A sermon on Luke 12:13-21
Whether we like or not, our world revolves around money. The almighty dollar. The blood stains that money has left across history are grand, sometimes obvious, and other times hidden in rhetoric about freedom, individual or state rights, and even religion. The “official” reason for atrocities such as the Crusades may have been Christ, but we all know it was for money and power. Wars are waged, political elections are won, any number of crimes are committed, conspiracies are hatched, all in the name of money. Current “hot button” issues are tied up in money from the obvious incredible debt of this country, issues of health care, to education where the focus is unfortunately much more on funds than on the well being of our children.
There is no way to escape the everlasting need for money. We must work for money in order to simply live, which leads us to spending well over half our weeks and years toiling for money. It is simply a part of the fabric of our world. Money, and possessions, we acquire from it, and assets that bring us money, are simply the way this world works. So, though money might be the “root” of all evil, money in itself cannot be terrible.
For this reason, Christians no doubt struggle with this terrible slavery to the dollar. Money is necessary, even for good. It requires money and resources to do ministry, even for mundane things like keeping the lights on for worship. So it’s a struggle for us, especially when we turn to Scripture. The golden altar in the temple of Solomon, the wealth and prosperity rewarded to David, the extravagance of Jerusalem are placed side by side with not only the poverty of Israelites in the desert and exile, but also beside very clear instructions concerning the evils of wealth. Proverbs tells us “those who trust in their riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like green leaves (11:28).”
Lest we think our situation in the 21st century is unique, we have Jesus talking all the time about money. 11 of his parables concern the use of money. He continuously warns against the evils that material wealth can bring. Discipleship to Christ carried a high cost: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions (14:33).” Because: “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? (9:25)” We read these words paying our electric bills, going to work, picking the kids up from school and its hard to know what to think.
In the midst of a crowd of thousands, one young man mistakes a rabbi for a lawyer. “Teacher, my brother refuses to divide his inheritance with me.” Yet, another family destroyed by the promise of money upon the death of a loved one. Jesus is annoyed by the question: I’m not your judge or arbitrator. The inheritance rules are clear. Its not that Jesus refuses to help, the young man simply didn’t need help with what he asked for.
Instead he tells him about a rich farmer. His lands produced amazing amounts of crops, rain always fell on his crops, his land was never hit by hurricanes, never flooded. He never had to take out loans and didn’t even pay for crop insurance. One year, he produced so much grain that his barns weren’t large enough to hold the load.
Well, this farmer was rich and successful, but didn’t have much common sense. He tore his barns down and build new larger ones in their place. Then he had enough storage space. Then he went to his farm house, sat in his rocking chair, poured himself a big glass of sweet tea, and said “life is good.”
Then the sky darkens, and God speaks to this farmer. “You, sir, are a fool. Tonight your life will end, and all this grain you have stored up, what good did it do?” Jesus tells the man “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Jesus sees the man for who he is, a person concerned about getting his share in life more than he is concerned about his own brother. Much like the prodigal son, he is only concerned about his satisfaction now. Jesus sees where his life is headed and warns him about the sin of Greed.
Greed takes the goodness of creation, the joy of the things of God and the wealth of his blessings and twists and distorts them into vices. Jesus warns continuously about greed. Greed prevents a young man from following him, greed prevents the Pharisees from properly leading the Jewish people, greed led Judas to betray Christ, and ultimately greed for power, money and status led to Jesus being crucified on the cross. Greed is a serious sin, and Jesus saw it down the pike for this young man.
Thomas Aquinas said “Greed is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.” Whatever we cling to in the end is whatever we truly desire. We know that temporal things will not last, yet once we begin to accumulate, and store, and count, often we forget how temporary it all is. Greed is when we begin to accumulate without any reason or intent, the pursuit of more and more replaces all that is meaningful in our lives, and leaves no room for God. We all know this, we teach greedy and selfish toddlers to share because its part of being human. And daily, we are continuously countering the urge to the be selfish.
The problem is our economy in America is built upon a foundation that encourages one to be greedy. Capitalism encourages competition, a cutthroat struggle for money and power. It is the monetization of our lives, our time becomes money, every second counts. Individual freedom to pursue any avenue of profit one desires is certainly a good thing, yet it has the unfortunate outcome of encouraging the very thing Jesus warns against: greed. Without a doubt, this country would not have the same status, money, wealth and power it has now without a history full of greedy individuals.
The famous speech of a famous greedy individual sums up the ethos of our economy. In the movie Wall Street, Michael Douglas playing the part of Gordon Gekko proclaims: “…greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”
It is between this sort of capitalism and Jesus that we are stuck. We are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ alone, yet our paychecks come from American capitalism. We are pushed, pulled and stretched between the two. Christians cannot even agree what all this means. Jesuits take a vow of poverty, which guarantees they will be separated from material goods and will resist the temptation to store up earthly treasure. On the other hand, Joel Osteen tells his followers that “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us.” Implying that physical wealth is a sign of God’s spiritual blessing.
This disagreement represents the extremes of the debate. Underneath all of the discussion of money and greed, behind the farmer’s strange desire to build more barns is a fear. A fear we all feel on a daily basis: the fear we feel when we gaze too long into our own faces, into our lives. We encounter there a person who ages, whose daily toil is rewarded with an overwhelming message of frailty. Our own lives steadily slip out of our fingers, and we are left helpless. We feel as those something is being taken from us, our own live and joy being pried out of our fingers. The natural reaction is to take it back from life, to try to secure our own future with the stuff we produce and have. When greed enters our lives, we become stuck in this circle. Constantly covering our own insecurity through storing up more and more, building bigger and bigger barns, thrown deeper into despair each time we worry about the future. No matter how much we acquire, it will never be enough.
The sin is not in having wealth or possessions. The farmer is not condemned because he has a large farm and multiple barns. He obviously worked hard to establish his farm, just as many of us work hard to gain what we have. There is no sin in that.
But, our money will not save us. Our possessions, wealth, money and power will not save us. It wont even make us be remembered in the next generation. The gift, the gospel of Christ is directed towards the fears deep inside of us that we try to appease with money. The message of Christ is that your life is not something that is being slowly stolen from you, but it is given, every minute every second it is something given to you from the creator of all reality. We don’t have to acquire to become someone, it is already given to us. Jesus offers us a new life that is free. Free from the shackles of money, wealth, and power.
In his commentary on the parables, Bernard Scott calls this parable “How to Mismanage a Miracle.” The farmer is given a great gift. It’s the gift of bounty, the gift of plenty. There is no sin in receiving this miracle, God doesn’t berate him for his wealth. God calls him a fool because he squanders the miracle he has received. His abundance of grain could have gone to feed his neighbors, and those hungry in Israel. Instead his greed urged him to build bigger barns. Like the manna that fell from heaven, and the fish and five loaves, God’s abundance is meant to be shared and enjoyed, not hoarded.
God calls each of us to properly manage the miracles we receive. Mismanagement of a gift of God, it is idolatry, storing up treasures for oneself. The words of Christ assure us that when we give in to the pull of greed for money, when we look for salvation in material things, that our lives will head down a path where we will not find the answers we seek.
The reality of the world that we are presented, a world centered upon greed, possessions, wealth and power is a false reality. It is a lie. Reality is found in the Kingdom of God, where God freely gives and bestows to us. The Everlasting God showers us with grace, freedom, and peace. We are able to store up our treasures in heaven and do not have to rely on things of this earth to deliver us. The warning of Christ becomes a freeing promise of comfort for us: “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Hallelujah! Those who have much, and those who have nothing are all one in Jesus Christ. For our lives consist in the abundance of God. Our fears find rest in Christ. We receive freedom. We are able to have money and wealth, but not be owned by it. We would do well to begin treating our lives as gifts, and to properly manage our miracles.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.