Back in 2018 Michael and I had the privilege of purchasing our first home. And, it’s weird. Owned and designed by an eccentric home builder name Mr. Carter, it used to have mirrors on the walls of the long living room because he liked ballroom dancing. And it seemed like he couldn’t let any building material go to waste so there were ten raised garden beds, build with cinder blocks, a brick fountain eight feet in diameter, also brick pathway in the backyard leading to said garden beds, a trellis of sorts that we think used to have blueberries on it, literally sheets and sheets of old drywall, a shed, pergola and gazebo, a flagpole, and lighting posts run throughout the yard. We have spent the last several years deconstructing the proverbial barns he built in the backyard so that he, like the figure in the parable today could say to himself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ And I am sure those things gave him satisfaction in his life, but now, truckload by truckload they are trashed.
And while Mr. Carter had his barns, and I could and do criticize him for the complexity of our backyard, I need to be careful because, I have my own barns too. Part culture, part protestant work ethic, and for me part personality rest is not something that comes easy. Obeying the sabbath is probably the hardest of the ten commandments, because, somewhere deep in me, maybe down in my DNA is a voice that says laziness is the worst sin of all, and productivity is synonymous with righteousness. So each week I would rather break the sabbath and bow to the idol of workaholism.
I struggle with the scripture at a deep level, because the conversation the farmer has with himself, is one I have had with myself over and over again. If I work hard now, and store up what I have, I can withstand any hardship that comes my way. My barns will have the reserves come hell or highwater. And then…maybe one day…I will have enough to retire, or as the farmer in the parable says, “to eat, drink and be merry.”
I read this parable and think, you know what? That farmer has a pretty good plan. Why are you criticizing this guy Jesus? He is fiscally responsible. I bet he even has Dave Ramsey’s stamp of approval or at minimum my financial advisor would gladly take such a forward thinking man on as a client.
This parable makes me wonder about the reasons why the man in the parable is so appealing to me? And perhaps to you? And certainly to our culture. I think it is because there are so many more cultural preachers of the gospel of greed than there are of the gospel of the good life. There are so many more bullhorns blaring stockpile than there are whispers of share what you have, give it away no strings attached.
And there are perhaps no greater teachings of Jesus than those on possessions and economics ignored to a greater degree by American Christians. We have to admit, we get the desires to build bigger barns honest. And while I do think Jesus of Luke would criticize this man’s material surplus, I think the matter for us today is the motivation behind the rich farmer’s decisions.
Coined by Max Weber, there is sociological concept known as the “protestant work ethic” It is defined as “the value attached to hard work, thrift, and efficiency in one’s worldly calling, which, especially in the Calvinist view, were deemed signs of an individual’s election, or eternal salvation.”
Think about how embedded this theory is in our society. Collegiate blogger Ryan Lilestrand writes, “Originating in Northern Europe, the concept spread widely, reaching its height in America. As the nation grew, the concept of the Protestant work ethic that Weber laid out decades earlier grew with it. And as we reflect on the past and examine the present, it is clear that it has never stopped. While the underlying beliefs and motivations have shifted over time, the devotion to hard work and personal achievement has only become more extreme. Now, in the present day, we are facing a generational phenomenon where hustle culture and workaholism affect nearly every area of our lives.”
What has replaced the term “protestant work ethic” is what Lilestrand, calls “hustle culture.” Do a simple social media search of #hustle and you will see what he is referring to. It’s a phenomenon that glorifies building bigger barns at the cost of one’s well being. It gives the promise of more health, wealth, happiness and purpose. It scratches the itch for a generation saddled with student debt, stagnant work wages, and high achievement standards. With quotes from entrepreneurial gurus, and photos of people who have made the hustle work for them, it puts out a carrot in front of a hamster wheel saying, see you can almost get there…that life you want and that you can post about on social media too.
#hustle is also associated with other hashtags including #TGIM (thank God it’s monday) and #riseandgrind. Oh, and if you work at a WeWork location, a place where you can rent office space, you can even be motivated by messages literally carved into cucumbers flavoring the water that say, “Don’t stop when you are tired. Stop when you are done.”
In her New York Times article, “Why are young people pretending to love work” Erin Griffin writes, muses about the delining of religion as a reason why people are trying to find ultimate meaning in their work. In the context of her own town, San Francisco, she writes “Techies have internalized the idea — rooted in the Protestant work ethic — that work is not something you do to get what you want; the work itself is all. Therefore any life hack or company perk that optimizes their day, allowing them to fit in even more work, is not just desirable but inherently good.”
Today’s lesson from Luke is sandwiched between some pretty instructive pieces–and perhaps it’s an antidote to the poison of hustle culture. Earlier in the chapter Jesus reminds us to not be afraid of what those on earth can do to our body, because God has eternal authority. And he reminds us that we are worth more than sparrows, and that God even knows the number of hairs on our head.
And right after this parable we get more instructions from Jesus about the gospel of the good news that silences the gospel of greed. He teaches us to not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. And then he points to the provision of birds and the beauty of flowers. But he doesn’t stop there, he pushes us to the next level, placing our trust in God even further when he says
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Like so much of Jesus’ teachings, he is reminding the people what they knew all along. Throughout the Hebrew bible there is an understanding that if one had wealth, it was because of God, and if one had wealth it was to be shared.
Also notice in the parable itself. The man had barns to store enough for himself already, and yet he tore down those barns to store even more than he could ever need.
The prophetic book of Amos is an excellent primer in God’s economic justice for the world. In his commentary on Amos, James Mays helps us understand the mindset the rich farmer ought to have had. He writes, “the total tendency and intention of covenant law [was] to protect and maintain the disadvantaged members of society; they should be treated with the respect and concern due to kinsmen and neighbors. Amos speaks to a group who are steadily pressing the weaker citizenry to the limits of existence.”
Commentator Richard Floyd points out that the crop was a gift from God and the proper response is gratitude toward God and generosity toward others, but instead the rich farmer sets his sights on self-centered greed. Look at the scripture again, he has no sense of others, no sense of family by birth or by choice, it’s all me, my, I, mine.
The rich farmer has no community. He thinks he is an island. Peter Rhea Jones remarks that the rich fool lives as a practical atheist. Even though he may acknowledge God, he lives as though there were no God.
When we tear down the barns that hold enough, and build our barns bigger, we push others to the limits of their existence, and we plunge ourselves into a life without meaning and contrary to the Kingdom of God as presented by Jesus in the gospels. Like the techies in San Francisco “the work itself is all.” Or in theological terms, me, my work and my stuff is the god I truly worship.
Perhaps “The Great Resignation” is showing an alternative desire among people. According to a recent survey by McKenzie and Company, 40% of workers worldwide have considered leaving their job. Some people have left for remote work, others non-traditional schedules, and others have shifted industries entirely.
Bonnie Dowling, a co-author of the McKinsey report says,“This isn’t just a passing trend, or a pandemic-related change to the labor market,” “There’s been a fundamental shift in workers’ mentality, and their willingness to prioritize other things in their life beyond whatever job they hold.”
In researching this I came across a Fortune Magazine article where Ranjay Gulati, professor of business administration at Harvard University wrote “A better description of this phenomenon would be a ‘Great Rethink’ in which we are all rethinking our relationship to work and how it fits into our lives.”
What I expected the article to be about and what it was actually about was astonishing. I assumed, it would promote the idea of finding meaning outside of work, of a flourishing life, and maybe that clocking in and out at an appropriate time was a good thing. Instead what it was about were companies who approach their mission with something called “deep purpose.” He goes on to tell about companies who have a deep underlying sense of purpose and how much more meaningful it is to work at places like this. He writes, “Imagine what it feels like when everything about your work ties back in clear, even obvious ways to yourpurpose. That’s what employees at deep-purpose companies experience on the job.”
In response to the recent images of galaxies from the Webb telescope I saw the following tweet, “all those galaxies with trillions of planets inside and we ended up on the one with a 40 hour work week.”
Friends, this is the best that #hustle has to offer us. More work. Work that ties into a clear purpose, for a company to build bigger barns, just this time those barns have a nifty clear mission statement, and a hip logo on them.
This is not anywhere near the best that Christ can offer us. Not anywhere close. What Christ offers us is the opportunity to flourish in this life and the one to come. Let’s break free, friends, from the idolatry of barn building and pursue the riches that will not wear out, will not be destroyed, will not be stolen.
How do we do this?
Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farm and gospel revolutionary wrote something in his book “Sermon on the Mount” about this very thing.
Jordan asserts that there are two measuring rods in life. The first is the measuring rod of the world or the material mind. He writes, “Its readings are in money, power, prestige, clothes, houses, lands, pleasure–and misery.” The other measuring rod is the mind of the Spirit, and the markings on that measuring rod are the life of Christ. One measuring rod is the antithesis of the other. What receives a high mark on one, receives a low mark on the other.
As we think about the flourishing life found in Christ we have places where we can find the markings on the measuring rod like “the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5” or the marks of a Christian in Romans 12:9-21, or the clothing we put on as God’s chosen people in Col 3:12-17, the passage just after our confession of faith today.
The measuring rod’s marks are out there for us, whispering in our ear the way of Christ, if we would listen.
Not all of our backyard from Mr. Carter has been a frustration. One of the gifts we have enjoyed are four very fruitful fig trees. But here is the thing, they produce so much that there is no way that Michael and I can enjoy them all. So, I suppose what we could have done was store them up, and sell them. Figs are expensive, you know. We could make some extra profit. But what we have decided to do instead is eat the ones we want, share with anyone who wants to pick, and leave the rest to the birds, or the earth.
And I wonder how different my life would be, if I treated all of my life like those fig trees. Seasons of production, and seasons of rest, seasons of ripeness, and others of growth, enough to enjoy, enough to share, and no more big barns.