I saw an update in the news last week about the two scientists who made a bet regarding the first person to live to be 150. Steven Austad, a researcher at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, bet the person was already alive when the year 2000 began; Jay Olshansky of the University of Chicago bet the person had not been born at 2000’s onset.
Each man put down $150, which went into an investment account. The bet, of course, won’t be resolved until as late as Jan. 1, 2150, and the two scientists don’t expect one of them to collect it. The winner’s heirs or designees will benefit from the proceeds.
Oh, one additional detail about the bet—that 150-year-old person has to be lucid enough to hold a conversation.
I know what I thought when I read this. Hey, I was alive in 2000. Could it be me? Could the pill, the injection, the treatment that makes the difference come along in time for me and my loved ones to make it to 150, happy and in good health?
I suspect I’m not alone. If we think about death, we prefer to think we’ll beat the odds, keeping the Grim Reaper at arm’s length until we’re ready to depart on our terms. (The morning after delivering this sermon, I found a story about lifespan extension even odder than the the Austad-Olshansky bet.)
Denial about death can be even more extreme. Before I entered ministry, I twice had people casually tell me they didn’t expect to die, and neither person was speaking in the context of Jesus returning first. Both times I just stood there and blinked in astonishment. By the way, one of them is now dead, taken relatively early in life by cancer.
In today’s parable, Jesus is telling us how spiritually dangerous it is to fool ourselves in such a way.
Usually when we hear this parable, our first thought goes to the rich man’s hoarding. The rich man does have a problem with his love of money and possessions, but even his greed is tied to his foolishness regarding the fragility of life. His collection of grain and goods simply amplifies his sense that he has everything under control, that nothing can disturb his sense of well-being and happiness.
The Bible, even with its early Old Testament characters reportedly living beyond the age of 900, describes life as fleeting. “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field,” says the Prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God.
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring,” writes the author of the Epistle of James, traditionally thought to be the brother of Jesus. “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
I realize it’s kind of a depressing message. A psychologist friend of mine once pointed out that people don’t like it when I remind them they will die. “I know,” I replied. “But in a way, it’s my job.”
And yet, there is much joy in my vocation. There is much joy in the Christian message. When we hear what the Bible says about life being a fleeting event, barely a flicker in the cosmos, we are being set up, but in a good way. Like the people who heard Peter’s first sermon, we should be cut to the heart, crying out, “What should we do?”
First of all, hear the good news. Because Jesus has died for our sins, the withered grass has been restored, given eternal life. The mist is allowed to take on solid form and last forever. Believe and be baptized.
Then, believers, live this life with your eyes set on what really matters. We still have to live in the world of money and stuff, but keep possessions in perspective, using them according to God’s will.
And quit worrying! That’s the guidance Jesus gave his disciples after he told this parable. The God who provides eternal life certainly will provide what we need now. Worrying interferes with the experience of God in this life.
Stop worrying and you’ll also stop thinking of yourself first. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” Philippians 2:4 tells us. When we live in Christ, the focus moves from self and even the slightly larger circle drawn around family to a much larger community, a group of people living in joy now and ultimately transcending this world.
Community also is the antidote to something I think afflicted the rich man. Jesus wants us to sense the rich man was lonely. Look at the conversation the man has as he considers his bigger barns. He has it with himself!
“And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
Which sounds better to you? Dining alone on prime rib and foie gras while toasting your possessions with the finest wine, or sharing a big pot of soup with friends, knowing we walk toward eternity together?
I think the answer is obvious, even if we all live to be 200, our barns full.
The featured image is a Cornish Griffin round barn in Steuben County, Indiana. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.