Gathering Riches for God

Luke 12:13-21

A stingy old lawyer was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Once he received that diagnosis, he was determined to prove wrong the saying, “You can’t take it with you.” He gave it a lot of thought and came up with a plan.

In the last days of his life, he called his wife into the bedroom and told her: ”Go to the bank and withdraw enough money to fill two pillow cases.” She did as he asked. Then he told her, “Now take those bags up to the attic and leave them directly above my bed.” You see, his plan was that when he died, he would reach out and grab the pillow cases on his way to heaven.  Well he finally died. Several weeks after the funeral, his wife was up in the attic cleaning. She came upon the two forgotten pillow cases stuffed with cash. She shook her head and said, “That darned old fool. “He should have had me put the money, not in the attic, but in the basement.”

This morning, Jesus gives us a parable about a fool. A farmer has done quite well. He built up a thriving business and reaped a bumper crop. He doesn’t run out and squander that wealth. Instead, he thinks ahead,  He plans for his retirement. He strategizes on how to protect his assets. He takes the steps he needs to protect his wealth so that he might live a secure and rich life. Successful, strategic, and secure. Sounds like a role model for our young people today. But God calls this man a fool.  

Why? Certainly not for being a successful farmer. Not for taking steps to protect his wealth. There are a lot of devout Christian financial planners. And there a lot of devout Christians who employ them.

Consider that Jesus told this parable in response to a brother’s naked cry for justice. It seems this young man’s father had died and left the inheritance to his sons in a unit.

The rabbis taught that if a man wants a division of his inheritance, it should be granted. And now this man has solicited Jesus to enforce a division of property between himself and his brother. You see, he doesn’t want to be part of the family business. He wants to strike off on his own. You take yours and I’ll take mine.

Jesus response is a little gruff. “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” Jesus doesn’t condemn him for wanting to settle family finances. But the brother was trying to use Jesus to facilitate his family wealth redistribution plan. Jesus didn’t come to be a divider-in-chief. He came to bring reconciliation.

So Jesus responds to this man with a parable about a rich farmer who gets a bumper crop one year. But now the farmer has a problem. The surplus was so abundant that he didn’t have room enough for it in his barn. What will he do with that surplus? We should all have such problems!

The rich farmer engages himself in thoughtful reflection and then he comes upon his answer. “I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones!” Then I can relax, take it easy, and enjoy life.” The key to this parable is in the conversation that this rich farmer has …….with himself. There’s something amiss here. And living in 21st century America, we wouldn’t pick it up. But it you were a 1st century Jewish man living in that culture you would.

A striking feature of the Middle Easterner is his gregarious nature. He lives his life in a tightly knit community. The leading men of these villages would sit at the gates and spend literally years talking to each other. Even the smallest of transactions is worth hours of discussion. There’s a subtle pressure not to introduce new information that might bring their discussions to a quick resolution. With such a wonderful discussion going, why would you want to bring it to a premature conclusion?

We see this kind of phenomena in our culture when men sit down and talk sports. Each one’s an expert and no one wants to stop the discussion. So it was that in Jesus time, an elder wrestling with a problem would reach a decision by engaging other men in the village.

But look at our rich man. He has a problem. What is he going to do with this surplus and a too-small barn to store it all in? He doesn’t bring his concern to anyone else to discuss. The text says, “He thought to himself.” And then after some reflection and thinking with himself, he comes to a conclusion.

This man has isolated himself from his community. He trusts no friends or cronies to share his ideas. He can only talk to himself. We begin to get a picture of the prison that his wealth has place him in. He lives in a vacuum and plans hatched in a vacuum can be warped. “I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones!”

Wealth can sometimes lead to terrible loneliness.  Chuck Swindoll wrote a little pamphlet titled: “The Lonely Whine of the Top Dog”  He writes:
If I were to ask you to describe someone who is lonely, chances are good you would not choose someone who is busy.  It is also doubtful that you’d select someone in a top management position, the chief executive officer in a growing corporation  or the leading, well-paid salesperson in an aggressive, competitive organization. “Not them!” we think. “They’re successful. They’ve got bucks. They’re fulfilled. They’ve got it made.  Furthermore, with all those people around, they haven’t got time to be lonely!” 

Don’t bet on it. More often than not, those who find themselves approaching or at the top of the step ladder of financial success have few friends (if any), struggle to keep peace at home, and live on the ragged edge of disillusionment, even despair. 

Loneliness is the plague of the loner … and, by and large, “top dogs” are loners. Either by design or by default, most executives operate in a very private world where happiness eludes them. Contentment and inner tranquility are seldom found in the penthouse. Instead, there is boredom and stark feelings of emptiness.  As Thoreau states so well, these are (often) people who “lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Our wealthy farmer has made his decision all on his own:  A bigger barn to store more stuff. It’s at this point that God interrupts. “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

You all remember Aristotle Onassis. He owned his own shipping line, he owned his owned airline, and he owned his own island. But most of us never heard of him until he acquired his most prized possession. He became a household name when he married Jackie Kennedy. When he died, all of his superrich friends attended his funeral. And of course there was all kinds of speculation about how much he was worth and who got it now. One person was overheard to ask, “How much did he leave?” To which another answered: “Everything.  He left everything.”

When you die, you leave it all behind. I remember when that reality hit me. I was going through father’s belongings after he died. As I took the cash and credit cards out of his wallet, I felt like I was stealing from my father. But that cash and those credit cards were no longer his property. Everything in that house, all his mementos, all his clothes, all the furniture he picked out, even the letters he kept – they didn’t belong to him anymore. I wondered who will be going through my wallet when I die.

Well, it struck me that none of us really own anything. Everything we have, everything we’ve worked hard to acquire, it’s all on loan. We use it up or we give it away. But eventually, we surrender all.

In this morning’s lesson from Ecclesiastes, the Teacher writes:“Vanity of vanities.  All is vanity.” “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?”

That writer figured it out. You can almost see him stomping his feet like a 10 year old throwing a temper tantrum. All my effort, all my toil, what was it all for? The book of Ecclesiastes asks the question that the rest of the bible answers. And it is here, in Jesus’ parable, that we get the answer. Jesus says: Take heed, and beware of every kind of insatiable desire.  For the life of a person does not consist in the surpluses of his possessions”

Jesus’ answer begs the question, doesn’t it? If the life of a person does not consist in the surpluses of his possessions, then what does it consist of? What is the purpose of our lives?

Jesus says that the rich man was a fool, not because of his wealth or his control over his life. He’s a fool because he doesn’t see that all of that abundance was a gift from God. He’s a fool because of the way he has used that abundance during his life – Relax, eat, drink and be merry. Indeed, his very life was a gift of God – on loan, so to speak. And now God was calling in the loan.

Jesus tells the aggrieved brother, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not gathering riches for God.

We come back to the complaining brother who asks Jesus for justice. “Jesus, divide Dad’s estate between my brother and me.” He wants get his share of the stuff. It’s his and he has a right to it, by God! It’s only just. The real problem is not the division of inheritance. The real problem is the brother’s will to serve Self. He’s Me Minded, not Us Minded. Give me mine so I can take off on my own! His father has left him a generous gift, and he doesn’t want to use it for his father’s family, He wants it for himself!

Jesus called his disciples to set their sights higher than the stuff they accumulate in this world. There is a reason God gives good gifts.God shares his wealth, that we might share ours. And when we bless others, we are blessed. Jesus tells his disciples: Set your sights on gathering riches – not for yourself – but for God.

I ran into John and Patsy yesterday as they were working out in the storage shed. We have a lot of stuff. We have also rented some storage space to fit the rest of our Stuff. There’s a lot of stuff we don’t need anymore. So we will need to go through to pare down a bit. We don’t need to build bigger barns.

When we left our old church, we took a lot of Stuff, but we left a lot behind. We left a building which faithful parishioners had paid for and built. We left all the improvements that we made over the years – the residing, the new roof, the new kitchen, the stained glass windows, the new patio, the fountain in the garden.

Here’s what we didn’t leave behind: We didn’t leave behind the souls that were baptized into God’s forever family. We didn’t leave behind the relationships that were forged. We didn’t leave behind the growth we experienced in our walk with Christ. We didn’t leave behind our love of the Lord. We didn’t leave behind the Riches that we had gathered for God. All those came with us.

And we didn’t leave behind our trust in a God who is faithful and provides good gifts. Because this church has received an abundance of gifts – a surplus if you will – AFTER we left the old church. The Lord has blessed us lavishly with some bequests from some very generous parishioners. These faithful parishioner understood the source of their bounty. They have “gathered their riches for God.”

So now God has blessed us. God has entrusted us with this bounty. How will we use it?

As Jesus stood among the people preaching and teaching. A man in the crowd had received an inheritance from his father. He cried out to Jesus for justice. Rabbi!  Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me. I want MINE! Jesus’ message to that man: You have been blessed lavishly by your father. Now be rich toward God.

Today, Jesus stands among us. And we too have an inheritance. We too have been blessed lavishly by our Father individually and as a parish. We can use it for ourselves, for our comfort, for our pleasure. We can use it to “relax, eat, drink and be merry.” Or we can use it to be “rich toward God.”