August 1, 2010 – 10th week after Pentecost
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 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.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 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. 19 And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 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?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Lk 12: 13-21, NRSV)
“Oh, no…the Gospel reading is about money. The preacher is going to try to make me feel guilty.”
No…today is about freedom. Today is about enjoying the abundance with which you may be blessed.
It is not uncommon for myself or many I know to say, “If I could just have the latest I-Phone, shoes, car, boat or vacation spot, promotion, the kids college fund complete, then I could relax and enjoy all of these things for which I worked so hard.” The writer of Ecclesiastes, now toward the end of his life, is reflecting back over his toils. The teacher, as he refers to himself, was successful, wealthy, having just about every material thing one could desire. Now he is reflecting on his own mortality. He concludes that his toils were in vain. Not because he experienced success and wealth; but because that is all he had and it would go to another who did not work for it.
All is vanity, that is, all is like a vapor or smoke. It is here now then it is gone. Consider all those things that we at one time prized. The toys we lost interest in, the broken tools, the outdated fashions (which my son boldly proclaims comprise my wardrobe), etc. At one point we thought so highly of such possessions, now our souls long for newer, shinier, more relevant things.
The heart of Ecclesiastes is not the vanity aspect; but how we live out our lives. He instructs us to find enjoyment in our labor and take time to enjoy eating and drinking (Ecc. 2: 24). It seems very much to be a matter of attitude toward such things more than the things themselves.
In our Gospel story we see Jesus responding to a man in the crowd who wanted our Lord to settle an inheritance dispute he had with his brother – a dispute over material possessions. Jesus responded to the man distancing himself from such matters. He does not leave it with a simple dismissal of the inheritance claim. Jesus uses this opportunity to teach using a parable.
In the story Jesus shares, we find a man who looked to himself, gave credit to no one but himself and thought of no one but himself. The story is permeated with I and my. There is no we or our. This rich man fails to acknowledge the land, those who worked the land, those who gathered his crops, those who would buy his crops or build his barns. He acted as if it was all him. In this rich man’s life there was no room for God, those who helped him succeed or the poor he could help with his abundance. For this he was called a fool by Jesus.
All of this man’s toil and success could not extend his life. This fits in well with the passage that follows in Luke where Jesus encourages his listeners, reminding that they need not worry about food and clothing. That by worrying about such things it is not possible to add even a moment to our life span. This man was obsessed with such things and he would end up leaving it all to others – the others he thought nothing of in his life would now have those things to which he so greedily clutched.
Jesus admonishes the crowd before telling the story saying (v 15), “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” (The Message). The New Living Translation team interpreted life as “Real life”. In other words an abundant life is not defined by material abundance. If this is true, then what defines a real or an abundant life? We will answer that question in a moment.
Our culture screams to us that having the latest, greatest makes us cool, successful and fulfilled. Just watch TV, read a magazine or listen to the radio. We are constantly bombarded with images and advertising designed to make us believe that whatever product it is, our lives would be better if we could get our hands on it.
Do any of our texts today teach that possessions or success are bad? No. We do not see a condemnation of the rich man in the parable because he is rich. His possessions are not the problem. His heart, his attitude, is the problem.
He failed to realize his dependence on God and others and his responsibility in administering his blessings. He attempted to fill the voids of his life with his goods and his goods alone. Or as a famous baptist preacher, Martian Luther King, Jr., put it in a sermon on this text, “He was a fool because he ended up acting like he was the Creator, instead of a creature.” St. Augustine wrote in his sermon on this passage that, “He (the rich man) failed to realize that the bellies of the poor were a safer storehouse than his barns.”
Now back to the question, “What is the a real or abundant life?” The heart of the answer lies in the last words of Jesus in the story, “rich toward God.” So what does it mean to be rich toward God?
Does it mean to get rid of all your possessions and give them to the poor? After all, Jesus instructed one man to do just that. This passage, however, does not teach anything of the kind.
What this passage does teach is that we are vulnerable to placing faith, trust and unhealthy priorities in possessions. In our Colossians 3 reading we see Paul reminding his readers to “set their minds on the things that are above” or “Let heaven fill your thoughts. Do not think only about things down here on earth.” (NLT)
We are a new creation in Christ. The things of this world are not to possess us, control our passions. Life is not about those possessions. Life is about the relationships we have first with God and next with others. Possessions ought not get in the way of those connections. That does not mean we are to get rid of material things.
Perhaps a simple way of looking at greed is being possessed by possessions. When our pursuit of material things possesses us it blinds us to the blessings of those very same things and much more. Instead of humble gratitude for what we already have we can become obsessed with what we do not yet possess.
This is a rather natural tendency that St. Paul points out in our Colossions 3 reading. He instructs his readers to put greed, which he calls idolatry, to death (Col. 3:5).
Now, this is in no way a heavy message. Rather it is one of hope and joy. When we are possessed by possession, that is greed, or things we place in too high a position – over God and others – our joy and peace are subject to the control of pursuing and obtaining material things. This is no way to live a joyous life, unduly influenced by things that fade, wear out, rot or break. That is not freedom. But we are called to freedom; called to a balanced life.
Remember the opening of the message, that possessions are not the problem. Rather our attitude, our heart concerning such things. It is prudent to store away for the future. God inspired and instructed Joseph in the book of Genesis to store up grain for a famine that would strike the land of Egypt. Notice what Joseph did when the famine came. He use the stored grain wisely for his king and kept the people alive.
Abundance is indeed a blessing from God and as such it is good. We demonstrate wisdom and gratitude in how we utilize God’s blessings in our lives. Do we remember Him and give Him thanks? Are we grateful for all those who help us acquire those blessings? Are we mindful of the needs of the poor, of those who we can bless?
Pastors are leery of discussing such delicate issues. They often fear that some may read into the sermon a “moralistic” message against prospering; or that the pastor is motivated to dig deeper into his or her pocketbook.
However, I hope a different message is clear. The message I see in these texts is freedom. Freedom to live, give and receive God’s blessings. Freedom to live in the moment, wisely and peaceably trusting and preparing. Freedom to be a willing conduit for the blessings of God to flow through us to those in need.
What we need in the church is a safe, non-judgmental environment where we can examine our hearts and assess our motives and actions. It is too easy to look at those we think are “rich” and criticize how they should do this or that. This is not our place. One can be rich and greedy or one could be poor and greedy. If we find ourselves assessing or judging others and what they do or what we think may be in their heart, it may say more about what is in our heart. Whatever the case, we are all in need of God’s grace.
The questions are for ourselves. “Am I free? Are my pursuits or possessions possessing me? How does my own heart, soul feel about the things I have? Am I rich toward God, living an abundant life?
These are things that we must wrestle with in our own hearts. Knowing that all the while we are Christ’s. It is He who began and will complete our spiritual work. Let us walk in this joy and in the joy of knowing that we are free and that we can choose to walk in that freedom.