978) cited by Alan Thein, "The Dubious Rewards of Consumption." New Renaissance, Vol.3, No.3, Online: http://www.ru.org/33dubiou.html.

3 Frank Tyger, "Sermon Illustrations," Leadership, Fall 1996, Vol. XVII, No. 4, 75.

4 Joan Smith, "Do Americans shop too much?" May 11, 2000 Online: http://www.cnn.com/2000/books/news/05/11/salon.shopping/index.html Web

5 .Banker quoted in Kroeger, "Feeling Poor on $600,000 a Year"; Veblen quoted in Lapham, "Money and Class in America" cited by Alan Thein, "The Dubious Rewards of Consumption." New Renaissance, Vol.3, No.3, Online: http://www.ru.org/33dubiou.html.


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