What to do About Wealth?
What to do about Wealth?
Scripture: Luke 12: 13-21
As I was preparing for today I read the following, “This is one of those weeks when preachers find a text pretty easy to interpret but the sermon hard to deliver.” (Matt Skinner, Dear Working Preacher)
Why might this be a hard sermon to deliver? Let’s look at those practical nuts and bolts and deal with the issue that made all of you sit a little straighter as the passage was read.
Do I go after all the wealthy members of the congregation? Do I give you a ‘tsk tsk’ and a wave of my finger for the way you handle your wealth? I imagine if I did something like that it wouldn’t serve me well or be well received.
Do I cheapen the message, water it down and make it more palatable for us who live in Canada? We who live in a stable geo-political climate, our economy is good, by global standards the poorest person in the room today is rich. This message is hard for us to hear. And what is it that we hear? It’s sinful to be wealthy.
Except that isn’t the message of this passage.
Let’s be clear, the rich farmer is a fool. We know this because words attributed to God in the parable tell us so.
Why is the rich farmer a fool? Because he only lives for himself. He thinks nothing of the needs of others. Fools, the old adage has it, are often in error but never in doubt.
The rich farmer in the parable is living out an existence where his own needs take precedence over all other people and all other things. His desire to tear down his barns and build bigger ones reminds me of a story I read the other week.
An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican replied, “only a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”
The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”
“But what then?” Asked the Mexican.
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”
“Millions – then what?”
The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.” (reference)
We often chase wealth with a desire for an easier, simpler life and that pursuit often pulls us away from the life we already have. If only we’d stop, slow down and enjoy it.
The individual who prompts Jesus to teach this parable asks Jesus, a respected religious figure, to tell his brother to split an inheritance. In other words, the man in the crowd who said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide with me the property our father left us” is attempting to get Jesus to sanction his own desire for wealth. Which if we know anything about Jesus is probably not a good idea. It should inform us right away of the direction this parable is going in.
Let’s be clear on one thing within this passage, Jesus does not answer the question about how the wealth should be distributed. His words are, “Who gave me the right to judge or to divide the property between you two?” Jesus is staying out of this debate. Instead, Jesus warns about greed, the desire for wealth and where it might lead us.
Jesus paints a very clear picture, greed is idolatry. Other things are also idolatrous, they tear our attention away from God and the work of the kingdom. Money is the easiest thing to point to, but the lure of celebrity culture, collecting trinkets, thinking only of ourselves each of these and more is idolatrous. They seek to shift our focus away from God. They aren’t bad in and of themselves, it’s our relationship to the various aspects, items, ideologies in our lives that can lead us to having an idol which is not God.
The focus needs to be on God.
Remember that God is good, God is generous though perhaps not in the way we might expect or want. God also wants to work with us to bring about God’s kingdom. A kingdom or world based on love, peace, mercy and respect. Within that framework there is no room for greed or for the hoarding of resources. This is a parable which is challenging, it is meant to make us think and to deepen our walk of faith.
It is a parable which should cause us to pause and think. If we dig a little deeper into the text we find interesting nuances of language. For example, when God says, “You fool! This very night you will have to give up your life…” The more appropriate translation for ‘life’ would be ‘soul’ as that is the Greek word that is used. When we consider the passage this way, the passage has a little more punch. The rich man is now dealing with not just his mortal life, but with matters eternal.
Remember, we follow Christ, who once said “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
What should you do, you who are a bad month from not paying the rent or mortgage?
What should you do, you who are fearful of an economic crash that might wipe out your savings?
What should you do, you who are trying to decide between a new car or an overseas vacation?
What should you do when it comes to questions of your own material wealth?
What should you do, you who are a faithful follower of Jesus Christ?
I can’t answer those questions, I can only point to the message that we find in the gospel. I can only point to it and ask you to search your hearts.
This isn’t a message against people who are rich. This isn’t a message that is telling you to sell everything and live with the poor. This is a message which is asking you to consider what you have and how you use it. Each of us will need to reckon with God about how we used the wealth we possess. Each of us will need to reckon with God about how we use the time we have been given. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.