“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”
What thoughts does this quote from today’s gospel reading bring up for you? Did you think, “Awesome! We need to talk more about greed”? Or was it more like, “Oh, no. Here it comes: stewardship season and another Sermon on the Amount”?
The topic of money tends to make many Episcopalians cringe. Perhaps this is partly due to our “denominational DNA” with its reputation of being the “wealthy, established church.” In truth, talking about money makes us uncomfortable in the larger context of our society as well. It’s one of those things you learn from an early age not to bring up in polite company. Just watch when small children ask adults how much money they make or how much their cars cost, and see how quickly parents swoop in to shush the child and follow this with the admonition, “It’s not polite to ask those kinds of questions.” From a very early age, we learn that there are some topics, like sex and money, that are taboo.
If you were raised this way, hang on! Today we’re going to break taboo. But fear not. After all, Jesus himself did so. He talked more about money and possessions, and our relationships with them, than any other topic. Now, if our Lord can talk about money, so can we; and today’s readings give us the perfect opportunity to do so.
Luke tells us of Jesus being in a crowd of people, teaching. A man approaches Jesus and asks him to arbitrate a dispute he is having with his brother about an inheritance. This man’s request may seem a bit odd at first glance. Why would Jesus be asked a legal question? Jesus was a respected Pharisaic preacher and teacher. Forget what the word “Pharisee” may conjure up in your mind. The Pharisees were the respected religious teachers and interpreters of the law who believed in the resurrection of the righteous. In that regard, Jesus’ preaching falls within the Pharisaic tradition, and as there was really no distinction between religious and state affairs in first century Palestine, Pharisees were often asked to act as judges over these types of legal disputes.
Jesus, however, opts out of getting involved in the familial squabble over property. Instead, he uses it as an opportunity to talk about money – and more importantly, a right relationship with money.
Jesus tells a parable that is often called the Parable of the Rich Fool. Let’s begin with some clarity about the main character in this parable: He isn’t portrayed as particularly wicked. He is not described as one whose wealth was ill-gotten. He hasn’t cheated anyone, he’s not one of the tax collectors – who were the shake-down artists of Jesus’ day – and he hasn’t stolen anything. From the information we’re given, he became wealthy by the sweat of his brow, by honest means. He was a farmer and his land had produced prodigiously. And at first glance, his decision to save for the future by building bigger barns doesn’t sound too unreasonable either; after all, he does need space for his abundant harvest, right? What’s wrong with saving for a rainy day?
The truth is there’s nothing wrong with saving for a rainy day. The foolishness of this man isn’t in his plan to build bigger barns. His spiritual illness isn’t inherently about his wealth or even his ambition – it’s in how he relates to it.
Notice the inner dialog this man has with himself:
“What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? 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.’”
Notice the emphasis on “me.” In this short internal dialog, consisting of approximately 60 words, the man uses 11 references to himself with the personal pronouns “I” and “my.” If we add the references to “soul” and “you” as part of that inner dialog about himself, then we have 22 percent of the words in this short passage talking about, well, “me.”
Here is part of this man’s spiritual illness: He is all about the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I. There are no references at all to others– not to family or friends, and certainly no references to God. He is under the mistaken belief that all this wealth is his: his possession, his to control, and that he alone produced this wealth.
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 the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
In the face of the stark reality of death, the truth is revealed: No amount of wealth or possessions can save you from your own finitude. You will die, and nothing on this earth can prevent death. Your possessions are temporal and are not of ultimate worth. They will not save you.
On one level, we all know our wealth won’t save us. We tend to know this in our heads, but often our hearts don’t believe it. We are anxious about money – anxious about our jobs, putting the kids through college, the market fluctuations of our 401(k)s, making the mortgage payments, fearful that our cars will die on us, worried our refrigerators will give out – all of which make us nervous about money. But notice all these anxieties are focused on the self, and this myopic, internal focus becomes the basis of the fear in our hearts.
As Christians, we are called to shift our focus away from the small, egocentric self and outward into a radical trust in God.
When our focus moves outward in this way, we begin to view our wealth 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 own talents 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 hasn’t figured out that the wealth he claims isn’t really his, 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. The answer is: the same as you and me.
Death is the great equalizer, and when we die, our net worth in dollars is zero.
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 wealth in right ways.
This realization moves us from being consumers of resources to stewards of God’s good gifts. 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 be a blessing?”
It doesn’t mean that our personal needs will be left out of the equation, but it does mean that we will balance personal needs with the needs of others and the environment, promoting healthy and holy relationships to bring glory to God.
So Jesus’ teaching is not a condemnation of wealth or ambition; rather it is an invitation to 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 confident that we are 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 deeper relationship with God and with others – a treasure far greater and more enduring.