Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
4 August 2019
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”
What thoughts did this line from our morning’s Gospel reading bring up for you?
Did you think: “Oh, good! I’ve been hoping Keith would preach about greed!”
Or was it more like: “Oh, no. Here it comes: an early stewardship talk.” Another of what someone has called the rector’s annual ‘Sermon on the Amount.’
The topic of money discussed from the pulpit can make many church-goers cringe – and some, downright angry. In truth, talking about money makes not just church-goers, but most people in our society uncomfortable. It’s one of those things you learn from an early age not to bring up in public. Just watch what happens when a small child asks an adult how much money they make or how much their car cost; and see how quickly parents will swoop in to shush the child, and then quickly follow with the admonition, “It’s not polite to ask those kinds of questions.” From a very early age, we are taught that there are some topics - like sex and money, religion or politics, and a woman’s weight or age - that should remain off-limits.
If you were raised this way – as I was! with solid midwestern values! - then hang on! Because, today, we’re going to break that taboo. But we have a strong precedent. After all, Jesus himself did so. In his stories and teachings, Jesus talked more about money and possessions, and our relationships with them, than any other topic. Of the thirty-three parables recorded in Scripture, sixteen deal with money or possessions. Clearly, he thought the topic was important! Now, if Our Lord can talk so frequently and openly about money, so can we; and today’s readings give us the perfect opportunity to do so.
In the verses that immediately precede this morning’s Gospel lesson, Luke tells us of Jesus being surrounded, as he often is, by a crowd of people. A man interrupts Jesus’ teaching, and asks him to arbitrate a dispute he is having with his brother about an inheritance. Jesus, however, opts out of getting involved in the family squabble over property. Instead, he uses it as an opportunity to talk about money – and more importantly, a proper relationship with money.
Jesus tells a parable that is often called the Parable of the Rich Fool. Now, let’s begin with some clarity about the main character in this parable: He isn’t portrayed as being evil or wicked. He is not described as one whose wealth was ill-gotten. He hasn’t cheated anyone. He hasn’t stolen anything. He’s not one of the tax collectors – who were the shake-down artists of Jesus’ day! From the information we’re given, he became wealthy as a result of his own labor and initiative, by the sweat of his brow, and honest means. He was, quite simply, a fortunate farmer who was blessed with land that produced abundantly. No crime there! And his decision to save for the future by building bigger barns doesn’t sound all that unreasonable either; after all, he does need space for his unusually huge harvest or it must be left to rot in the fields. What’s wrong with thinking ahead, planning strategically, and saving for a rainy day?
Jesus doesn’t say there’s anything wrong with planning and saving for the future. And the man isn’t called a fool because of his thoughts to build bigger barns. His spiritual illness isn’t inherently about his wealth, or his plans to protect his crop, or his hard work, or even his ambition – it’s in how he relates to his good fortune.
Take a look at the inner dialog this man has with himself:
“What should I do,” he asks himself, “for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he proceeds to answer his own question. “Self,” he replies … “Self, I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” And sounding a bit like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, he continues, “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.’”
Notice the rich man’s emphasis on “me.” In this short internal dialog, consisting of only sixty words, the man makes eleven references to himself with the personal pronouns “I” and “my.”
And here we find evidence of the first symptoms of the rich fool’s spiritual illness: He is all about the unholy trinity of “me, myself, and I.” He makes no references to others – not to family, or friends, or neighbors, or community - and no references or thanksgiving to God. What makes him a rich fool is his mistaken belief that all this wealth is his and his alone: his to possess, and his to control; after all, he alone produced this great abundance. It is all his.
The other delusion that distorts this man’s relationship with his wealth is uncovered when God addresses him: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And all these things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
In the face of the stark reality of death, the truth of our human condition is revealed: No amount of wealth or possessions can save you from your own mortality. Tonight . . . tomorrow . . . someday . . . you will die. That is an inescapable truth. And another inescapable truth: nothing on this earth can permanently postpone your death. In the end, all your wealth and all your possessions are only temporary and are not of any everlasting worth. Regardless of how much you amass, none of it can or will ultimately save you.
Now, on one level, we all know our wealth and our possessions won’t save us. But while we may know this in our heads, our hearts often don’t quite believe it, nor do our actions show it.
Anxiety over money is universal. Many among us are anxious all of the time. And all of us are anxious some of the time. We are . . .
anxious about our jobs,
putting the kids through college,
paying for a wedding,
the market fluctuations of our 401(k)s,
making the mortgage payment,
fearful that a medical catastrophe will bankrupt us,
worried our refrigerator or the car will suddenly give out,
terrified that we may outlive our resources, making us a burden to others . . .
all of this – and much more - make us nervous about money. But notice that all these anxieties are focused on the self, and this myopic, internal focus becomes the basis of and feeds the fear that lives in our hearts.
Christ calls us and challenges us to shift our focus away from the small, egocentric self; to look outward, and move into a radical trust in God.
If our focus can shift away from ourselves and move outward in this way, we then begin to view our wealth and possessions very differently.
First, we realize that it isn’t our wealth at all – it all belongs to God. Not only has our wealth come from God, even our talents and skills and intellect by which we are able to obtain our wealth are gifts from God. None of it belongs to us – it’s all on loan.
The rich fool of Jesus’ parable hasn’t figured out that the wealth he claims as his own isn’t really his, for he only has temporary custody of it. To put it into today’s context, we might ponder exactly how much Bill Gates or Warren Buffett will be worth when they die. But ultimately, the answer is: in the end, they are worth the same as you and me.
A story is told that upon hearing that Aristotle Onassis had died, someone asked, “How much did he leave behind?” The answer was given, “All of it. He left it all behind.”
Death is the great equalizer, and when we die, our net worth in dollars is zero. You can’t take it with you. After all, have you ever seen an armored truck following a hearse?
The second thing we realize is predicated on the first: If all comes from God, then we have an obligation to God to use this temporary wealth in right ways.
This realization moves us from being merely consumers of resources and collectors of possessions to faithful and trusted stewards of God’s good gifts. When we acknowledge this, we begin to ask different questions about the use of wealth:
“Do I really need this? Or is it a want I can live without?”
“Where can I best use this money for everyone’s benefit?”
“How can my wealth, which has blessed me, serve as a blessing for others?”
Adopting this viewpoint and living this way doesn’t mean that all our personal needs need to be ignored and left out of the equation, but it does mean that we must strive to balance our personal needs with the needs of others, promoting healthy and holy relationships that bring glory to God.
So Jesus’ teaching is not a condemnation of wealth or ambition; rather, it is an invitation to live faithfully and view our material possessions differently.
Can our wealth and possessions help us live a relatively comfortable life? Of course they can.
Can they make us worthy of God’s love and guarantee us right relationships with God and each other? Absolutely not!
Christ invites us into a life greater than our anxious fears over things that have no ultimate worth. He invites us into his Kingdom and into deeper relationship with God and with others – a treasure far greater and more enduring than all the wealth of this world.