Sunday, February 12, 2017

Have you heard the one about the rich farmer and the pension plan?

Luke 12.13-34
At Christmas we played a board game called The Game of Life. The game is about planning for your retirement. For most of the game you make decisions about your career and your family but, as you progress round the board, retirement looms larger and larger, and you can buy a portfolio of investments to fall back on when that day arrives.
Then, for the last section of the game, you are actually retired and have to make it to the finish line where you will hand on whatever is left as your inheritance to your family. The player with the largest inheritance is the winner. As one of the players put it very aptly, during this retirement phase the game rinses you; what seemed at first like a generous pension can soon be frittered away as you are hit by a series of horrendous disasters. Factories burn down, taxes have to be paid, storms wreak havoc, and so on.
It probably sounds terribly boring - a financial adviser’s idea of how to have fun, but actually it’s not. Let me give you an example. I was a popstar. During my working life I amassed a small fortune including a holiday villa, a flash car and an executive jet, but by the time I reached the last square of the game I was on welfare benefits. It was a true rags to riches and back again story.
The parable of the Rich Farmer is, of course, about retirement planning. The farmer was playing The Game of Life. He had already provided for his retirement but a series of abundant harvests allowed him to pull down his barns and build even bigger ones. Not only could he now envisage leaving a generous inheritance for his wife and family, which is the dream of every peasant farmer, but he could also afford to retire. He thought he would be able to relax for many years to come,  eating, drinking and making merry. Instead life dealt him a cruel blow and he died on the eve of realising his ambition. Jesus called him a fool.
Does this mean that retirement planning is a bad idea? Should we live for today and let tomorrow’s worries take care of themselves? Jesus’ own approach to  life certainly encourages us to think only of the immediate future. He told his followers not to build up a fortune in this life, where it can be rinsed away by various adversities such as theft, moth and rust. Instead, we are to follow the example of nature and put our trust in God’s provision. He encouraged his followers to sell their possessions and donate the money to the poor and, to underline the point, he himself did not retire and the only inheritance he left was a spiritual one.
However, let’s look at the parable more closely. The first thing to observe is that the farmer had already been financially prudent and had planned for his retirement before he rebuilt his barns. He’s not condemned in the story for making reasonable provision for his old age and his family’s inheritance.
Part of his undoing was his greed. He didn’t know when enough is enough. An active retirement as such was, of course, virtually unheard of in the ancient world. People retired when they could no longer work, and then they passed on their inheritance to their children, who were expected to look after them in return. Only the very wealthy could retire to eat, drink and be merry. And yet that became the farmer’s ambition.
Another mistake he made was to focus narrowly on his own financial well being to the exclusion of his moral well being and the well being of his neighbours. We hear nothing about charity - his obligation to help those in need, like the poor widows and orphans in his community who could never hope to benefit from an inheritance of their own, or the beggars at his gate who couldn’t work because of illness or misfortune. He didn't build a new synagogue, or pay for a community hall, or endow a bursary for the village school. he left no lasting legacy of any kind. There was no one outside his family who was left to mourn his passing. Instead, they probably rejoiced that he had got his comeuppance.
And his final mistake was to concentrate narrowly on his financial well being at the expense of his spiritual well being. Just as he had given no thought to his neighbours, he gave no thought to God and to the afterlife. This was his most foolish error of all. Retirement planning should go hand in hand with spiritual planning. But that doesn’t mean trying to buy favour with God. It simply means trusting God first and then letting our trust in him guide our other decisions - how we play The Game of Life, what provision we make for our old age and our family, how much help we offer to the poor and needy and how much time we devote to spiritual things. We should let God be the magnetic pole to which we are drawn and around which all our important decisions in life are shaped.
This is challenging advice for people who are well off, like the Rich Farmer in the story. It’s even more challenging for ordinary people who are just getting by and who are tempted therefore to focus everything on coping financially. And, of course, it’s framed by Jesus’ own commitment to give away everything he had, to sit light to this world and its cares and concerns, and to devote his whole life to God.

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