The Myth of the Self Made Man

Homily, The Myth of the Self Made Man
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13C, 2022
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49:1-11
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The idea of a “self made man” is a pervasive image in our society. We love a rags-to-riches story where people come from nothing and are able to make something of themselves. We love stories about underdogs who through persistence and hard work overcome challenging circumstances in order to accomplish something great. When we think of self made folks we think about people like Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller. We think of Ronald Reagan, Oprah Winfrey, and Beyoncé. We see them as role models and aspire to be like them. They are, for us, examples of the American Dream. That each one of us, through purely our own hard work, can make our dreams come true. We, too, can become self made. 

And yet as beautiful as that image is, I’m wondering if perhaps at least part of the self made narrative is a myth. 

In today’s gospel passage Jesus tells a parable about a seemingly self made man. We don’t know his full story, but we know that he’s a successful and wealthy land owner and he’s posed with an exciting business opportunity when his land produces an incredible crop. In fact, in one year his yield is greater than he even has room for. So the man has to decide what to do with his profit and he chooses to build larger storage facilities to hold his material assets in hopes that he can retire and live off them for years to come. 

Now, evidently this man’s doing something right. Evidently, this man knows how to make profit from his assets. In today’s world, you can almost imagine him writing a best selling book, How to Retire in One Year: The Secret of Agricultural Investment followed up by his biography, Self Made: The Story of a Successful Farmer. 

And yet, in this parable, surprisingly rather than praising him for his aptitude, God calls him a fool. 

“You fool!,” he says, “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Whose will they be? 

Now why would God have such harsh words for such a successful man? What’s so wrong with this man’s decision? After all, shouldn’t he be able to enjoy the fruits of his own work? Shouldn’t he be able to receive the rewards of his own success?

Perhaps the problem is in the question itself. Is it really his own work? Is it really his own success? Perhaps the foolishness of the man is not in his accumulation of wealth but in his neglect of the community which made it possible. 

Take a closer look at the passage again. It says, “he thought to HIMSELF, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store MY crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down MY barns and build larger ones, 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, be merry.’” 

This man clearly thinks of himself as self made. He gives no attention, not a single thought, to the community around him that helped in his success. He makes no mention of the farm hands who nurtured the soil and cared for the crop. He makes no mention of the harvesters and their calloused hands. He makes no mention of the builders who will help him build the bigger barns. He doesn’t have anything to say about friends and family who encouraged him along the way, giving him feedback and advice. And he says nothing about the God who blessed him with such a bountiful harvest. This man is fully convinced in his own success story, completely oblivious to the community that surrounds him. 

And so God asks him, where is your community? When you die, whose stuff will all this be?

And that, I think, is the heart of greed. The sin of greed is not strictly in the accumulation of wealth. The sin of greed is in the neglect of community. And so Jesus says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” 

There is no such thing as a self made man. There are those that are successful. Those that work hard. There are those who overcome enormous odds, but nobody does it alone. Nobody makes themself. We are made by one another. We are made by God. Whatever success we find in life, we are called to be grateful and generous to all those around us who made it possible. There’s no such thing as a self made man.

And let me tell you, this is good news. Because it means that we don’t have to walk alone. We don’t have to be a single handed success story. We don’t have to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We don’t have to do everything all by ourselves. We don’t have to be self made people. 

We were born for community. We were born to lean on one another. We were born to care for all those around us. 

So work hard. Be persistent. Overcome the odds. But never forget the community that surrounds you. Never forget the God that holds you. Never forget that you are not alone. Amen.