Jesus, foolishness, and the chocolate brown dress
I bet if I asked you all, everyone could come up with a list of stuff you’d like to buy. And not just the stuff we need, but also things we want. Such a list can occupy a fair amount of space in our brains at any given time. My children constantly ask to buy movies and PS4 games and battle passes. I don’t actually know what those are, but they sure want them. And honestly, Jason and I are not much different. We budget pretty carefully, but at any given time, our Amazon wish lists are not short. We have noticed a purchasing pattern; perhaps you have, too. We are more prone to click the “Buy Now” button if we are stressed or tired or bored. Or, to let those items near the checkout line at the grocery store jump into the cart. Rationally, we know that the dopamine hit that comes from an impulse buy is temporary, and that we will still feel stressed or tired or bored after buying the item. But behavior is not always rational, is it? Especially when it comes to cravings.
In Christian terms, the ancient name for this problem is covetousness. Coveting is about wanting the wrong things for the wrong reasons. We’ve all heard the commandment, thou shalt not covet. Seems straightforward, like leave your neighbor’s house or wife alone. But I’ve always suspected that while the ten commandments seem obvious, they must have commandment status because our tendency to stray from them is an ever present danger. Coveting on that list is a particularly complicated and fascinating commandment. Coveting is wanting something because it seems like the solution to a problem, a problem like loneliness or lust or fear or boredom, but it can send us in the wrong direction fast.
My first brush with coveting happened long before home gaming systems. I was four, and what I wanted more than anything in the world was a chocolate brown dress with white polka dots and a high neck collar. This was in the 70s, in case you haven’t guessed. The dress was on display in the fancy shop window we passed by every day. It was the most beautiful, glamorous thing I had ever seen. And since I was new in town, I made up my mind that wearing the amazing dress would help me make friends. For a while, the dress was all I could think about. I must have pestered my poor mother relentlessly, but I couldn’t convince her to buy the overpriced item for a kid with questionable fashion taste. Looking back at what seemed like a great injustice at the time, perhaps she knew that the dress was not what I needed to make new friends. It was the wrong solution to my problem.
Wanting items that strongly is a common childhood experience. St. Augustine actually used it as evidence for his doctrine of original sin. In his opinion, children were pretty awful in their coveting, and he went so far as to call nursing infants greedy. He had some issues. But he was right to name the truth that covetousness is a universal problem, It starts in childhood and continues well into adulthood. Our insatiable appetites cause us to suffer, and they can send us down wrong paths. Sometimes this is relatively harmless, like an impulse buy. Other times it’s far more serious, Just take any kind of addiction as an example. Addiction can happen when the solution at hand makes a false and seductive promise to heal trouble in our bodies, minds, or souls. To others, addictive behavior can look like coveting or greed on the outside, but there is pain underneath.
Today’s parable of the rich farmer is about coveting and greed, at least on the surface. Luke sets it up that way, as a response to the guy asking about his fair share of the family inheritance. Notice that Jesus won’t touch the financial squabble. I think he’s zeroing in on the brothers’ strained relationship, in parable form. Jesus tells the story about a seemingly greedy farmer who has such a successful crop that he has to build bigger barns to hold it all. He finally feels secure and happy, until his fictional and untimely death. The parable ends with the farmer’s unhappy lesson that he can’t take it all with him. Seems pretty straightforward, right? But the strange thing about this parable is that we don’t know whether the rich farmer is a good guy or a bad guy. Unlike other parables, we don’t hear that he has mistreated laborers or cheated anyone in order to satisfy his greed. Jesus also doesn’t accuse him of failing to share his abundance with those in need. For all we know, he has been a good and generous rich guy. And I rather doubt that Jesus is preaching here against successful crops and planning for the future. I don’t think this is the anti-401K parable. So what then, is the rich farmer’s foolishness?
His misstep can be seen in how the story is told. Note the little conversation he has with himself. Except it’s not just to himself, it’s also about himself, and only himself. “I will build larger barns, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.’” He clearly thinks a big, full barn will ease his anxiety and make him happy. Jesus sees it differently, as he always does. The farmer has sought the wrong solutions to his problems. He has acquired grain, thinking that this will plug up the holes in his life. But the holes can’t be fixed that way. This self-talker’s problem isn’t greed per se, it’s isolation. He may have a lot of grain, but how can that be the point? Treating our life as a sealed up silo means missing where true treasure can be found. No matter how much you store up in your barn or in your Amazon cart to sooth your soul, you can’t take it with you. Real treasure is not in stuff, it’s in connection.
In a groundbreaking book titled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam explores how we Americans have become increasingly disconnected, from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures. He warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and our communities. There are all kinds of evidence for this trend. We sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet in person, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. Putnam points out that we even go bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues as people once did. Which means that the kind of conversations that might happen at the bowling alley or on our front porches are in decline.
This is a modern development, but I would argue that the fundamental problem is the same one as the rich fool’s problem two millennia ago. And it’s a spiritual one. St. Augustine might have been weirdly harsh about children, but he got something right about human nature. Left to our own devices, we can get caught in a looping soliloquy about me, myself, and I, and look to ease our lonely anxieties on our own, however we choose to numb them. It seems to me that all of our social, political, and environmental breakdowns share the same root cause, a spiritual one of disconnection. Our foolishness today is the same as that rich but lonely farmer.
In a world of quick fixes and impulse buys, Jesus points us again and again with grace to the path of connection. The voids in our lives can only be filled with God and each other. When we come into this space, or sit on a neighbor’s porch, or get involved in civic life, we are doing something profoundly counter-cultural. We are reweaving our connection, person by person, to God and one another. With practice, these connections can heal our age-old proclivity to store up stuff as the false answer to deeper need.
There is a bit more to that story about the chocolate brown dress with white polka dots. It turns out that I didn’t need it to make friends after all. A little girl named Ericka wandered over to my back yard from hers one day, and we started digging holes with sticks. We talked it over and decided that if we worked together, we could dig all the way through the earth to China. We were a little thin on geography and geology skills back then. But from that moment on, we were connected. It was a gospel moment, and guess what, I forgot all about the dress. In teaching us about foolish old farmers, Jesus was on to something good - connection really does heal our foolishness.