Luke 12:13-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And 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.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Our lectionary readings continue in the gospel according to Luke and Jesus is getting into some serious conversations. Last week it was about prayer and this week it is about our wellbeing – our spiritual wellbeing and our financial wellbeing. Again, these are complex issues.
The scene opens with siblings in dispute over an inheritance. Too often in families that is a tender and difficult topic if one child feels slighted over another. This happens all the time. This reminds me of the Smothers brother’s routine. Wasn’t it Tommy who always claimed mom liked him better?
The custom in Jesus’ culture was that Jewish law clearly prescribed that at the death of a father, the elder son received 2/3 of the inheritance, and the younger son received 1/3. This is obviously a younger son who is complaining about the inherent unfairness of it all. Nothing will divide siblings more than dividing up an estate. So it was then, and so it is now. Jesus refused to get involved in a petty family squabble and works easily to avoid triangulation.
So Jesus turns to telling a story – which he is so adept at doing. And in doing so, speaks truth to power and bursts many preconceived notions of what we think is important and how we show it. Everyone wants to be the top dog and Jesus just shatters some belief systems. No wonder he kept getting himself into hot water. Then as now, those who hold riches are seen as powerful, while those who struggle financially are often seen as weak and worthless losers. We hear this sentiment almost daily if we listen to the language coming from our president – of how the other is berated and demeaned and demonized. I cannot help be worried about the direction of our country and how hard it seems to be able to find common ground if we see the world in terms of us vs them rather than we’re all in this together. We’re all children of God.
I also know that not everyone wants to hear about money being preached in church. Yet, Kathryn Matthews asks: If money is a subject that can’t be discussed in an atmosphere of trust and openness in the community of faith, where the most important things in life should be thoughtfully and prayerfully examined, how do ordinary Christians like us learn to connect finances with their spiritual values and even their spiritual welfare?” (UCCsermon seeds) Good question, and my follow up question is: How in the world has not talking about money grown to be such a sentiment within churches? Are you aware that of Jesus’ 38 parables, 16 of them, 16!, deal with our relationship to money and material things. At first glance this may seem to be a parable about money. It is, however, a parable about values and what is important to life, and to talk about that we need to have a conversation about money and our values.
Some of you may remember comedian Jack Benny. He had many skits on his show about his love for money and in one skit reveals how we place money ahead of everything. He is walking down the street when suddenly he is approached by an armed robber, “Your money or your life!” In the way only Jack Benny could. He took a long pause. Jack does nothing. The robber is getting impatient and asks: “Well?” Jack replied – “Don’t rush me, I’m thinking it over.”
We all want financial security and there is nothing really wrong with that. Financial security brings us a sense of balance and wellbeing. So, the bigger question is ‘Where did this seemingly good man of this parable – who became rich through decent hard work and not by cheating or lying or stealing, go off the rail so that Jesus calls him a fool?”
One of the commentaries suggests the following: He had full barns, but an empty heart; he overestimated himself; he forgot about the real business of life; 4. he forgot about time – thinking he had plenty of it before his death – while he was amassing wealth, prosperity and holding onto what he had [never thinking of sharing from his abundance but keeping it all because of his fear of scarcity]. And at the same time he was able to build a Rather than share, he built a bigger, better barn to show off what he had. Jesus was concerned with the larger implications of his preoccupation with the things of this world. He said: “Beware of greed, for life does not consist of things possessed.” In other words: The sum total of a person’s life is more than their financial portfolio.” (sermon.com)
Henry Ford once asked an associate about his life goals. The man replied that his goal was to make a million dollars. A few days later Ford gave the man a pair of glasses made out of two silver dollars. He told the man to put them on and asked what he could see. ‘Nothing,’ the man said. “The dollars are in the way.” Ford told him that he wanted to teach him a lesson: If his only goal was dollars, he would miss a host of greater opportunities. He should invest himself in serving others, not simply in making money.
Commentator Duncan reflects: “That’s a great secret of life that far too few people discover. Money is important. No question about that. But money is only a means by which we reach high goals. Service to others. Obedience to God. God comes to the rich man and says, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (King Duncan, sermons.com)
Another commentator put it this way: “We’re like children in a video arcade – no matter how many quarters or tokens you give them, when the last game’s over, they always ask for ‘just one more.’ There’s no end to it. Someone once asked John D. Rockefeller: “How much wealth does it take to satisfy a person?” He replied, “Just a little bit more.” (Carveth Mitchell, The Sign in the Subway CSS Pub. Co, sermons.com)
In the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick, we’re ‘rich in things and poor in soul.” What’s the answer? ‘The answer is that we need to get back to the basics and reestablish our priorities. In a word, we need to put God first. We need to follow the great Commandment, to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.’ It’s as simple as that.” (Philip McLarty; The Parable of the Rich Fool, sermons.com)
I have never personally believed that money is the root of all evil. Money itself is neutral. Money has the potential to do tremendous good – and it has as I think of various foundations that have been developed to help in a variety of ways. For instance, a couple I know met later in life and married. They went to Africa for their honeymoon. In spite of stardust in their eyes and hearts they saw the poverty of one community in Burundi and set up a foundation that brought clean water into the community. They also established a school and that community now gets support from a local congregation in Arizona.
Or what about stories of people who live modest lives yet leave fortunes earmarked in their will to develop scholarships for youth who would never be able to afford to go to college without these gifts. A shopkeeper who left 13 million; a couple that left 7 million; a woman who worked as a secretary for most of her life left 8.2 million. They might have been called fools for living the way they did when they could have lived in grand style, but I think they understood that the most beautiful things in life aren’t things.
I also think of the ways Bill and Melinda Gates share their wealth with various foundations they’ve developed to help the underprivileged. Money is not the root of all evil. But money has the power to corrupt our understanding of what is important in life.
If we are not careful of our understanding of money, our need for it, our love of it, our addiction to it, our hoarding of it, then it is evil in its darkest form especially when we see the needs around us. I don’t think there is anything more divisive in our world than the haves and the have nots: divisions of power over powerlessness; divisions of rich over poor; divisions within politics; divisions of race; divisions of better than over lesser than.
Many do see money as power and put it central in their life. This is the danger of our understanding of the power of money because money has the power to corrupt, can be addictive, it can buy political races and buy people as well, and can cause ‘death with the cancer of covetousness,’ as one person so aptly names it. (sermons.com) Sometimes with the blinders of greed it is hard to know when enough is enough.
Like the fool who built a bigger better barn to show his wealth, I too have seen perfectly good homes be demolished so a bigger grander status symbol to one’s wealth could be built. When in the world did modest living go out the window? When did sharing with others become unbecoming? When did money become the center rather than the God of live, love and compassion? Confucius speaks to us today from the 6th century when he said: “To be wealthy and honored in an unjust society is a disgrace.” And I would add: It is a moral bankruptcy.
So, getting back to the bottom line: how do you define the good life? What is it that makes your life rich and full? What might you need to let go of to truly live that good life? What might you need to be able to embrace it? What are the ways we are rich toward God?
And, if anyone should stop you and ask: “Your money or your life?” I hope you really don’t have to think it over because the reality is that God would always, always, choose you. We are rich, indeed. What a blessing. Amen.
Copyright DMC 2029