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Sermon based on Luke 12:13-21
A person was asked to be the executor of the estate of an uncle and aunt. It would be safe to say that this couple had invested their financial resources well. They had nice cars, a home in their local town, the mountains and the beach. They owned expensive jewelry, antiques, electronics, and silver and fine china. This person was very close to them. They were often described by others as the child they never had. A few years went by and the uncle passed away, less than a year later the aunt passed away. When the extended families of their brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and cousins learned that this person had been asked to serve in this role, their voice mail at work was flooded with comments like the following:
“I want the silver”
“Can I buy one of the cars at a cheap price?”
“How much cash are we going to receive and when?”
“I deserve more than others because I visited them more.”
As this example can prove, it can get ugly when families slug it out over inheritances.
In our gospel lesson, a man wanted Jesus to settle a family dispute concerning money. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” After the death of his father, when the property, money and possessions were divided this child felt that he’d gotten a raw deal. Ancient inheritance laws in Biblical times stipulated that the first-born son would receive a double share of the inheritance. It’s not hard to guess that this was the younger brother and he didn’t like the terms of the will. He wanted Jesus to use his authority to demand that he get what he deserved. But Jesus didn’t question the inheritance laws. And he didn’t allow himself to be drawn into this family dispute. Instead he addressed the underlying issue. Jesus said, “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 a parable. Jesus’ parable is a warning about greed and the foolishness of basing a life upon possessions. The moral of the story is clear. This isn’t a lesson in scripture that needs interpretation in order to be understood. I dare say that we all understand the meaning of this parable. The question is do we believe it? Do we believe that life is not about the worship of material things? We live in the most materialistic age the world has ever known and some would say in the most materialistic country across seven continents. We strive for bigger houses, better cars, more money and power. This is the American dream our society teaches us to pursue. As we talk about wealth, we must remember that Jesus in Scripture never taught us directly to condemn wealth. However, Jesus spoke often about the danger that wealth could cause.
Hear now these words from Jesus from Luke’s gospel:
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34)
“You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:13)
“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:24-25)
Jesus doesn’t say that wealth is evil, but it is dangerous. The problem with wealth or the pursuit of wealth is that it tempts us with the desire for more; it can so easily infect us with greed. Greed is the insatiable desire for more that often leads to a false understanding of what life should be. The pursuit and accumulation of wealth tempts us to believe several myths about materialism. These myths of materialism can cause several things to happen in our spiritual lives.
- In planning for ourselves, we forget others.
- In considering our possessions, we forget God is the real Giver of everything we own.
- In providing for our pleasures, we forget our soul.
Let’s explore these myths that the rich man in our parable believed.
Myth number 1: You alone earned what you have.
In our parable, the rich man after a banner year had one goal in mind, to eat, drink and be merry. His daydream is to spend his future indulging his whims and desires. Leisure, recreation, freedom from the demands of work sounds like someone ready for retirement and perhaps he was ready. He was a man who had an exceptionally good year in business and obviously deserved such a reward. There was no suggestion that he had cheated, mistreated workers or been unjust in any way. When his harvests exceeded the capacity of his barns, he built bigger barns. He was thinking ahead, planning for the future. He had worked hard and now he was looking forward to this reward. He was proud of all that he had accomplished and was ready to enjoy the fruits of his labor. That was just the problem. “My” fruits he called them, “my” grain. In what sense were they really his? Could he command that the soil be fertile? Could he control the sunrise and sunset or the rain? This person was ready to take credit for all the benefits he enjoyed, without awareness of the contributions of God our Creator, or anybody else. He forgot about his parents who nurtured him to adulthood, he forgot about those who taught him the skills of farming. He forgot about the workers who plowed his field and harvested his crops and built his barns. The thought of what this man might be able to do for those in need never entered his mind. He had no sense of responsibility to use his abundance for the welfare of people less fortunate. When we are successful in accumulating wealth it is easy to believe the myth that we have earned all that we have. However, each of us has received countless blessings that we didn’t do a thing to deserve. Like the rich man, we may be tempted to call them our own but that is to be seduced by the myth.
Myth number 2: Taking care of number one (me) is all that matters.
The rich man knew a lot about taking care of number one. He used the pronouns “I” and “my” six times each in this parable. He was engaged in a monologue you might say in that he talked to himself, planned for himself, congratulated himself, and celebrated his accomplishments. He sought his security in being self-sufficient. He did not feel the need of a community to help support him or even the security of God’s love. Greed ate away any compassion he may once have had for others. As we speak of greed, when the city of Pompeii was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 A.D. during excavation work there was a body discovered that had been embalmed by the ashes of that volcano. The body was that of a woman with her feet turned toward the city gate but her face turn backward toward something that lay just beyond her outstretched hands. Archaeologists discovered that the woman was reaching for a bag of pearls discovered also at that site. Maybe she had dropped them as she was fleeing for her life or maybe someone else had dropped them. All the same, she knew that death was hard at her heels, life was calling out to her beyond the city gates, yet she could not resist the lure of those pearls. The end result was that she obviously turned to pick them up, with death as her ultimate reward. It was not the eruption of Vesuvius that made her love pearls more than life, it only froze her in an attitude of greed. This example proves that when the only thing that matters in our life is taking care of number one, our interests become narrow, self centered and sometimes costly.
Myth number 3: You can secure the future with wealth.
The rich man thought he could secure his future in the possessions he laid up for himself. He thought he was supplied for many years and decided that he’d finally made it; he could pursue his goals of leisure. By todays standard he was a prudent man who capitalized on his investment and wisely planned for the future. Who among us doesn’t do the same with our savings accounts, social security, health insurance, life insurance, IRA’s, and pension plans? We all are wise to put something aside for a rainy day, to plan for our future but we see in this parable that he is called a fool—why? He was a fool because he thought that the stockpiling of possessions gave him control over his future. He looked to the things he had acquired for the meaning of his life and the means to secure his goal to relax, eat, drink and be merry. He sought security in the wrong places, trusting ultimately in things that could not last. His stockpiling of possessions, as a guarantee against insecurity was not only an act of disregard for others in need, but idolatry for he was putting possessions in the place of God. He looked for meaning and control of his destiny through his wealth, but in the process, he squandered his real treasure. This real treasure is the gift of eternal life, which leads us to the fourth and final myth of materialism.
Myth 4: The more you have the more you are worth.
Marquis de Lafayette was a French general and politician who helped George Washington in the American Revolution. After the war was over, he returned to France and resumed his life as a farmer of many estates. In 1783, the harvest was a terrible one, and there were many who suffered as a result. However, Lafayette’s farms were still able to fill their barns with wheat and were unaffected by the devastating harvest. One of his workers offered what seemed to be good advice to Lafayette, “The bad harvest has raised the price of wheat. This is the time to sell and become wealthier.” After thinking about the hungry peasants in the surrounding villages, Lafayette disagreed by saying, “No, this is the time to give.” It’s obvious he refused to buy into the myth.
Unfortunately many of us fall prey to this myth that whoever owns the most toys when he dies wins. However we measure our wealth this has often become the measuring stick that determines our personal worth. We don’t have to look too far for evidence that our society values those who have more than those who do not. While our culture teaches the value of a person’s life is often measured by wealth we can look in Scripture and see just the opposite. Through the life and sacrifice of Jesus we know that each person has a value that has no price tag, for we are God’s beloved children. Jesus teaches us to measure each other by God’s standard. In being measured by God’s standard we realize our futures cannot be secured with abundant possessions for sooner or later each of us will face the limits of time. When death’s door knocks for each of us, we must answer for what we have done with the treasures of our life. Have we stored up treasures for ourselves, believing that life is about our possessions or have we sought to become wealthy in God’s eyes? Giving is the key. Instead of asking how much of our money we should give to God, we must begin asking how much of God’s money does he want me to keep?
The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, said it best: “There is one way, and there is no other under heaven. If those who gain all they can, and save all they can, will likewise give all they can, then the more they gain, the more they will grow in grace, and the more treasure they will lay up in heaven.”
The real bargains in life are things like our compassion for others and service in God’s kingdom. Together let us avoid these myths of materialism and become wealthy in the eyes of God.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
October 14, 2018