Unless you were a Roman citizen with some authority, 1st century Palestine was a harsh place to live. The poor were taxed oppressively. People not part of the Roman Empire often became pawns in the political machinations of the powerful. The stress of trying to make it through the day exacted a heavy toll for those on the margins of Roman society.
Those were the people with whom Jesus chose to hang out–the powerless, the downtrodden, folks just scraping by. Those were people who needed to hear the good news.
Before he tells the story of the successful farmer, Jesus asks the crowd: Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
“Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” On the face of it, this statement elicits comfort and reassurance–You have value in God’s eyes! But when you stop to think, you realize those people must have been pretty beaten down if Jesus was trying to convince them they were more valuable than sparrows, the slightest of birds.
As I read this familiar sentence this time, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. When Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows,” he makes a connection between fear and not feeling valued. If your life has no meaning in the eyes of people in power, of course, you’re going to be afraid. They can do anything to you! It’s why so many of our siblings with brown and black skin and those in the trans, non-binary, and LGBQ+ communities (and those in the trans, non-binary, and LBGQ+ communities with brown and black skin) walk around always on their guard, always–some part of them–afraid.
At the retreat I attended week before last, the presenter–a Black pastor from Minneapolis– asked us to imagine a time when we felt oppressed. Once we had that feeling of oppression in our bodies, she said, “That’s what it’s like for people who are Black all the time, every second of every day.” If you aren’t valued by the powers that be, the world can be a very scary place.
Do you feel valued? Do you feel your worth? So much in our world, in our country, seems to militate against human beings feeling our worth as human beings. Good church people–that’s us–throw these words around all the time–”God loves you. You are a beloved child of God.” Yet, how many people really feel loved, much less loved by God?
As Jesus is reminding people of their true worth, of God’s profound love for them, someone in the crowd says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” I would love to have been a fly on the wall in Jesus’ brain about then. Jesus is telling the people about their sacred worth and all someone can think about is a family squabble. About money.
Net worth, human worth. In our society–in the world–those two worths get all tangled up, don’t they? Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that, far too often, net worth determines human worth. Do you know what I’m talking about? To help untangle the net worth/human worth knot, Jesus tells the grumpy brother–and anyone who will listen (including us)–a story.
“Take care!,” he says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Once upon a time, a farmer had a banner harvest. The man thought to himself, ‘Where am I going to store all these crops? I guess the only thing to do is to pull down these old barns and build some bigger ones. I’ll store my grain and goods in the new barns, then say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’
It’s easy to beat up on this successful farmer, to call him greedy and berate him for his stingy heart. And yet, greed (more) is pretty much what runs our country, isn’t it? It’s why our planet is so sick–greed. It’s why the wealth gap in our country continues to widen–greed. Have you heard about what happened in Mississippi? A famous ball player–with the assistance of a former governor–stole funds from state assistance for low-income Mississippians and used them for a state college’s sports program and to line their own pockets.
That’s an egregious example of greed. But we’re all caught in the web created by greed. What’s the sign of success in our country? Bigger barns, bigger houses, sending our kids to fancier schools, buying fancier cars. Even when we say and believe with all our hearts that everyone on the planet has equal value, we’ve all been indoctrinated into the mindset (I almost said “religion”) that equates net worth with sacred worth. The doctrine of greed is insidious, isn’t it?
Allen told me this week about an economic theory called “Steady State” As I understand it, the goal in this setup isn’t to grow the economy, but to keep it steady, to make sure everyone has what they need. Sounds like Jesus, or those first Christians in the book of Acts who had all things in common, doesn’t it? But, man. How could we ever create that kind of economy in our country? We’d have to completely rethink everything.
I mean, that would just take so much work, creating a greedless society. Can you even imagine? Surely, Jesus isn’t calling us to transform the entire framework on which our country works! Is he?
The good news today–which might feel like bad news–is this: Yes. Jesus IS calling us to untangle the net worth/human worth knot. Why? Because until we do, none of us–not the 99%ers, not the 1%ers, none of us–is going to know our full, beautiful, beloved worth as human beings. I have two stories to share, one about the poverty of greed, the other about the joy of generosity.
Several years ago, a woman died with a large balance in her bank account. Just days before illness would claim her life, she had the chance to help someone with a small sum of cash. She refused. Despite her healthy bank balance, despite her advanced years, that woman died a spiritual pauper. Her greed impoverished her. She died with a small heart.
Now, a story of joyous generosity. Born HIV positive in South Africa, Nkosi Johnson was raised by a white mother. That mother, Gail Johnson, worked tirelessly for Nkosi and for other people with AIDS in Southern Africa.
Among Gail’s many projects was a home for people living with AIDS, many of whom were children. The place was called Nkosi’s House.
By the time he was 12, Nkosi was into full-blown AIDS and wasn’t doing well. Even so, one of his favorite pastimes was going to Nkosi’s House and playing with the children there. One evening, Nkosi asked Gail if he could spend the night at the shelter and maybe take his allowance money and buy the kids pizza for supper. “Sure,” his mom said.
When Nkosi arrived, he asked the matron if he might treat the children to some pizza… but supper already had been prepared for the evening. “Perhaps tomorrow night,” the woman said. The news disappointed Nkosi–he loved pizza and wanted to share some with the children. But he understood.
After a lively–non-pizza meal (Nkosi was quite the charmer), the diminutive child climbed into the bathtub for one of his famously long baths. The hot water relieved his body’s significant pain. During that bath, Nkosi had a seizure. He lived for several more months, but never regained consciousness.
Like the elderly woman, Nkosi died with money in his pocket. But unlike the woman, it had been Nkosi’s deepest desire to share that money with others. Nkosi didn’t live long, but he did live generously in the few years he had. Nkosi died free from greed. He died understanding the value of a human life, the value of all human lives. Nkosi died with a huge heart.
I know. Nkosi was only 12 when he died. He never had to think about providing for a family or saving for retirement. He was too young to know the full value of money, or the full value of human lives. But was he? Was he? Here’s a clip of Nkosi speaking at the World AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa in July 2000.
We are normal. We have hands. We have feet. We can walk, we can talk, we have needs just like everyone else – don’t be afraid of us – we are all the same!
Sing: Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.
Red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2022 (with some help from 2011)