The texts before us this morning all deal with the problems and possibilities of wealth. Because these texts concern us all, in applying them, I have sometimes changed the pronouns in the texts from the third person “they” and “them” to the first person “I” “we” and “us” and to the second person, “You,” both singular and plural. Let’s take a closer look.
In Psalm 49, the psalmist reminds us that we human beings are not as special as we like to think we are. We may pretend we are somehow different from other members of the animal kingdom, but like our favorite dogs, and cats, and horses we also perish. Likewise, we may pretend that we are different from other human beings saying, “We are wise, and they are foolish,” but the psalmist assures us that the genius and the dolt perish together. Solomon and Albert Einstein are just as dead as Millard Filmore and Shecky Green. Likewise, we may build beautiful homes in good communities, ride around in well-appointed automobiles, and surround ourselves with a sense of privilege, but the psalmist says that we cannot abide in our pomp and pride forever. A good address may extend our lives, but the fact that “we have named lands our own,” says the psalmist, cannot confer immortality. At present Ted Turner the founder of Cable News Network and Turner Classic Movies owns about 2,000,000 acres of land. I hope Ted will give this back to our nation. For, sooner or later, if he chooses to be buried, Ted will need only the same 6-foot by 3-foot by 6-foot plot that most of us will have in God’s Acre. The only difference is that I doubt Ted will settle for a flat, white, stone, symbolizing the equality of everyone in death.
The Psalmist also says that when we die, we will leave our wealth to others. And the sage of Ecclesiastes points out that even those among us who toil with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, must eventually leave all they have accumulated to be enjoyed by others who did not toil for it.
I don’t know about you, but this sounds like sour grapes. You and I want to lay up for our children, we don’t want our children laying out for us. Some of us think so much of our children and grandchildren that we may gift them a little even before we die.
By contrast, the sage of Ecclesiastes sounds like someone determined to go SKI-ing. Have you heard the term? SKI in an acronym that stands for “Spending my Kid’s Inheritance.” There are reasons for it. 1) Some people spend their kid’s inheritance because life is short and as long as they are above ground and vertical, they want to have a little fun. 2 ) Some people spend their kid’s inheritance because there’s a 50/50 chance their kids will blow it even if they don’t. 3) Some people spend their kid’s inheritance because they know their children will never value their “stuff” a fraction as much as they have. When my parents died, I wanted my dad’s Pings, but I did not want my father’s 3,000 golf balls or my mother’s 300 best sellers. I am pretty sure that when I am gone my kids may want my bird gun but they will not want my boxes of old sermons and photo albums or their mother’s brown furniture. They have discovered Pottery Barn. 4) Finally, some people spend their kid’s inheritance to save them from fighting over it when they are gone.
In Luke chapter 12, Jesus deals with a problem of inheritance. One brother—perhaps a younger brother who had no right of inheritance, asks Jesus to tell his older brother to divide the inheritance he had received from his father with him. Perhaps this young man thought Jesus would rewrite the laws of inheritance just as he had rewritten the laws about unclean foods and working on the Sabbath. Jesus had no such intent. He responds, “Friend, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” Then Jesus uses the man’s request to point out to his disciples that life does not consist in an abundance of possessions. Jesus tells them about a parable about a well-to-do farmer who pulls down his barns and builds bigger ones. And when he has filled them he says to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.’” 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?” And Jesus concludes, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Now, what does it mean to be “rich toward God.” This phrase is unique in scripture. There are no parallels. The best we can do is to set the phrase” against the backdrop of everything else that St. Luke has written about riches. Consider the following:
In the Magnificat, Mary of the mother of Jesus opines that God has “filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Riches can blunt our spiritual appetite. St. Luke wants us to be hungry for God not gain.
In his Sermon on the Plain, Jesus warns those who are rich that they “have already received their consolation.” They have received their consolation because they have made their choice, choosing this world over the next.
In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus defines “the seed that fell among thorns” as those who hear the Word, only to have it choaked out “by the cares and riches and pleasures of life.” Nothing does more damage to the life of discipleship than an abundance of pleasure.
And here is the biggie. In Luke 18, Jesus says that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” This saying may not be quite as hard as it seems. In the Talmud—which is a commentary on the Hebrew Bible, “the eye of the needle” describes any tight, narrow opening. Many commentators have suggested that Jesus was applying this phrase to the smaller gates that lead into the city of Jerusalem. Camel drivers had to remove their camel’s cargo before leading them through one of these gates.
In the same way, Jesus tried to remove the cargo of the “rich young ruler” (A composite name. Luke calls him “a ruler”) who came to him asking what to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments. “I’ve done that since my youth,” he said. So, Jesus told him that if he wanted to be perfect, he should sell all he had, give it to the poor, and come follow him. The ruler was sad because he had many possessions.
In her book about St. Luke, Dear and Glorious Physician, Taylor Caldwell tells us “The rest of the Story.” According to Caldwell, months after his encounter with Jesus, the rich ruler, named, “Hillel,” is lying in his sick bed, still clinging to his wealth, and still regretting his inability to sell his possessions and follow Jesus. At this point in the story, Luke is still just a physician. He is not yet the author of a gospel and he is not yet called a saint. He is a Greek, but he is a God-fearer and knows a great deal about the God of Israel. So, Luke says to Hillel, “(God) takes only to give, bereaves only to extend his comfort, and blinds only that (one) can see his light.” Luke then says, “You have suffered enough. God forgives you. God asks only that you follow him and leave him never.” Because we are rich people, we hope that Taylor Caldwell is right. It is possible, after all Jesus says that all things—even the salvation of the rich are possible with God.
So, what does it mean to be rich toward God? I think it means that we, like the Good Samaritan of Luke 16, are rich toward our neighbors, meaning anyone in distress. Jesus suggests several ways we can be rich toward our neighbors In Luke 14 he gives a very practical example. He says:
“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid, but when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”
You have heard this morning that we are calling Dana Myers to lead our outreach to the young adults of our church, denomination, and community. We are doing this not because we want to put “seats in the pews,” but because it is the right thing to do. It is right even if they cannot repay us. The best way to succeed in the Kingdom of God is to find a need and fill it, and we are attempting, in faith to do just that. I am not sure we will grow. I am sure we will be blessed.
Not everyone seizes the opportunity to be rich toward God by being rich toward their neighbor. In the parable we call “Lazarus and Divvies,” (Divvies is the name given to the rich man by tradition.) Jesus tells about how a rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen, feasted regularly while ignoring poor Lazarus who lay at his gate, being licked by dogs, and lusting after the scraps from the rich man’s table. Both men die. Lazarus is received into Abraham’s bosom, but Divvies goes into torment and discovers there is no second chance to correct his failure to show mercy to Lazarus. Soren Kierkegaard has written that if we shirk suffering, and somehow escape suffering in this life, it will be eternally without remedy. The same thing is true of generosity. In the heavenly Kingdom, everyone will be richer than Croesus, Midas, and the top one percent. It will be impossible for us to be generous—because of our abundance, and no one will want it anyway, for all will be equally blessed. If we are going to be rich toward God by being rich toward our neighbor, the time is now.
Zacchaeus took advantage of his opportunity to be rich toward God. Luke tells us the story of a rich tax collector named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree so that he could see Jesus as he passed by. One of them was short and the text is unclear whether it was Zacchaeus or Jesus. Anyway, when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and saw the tax collector, and said, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” And Zacchaeus began his descent, and as he did, he heard the people murmur accusations about his sinful past. Nonetheless, Zacchaeus had his day in court. When he stood before Jesus he said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house since he also (just like Lazarus!) is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”
According to St. Luke, riches may be a blessing or riches may be a curse, but whatever else they are, they are a test. Thus, in Luke 16 Jesus says:
If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches (of eternity)? No one can serve two masters, for he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
Now some of you may think that I am trying to force my way into your pocket so we will have enough money to pay Dana Myers. I know better. Luke was a companion of Paul, and it was Paul who said
Each one must do as he or she has made up their mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.
No one should be afraid of being rich toward God. Paul says that those who sow sparingly will reap sparingly but those who sow bountifully will reap bountifully. And I believe that Jesus was talking about grace and forgiveness and money, too, when he says:
“Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”.
Let us be rich toward God by being rich to our neighbor. In so doing, we are also being rich toward ourselves.