9 Pentecost C
Part One: Vegetable Matters
I’m back from vacation and relatively caught up on canning pickles (for the moment). So, let’s talk about this week’s gospel text. For a variety of reasons, our garden this year is producing abundantly. One of the reasons for that abundance is that I tend to plant with worst case scenarios in mind.
What if squash vine borers cut off our summer squash just as the plants begin to produce? That happened with the zucchini a few years ago. What if the tomato spotted wilt virus comes back this year, as it did a few years ago? A good tomato crop is, for me, one of the primary measures of a successful gardening campaign. What if the heat takes my cucumber vines and turns them into brown sticks and crackling leaves? Given the heat of the last week, that was a real possibility. And what if a hailstorm reduces my garden to muddy stumps? I saw that too many times as I grew up on an Iowa farm.
Therefore, I tend to plant about twice as many plants as I need for a good harvest. In a productive year, like this one has been so far, the result is a bumper crop. I know through past experience approximately how quickly we consume and give our canned goods. So, I plan my canning strategy accordingly (Bread and Butter pickles, dill pickles, frozen tomatoes, chili base, medium salsa, and pasta sauce, for those who are interested). In a year like this, we have plenty of produce to eat fresh and in season. And we have plenty more to give away to friends, neighbors, fellow church members, and local food pantries and kitchens.
I stick closely to my harvest and storage strategy because I know what will happen if I don’t. I will be tempted to free up more shelving, buy another freezer, invest in more canning supplies, and count the results over and over like a vegetarian Scrooge McDuck. I know how that feels. It is in part a response to the anxiety over not having enough. I feel deep satisfaction when my canning shelves are full. It is also in part a desire to keep score and “win the game.” People laugh at how pleased I am to report the harvest numbers. But I’m an Iowa farm kid. I know what matters in winning the game.
This desire to hoard masses of home-grown vegetables in perpetual storage media may well be an inherited trait. Our large garden on the farm was a real part of our family food strategy. I don’t remember eating store-bought dill pickles until I had them for the first time in a school lunch (I thought they were terrible). I still can’t really tolerate the taste of grocery-store tomatoes, if taste is in fact something that can be attributed to them. I can remember pickup loads of cucumbers and whole days spent canning pickles, corn, and tomatoes.
That large garden followed my dad when the folks moved into town. The town garden stretched the entire length of their back lot. Dad engineered a way to access ground water so that he wouldn’t inflict chlorination on the crops and wouldn’t pay for the gallons and gallons of water required to sustain the plot. Dad moved jars of dill pickles from the root cellar on the farm into town. Some of those jars were still on the shelf when he died. I suspect they would still have been edible after ten years if anyone had had the nerve to try them (we didn’t).
I feel, therefore, a certain kinship to the Greedy Fool in Luke 12. The chapter repeatedly urges us, “Don’t be anxious! Don’t worry! Don’t be afraid!” The Lukan author understands that our desire for more is the soul-sucking combination of the fear of scarcity and the pleasure of excess. That’s really what the “greed” is that we encounter in Luke 12:15. The Greek word is “pleonexia.” And what an interesting word it is. It is the desire not just for a lot but rather for more, for expansion, for increase, for excess. It’s not a word about our stuff. It’s a word that describes our relationship with our stuff. I know it’s precisely what I feel when the shelves are sagging, and bins are busting. I win!
“But he [Jesus] said to him [the anxious heir], ‘Look out, and be on guard against all coveting, because it is not in the excess of stuff that one’s life is available to one” (Luke 12:15, my translation). Again, it’s not the stuff itself that is the problem. It is the unending lust for more stuff that deprives us of the very life it promises to give. Such an enduring excess doesn’t give us more life. It just gives us more management problems.
If we stick with the appointed pericope, that’s really the limit of the text. A such, the text then contains lots of law and very little gospel. But I think it’s a mistake, both textually and hermeneutically, to stick with the pericope as given. I want to argue strongly that we ought to read through Luke 12:31 in our worship. And we ought to take Luke 12:22-31 as direct commentary on the preceding parable.
The two pericopes have numerous connections in both vocabulary and theme. For example, the pericopes have the same concern for the storage of abundant produce and the method for that storage. The same terms for “store” and “storehouses” show up in verses 18, 21, and 23. Barns are mentioned in verses 18, 23, and 24. The word for self (psyche) appears in verses 19, 22, and 23. There is the mention of eating and drinking in both pericopes. The Lukan author clearly intends for Jesus’ commentary to inform the way the disciples understand the preceding parable.
When we allow the text to be itself in this way, then we can find both the law and the gospel in our reading. Our dysfunctional relationship with our stuff can leave our lives fruitless and incomplete. Having more does not grant the gift of immortality. Wealth cannot banish worry forever. Enough is never really enough. Things do not deserve our devotion. Covetousness results in idolatry.
Instead, the God that Jesus proclaims knows what we need. The text does not give us permission to stop working for our food and clothing. But it does encourage us to stop worrying about such things. God is the Giver. The problem is not the Giver. The problem is that we want the gifts without having to trust the goodness of the Giver. After all, God cares for you as much as for the ravens and the lilies.
I know this the “right answer” in theological and spiritual terms. But behaviorally and psychologically, I don’t really buy it most of the time. I’d rather trust the stuff I can put in a barn or on a shelf than the God who too often seems as real as a puff of vapor. This is how the text challenges me. More on that, perhaps as we go along this week.