by Isaac S. Villegas
August 4, 2013
Jesus tells a story about a wealthy landowner with a bumper crop, and we get to listen in as he figures out what to do with the harvest.
Like all the rest of Jesus’ parables, there are subtleties here that nudge us in all sorts of directions, as we read and reread the story. Parables are meant to be told and retold, again and again, because there are always new revelations to be found — words that trip us up, phrases that make stumble and pause and open us to new ways to see ourselves and the world, new ways to find our world in the story.
Some of my favorite readings of parables come from a book called The Gospel in Solentiname, which was put together in the 1970s by a priest named Ernesto Cardenal, who served the people of a village in Nicaragua: peasants who fished and farmed in one of the poorest parts of the country, a country plagued by the violence of a military dictatorship. Part of Cardenal’s ministry included communal bible study where small groups would read a bible story and discern its meaning together. The book is a transcription of recordings of the bible discussions.
In one of their recordings, a laborer named Olivia responds to the story we just heard from Luke’s Gospel — this story of a man who wants Jesus to tell his older brother to split his inheritance with him. In the passage, the younger brother wants some of the family money, and he thinks Jesus has the power to tell his older brother to share it. Jesus responds by telling a story about a landowner who built bigger barns to store a harvest that exceeded his expectations.
This is what Olivia said about the brothers who are fighting over the family wealth, and the parable Jesus tells in response. “Neither of the two [brothers] had a right to that inheritance; all of it was the people’s money, just as it was everybody’s wealth that the man wanted to store in his barns.” Alejandro, another member of Cardenal’s community, picked up on the same theme in the story. He said, “That man [in the story, the landowner] couldn’t have gathered all those harvests [by himself]; he did it with the labor of others.”[i] Alejandro pointed out what should be obvious: that the rich man didn’t get his hands dirty; that was a job for the laborers; they were the ones who filled up his barns.
Olivia and Alejandro noticed the way the landowner in the story decides what to do with the harvest by himself, without involving the people who labored in the fields, without talking with the other people in his community who depend on the land for their food, for their livelihood. For Olivia and Alejandro, they couldn’t imagine making a decision about the land, about a harvest, about food, without talking with their neighbors, without talking with the people who worked the field by their side.
But the rich man doesn’t talk with anyone. He thinks and acts without noticing his dependency on others, without noticing how his life is bound up with the lives of his neighbors. As it says in verse 17, “He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Notice his claim to possess, to own the crops — “my crops,” he says.
But they aren’t his crops. The harvest belongs to the land and to the people of the land. That’s the point Jesus makes when he starts telling the story. Jesus says, in verse 16, “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” The land produces abundantly, not the landowner. All we know about the landowner is that he is rich, that he’s wealthy. Jesus never calls him a farmer who works the fields, who sows and reaps. He doesn’t do that. Other people do that for him. But they are absent from the story. They are forgotten.
According to the rich man, the land and produce belongs to him. As a landowner, he can think by himself. He can decide by himself. This man — this man who reasons alone, who thinks alone — is the thinking man at the heart of Rene Descartes philosophy; Descartes — who many consider to be the father of modern philosophy. Descartes said that human beings are primarily rational creatures. That’s what it means to be truly human — that we can think. “I think therefore I am,” he wrote in the seventeenth century. According to Descartes, what makes us human is our ability to think, to reason — and to reason alone, to think on our own: “I think”— with an emphasis on the “I,” a mind without any concern about the rest of the body, without any concern for other minds and other bodies, a mind that thinks without neighbors, without talking to neighbors, a mind that thinks without communal discernment, thinking alone, deciding alone, even when those decisions affect others.
It’s no coincidence that Descartes come up with this philosophy at the best European universities at the same time as his peers where stealing land and enslaving people in what they called “the Americas.” Armed with Descartes’ philosophy, European colonists were able to decide what to do with foreign land and peoples without the input of the people who lived there — or lived here, I should say. “I think therefore I am,” is part of the history of colonialism, part of the history of our modern age, where we think about freedom as our ability to do what we want with our stuff, with the stuff we claim as our possessions — the modern age where decision-making is privatized, something we do by ourselves, as solitary selves, as thinking selves, alone and undisturbed by neighbors and strangers and laborers.[ii]
“What should I do,” says the rich man, “for I have no place to store my crops?” Or, as he says later in the parable, in verse 19, “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” You can hear the absurdity of the story, the absurdity of the rich man talking to himself instead of others: “I will say to my soul, Soul…” — as if there weren’t any other people around that he should be talking with.
As this man sits on his porch, by himself, and looks at all the grain, he needs to be reminded of what Jesus says about the harvest: “the land produced abundantly.” The land. Not the landowner.
At the end of the parable God calls the man a fool because he has spent his life amassing wealth that will do him no good — that will do him no good because he never thinks about how he can do any good for others, any good with others.
“You fool!” God says, “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (v. 20)
“Whose will they be?” God asks. To whom will the grain belong? After the rich man dies, who will take over the barns? Those questions hang in the air, without any answers, inviting us to guess at who will have access to the barns of grain. I’m guessing that the people who harvested the grain would probably have a feast, enjoying the fruit of their labor. The landowner’s death would be good news for the poor because he hoarded what he should have shared with them, he kept for himself what is meant to be enjoyed with a community of neighbors.
This is a story about greed, about holding onto what is meant to be shared. And, if this story is meant to show us how greed works, to show us where greed begins to take root in our lives, then we discover that greed begins the moment we think we can decide what to do with our stuff on our own — without thinking of others, without inviting others into our decision-making. In this parable greed, it seems, begins the moment the man thinks by himself and only for himself, the moment when his decision-making becomes privatized, when it all happens in his head, his solitary self.
If greed is about holding on to what is meant to be shared, I think our time of sharing our prayers during worship is a beginning for a different why to think about ourselves, a different way to understand ourselves, to understand who we are as human beings. When I hear you share your joys and concerns, when I hear your petitions and your words of gratitude, I hear you acknowledge your dependence on God — and on the rest of us who hear you and pray with you and join in your struggles.
With your prayers, you acknowledge that you are not alone, that you can’t do it alone, that you can’t live alone, by yourself — you confess that you are not a solitary self. With your prayers, you invite us to see how we need one another, how our lives depend on others, how our lives depend on God. When we pray, we discover who we are: a people in need, turning to one another because we know that God’s care will be found in our neighbor’s hands.
[ii] See Enrique Dussel, Ethics of Liberation: In the Age of Globalization and Exclusion (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 43.