Rich Toward God
Luke 12:13-21 Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" 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." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' 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. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, 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?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
Once I read a book called Cave in the Snow. It is the biography of this incredible British woman who became one of the most senior Tibetan Buddhist nuns in the world, named Tenzin Palmo. As I remember it, the book describes her as a young person in England, watching everyone scurrying around pursuing their normal lives, riding on double decker buses to shops and jobs and whatever else, just the way we all live, and she looked at them and thought: every single one of them is crazy, because they’re all acting like they’re not going to die. So obviously she was really fun to have at parties.
Anyway this sense that the way people were living was so obviously distorted never left her. Many of us sense the “craziness” of how we are living—many of us need to be working multiple jobs for barely enough money and we feel like we don’t have enough time to ask about meaning or where God is in the middle of all of it. Eventually, in face of the culture she was living in, Tenzin Palmo chose to spend twelve years alone in a cave in the Himalayas, meditating for 12 hours a day, in pursuit of realizing the truth. This is a reaction that I doubt any of us will share in quite the same way. But I think all of us have, at times, looked around us in our culture and thought, something is wrong. I was talking to my brother in law, who is from a small town in Iowa, and he was lamenting how fast life is in the big city—how little time we have for just spontaneous relationship building. We have all occasionally felt like fish out of water. Perhaps for some of us that feeling was only fleeting, or momentary. For others of us it has been stronger. We look at the continual drive our culture has for more—the feeling that we must always be striving for a higher paycheck, and a more senior position at work, or better grades, or the right college, or any college. For those of us who can’t pursue those things because of other struggles that we have, like anxiety or alcoholism or disability or poverty, or the complete absence of a nurturing family, we feel we can never fit in.
Jesus in today’s text from Luke’s gospel is talking about something like this. Today’s text is in the middle of a really long discourse that begins when Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and begins the long journey that will end, as he knows, in his death. So the mood in this teaching section of Luke’s gospel is stark, and very focused: there is no time to waste. Jesus is teaching his disciples about life-and-death things: like what to do if they suffer arrest and persecution for following the way of Jesus; like how not to worry about anything, even how to get food or clothes. In the middle of all this teaching, someone comes and asks him to make his big brother give him a fair share of the family inheritance. And Jesus responds by saying, “who made me judge over you?” It seems to me that he is saying, what does this matter in the face of much bigger issues in life? Then he says, be on your guard against all kinds of greed. In the Colossians text from today greed is defined as idolatry: thinking something is more important than it is; thinking resources are so important that they are basically worth worshipping. To explain what he means Jesus tells this parable about the rich man talking to himself about his bumper crop. “What shall I do with my crops? I have nowhere to store them.” “I know what I’ll do, I’ll build bigger barns.” Actually he sounds a little creepy, like Gollum in the Hobbit talking to his precious self, for those of you familiar with the Lord of the Rings. Right in the middle of the rich man achieving a sense of peace because he has decided to build bigger barns to hoard and save his bounty, God says, You fool! This very night your life will be required of you. Whose will your crops be now?
I don’t think Jesus is saying that it’s wrong to save for the future, or that being rich is inherently evil. I think he is saying that there is a particular trap in having more than enough: the trap of being distracted by our comfortable lives from the truth about life, that we don’t know how long we have to live, and therefore, we need to wake up and be liberated from our habit of getting overwhelmed so we can participate in God’s continual work to heal and restore the world—and to make appropriate use of the resources we have been given. In this text, Jesus is implying that our resources, like our life itself, have never been ours to begin with. They are gift.
As most of you know, St. Matthews becomes an overflow homeless shelter for homeless families with young children every August, and if you go downstairs today you will see this in our parish hall. Every August the people of St. Matthews get to encounter folks just like us who for whatever reason have lost almost everything. We get the chance to form relationships with them, get to know them, hear about what their struggles are like. Every August we get an excellent reminder of how everything we have—our homes, our stuff, our jobs, and life itself—is pure gift.
So let’s take this opportunity to look at what we think is important. Let me ask you: what do you think you have to have “more” of to be at peace? More down time, more money, more expertise, more romance, more success? More effectiveness? To see more change in the world, more results from your years of effort? Better, more authentic relationships? What do you think you need more of?
Conversely, what do you already HAVE “more” of? Where in your life do you have more than enough? What is your response to that bounty?
Jesus encourages us to be “rich toward God” in this text. What might that look like?
In next week’s text Jesus proposes specific actions we can take, and a specific attitude we ought to have, in light of the fact that our very lives are gifts from God, and where we ought to put our attention and resources. But before we can get there we need to look at our lives and see where we are at now. This week I want to invite you to a daily practice, in two five minute segments. At the end of every day, try taking five minutes to see where you spent your energy and resources that day. Without judgment, just be mindful of how you “spent” the life you were given that day. Where was your attention? Where did you think you needed more? Were you conscious of any areas where you had more than enough, and if so, what did you do with your bounty? Try jotting down words or bullet points that come to you.
Part two of the suggested practice is this. Every morning, I want to invite you to take five minutes—maybe in the shower, or on your commute to work, or even just sitting on your couch not multitasking with anything else. Sit for five minutes and contemplate this question: what would it look like for me to be rich toward God today? Again, try jotting down a few words or phrases that come to you. These two suggested practices will also be on the church blog – if you pull up the St Matthews website, and click on the link to the blog, you’ll see a summary of today’s sermon together with the invitation to spend five minutes in the morning contemplating how to be rich toward God in your life today, then spend five minutes in the evening contemplating how you actually spent the life, attention, and resources you were given that day. You can even reply to the blog by posting what you noticed and share that with the community, if you want. Either way, bring your results to church next week and see how God’s Spirit continues to teach us.
To follow the way of Jesus means to do more than realize that the way we are living has crazy elements. Jesus is teaching us, through Luke’s gospel, to pay attention to how we spend the life and resources we are given, for the sake of being rich toward God, toward God’s justice, God’s great shalom. We can be rich by participating in God’s restoration of all that exists. Amen.