It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the antics of Scrooge McDuck, the uncle of Huey, Dewey and Lewey, whose antics make us chuckle as he struggles and strives and comes up with ever-more ridiculous schemes in his effort to guard his vast store of gold coin and paper money. Those antics are good for a few laughs, but I wonder how McDuck’s hyperbolic hold on his money parallels our own tight grip of entitlement to the riches we accrue?
As I stand before you this morning, my friends, I know that there is nothing that we, collectively, like talking about less about than money – at least in church. Truth be told, I, too, get squirmy when the topic of money comes up in the lectionary, mostly because I know most of you get squirmy when it comes up in the pastor’s sermon.
And yet it is the one thing that Jesus talks about almost more than any other thing in the Gospels. If not always money per se, certainly our relationship with wealth and the impact that relationship has on everything else, especially how we relate to God and our discipleship in Christ Jesus.For all kinds of reasons, here in church we would much rather hear and talk about things that are relatively abstract and non-threatening – things like hope, love, peace, and joy. Those are great things to talk about. They are faith-related matters that make us feel good, and, since they are closely aligned with so much our experience with Jesus, we wonder why we need to talk about anything else.
And yet, while there are several ways to approach this text, they all point toward the money. Back when the movie, “All the President’s Men” was released, a line credited to one of the characters was, “Follow the money.” It is a phrase that entered a certain portion of our lexicon; it presumes that if you follow the money, you will find the source of corruption.
As we look at this text today we could say, “follow the money,” too – because the reason that Jesus so often talks about money and possessions is that there is something about material riches that distorts our view and changes us. It makes us defensive, suspicious of others, and self-protective. There is something about material wealth that makes it hard for us to hear the Gospel in all its risky, scandalous, radically reorienting glory, as good news.
Then, we have passages like this morning’s, that push us to think about how we budget, plan, tithe and spend our money. What is our relationship to money, and how does it line up with our relationship to God? What does it mean to live, as Jesus says, “rich toward God”?
Jesus continually challenges attitudes and behaviors and daily living and in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable, because they bump up against our modus operandi. Jesus calls his disciples to stretch and grow, when we would rather just be left alone and contented. We want to be comfortable and comforted, not challenged by our faith. Which makes me wonder if that is not part of the problem that Jesus addresses in our texts today.
In the verses from Luke’s gospel that lead up to our story today, Jesus was engaged in sometimes heated exchanges with Pharisees, scribes and lawyers. Jesus points out the inconsistencies between their professed righteousness and the way they actually live.
He shine a light on ways that, while patting themselves on their backs for being such good and holy Jews, they pass by opportunities to live justly, show mercy, and share the love of God that are at the core of the Law.
Then a man comes to Jesus and asks him to mediate a dispute he is having with his brother over the family inheritance. He wants his fair share. Jesus doesn’t give in to his request but instead, uses this opportunity to address the topic of greed.
To a crowd that has gathered, to the Pharisees, scribes and lawyers challenging him, and to us today, Jesus then tells this parable. In it, a man seems to be doing nothing more than preparing wisely for retirement, but Jesus uses the illustration to talk about greed, and then issues a warning, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Rich toward God? What exactly does that mean?
Is it an allusion toward tithing? Was the man not taking enough of his riches and giving them to the synagogue for the work of God to be done? Is that the problem? Is it a commentary on the man’s depending on his own ability to care for himself and not trusting enough in God? Or is it a statement by Jesus that those things that get us all tied up in knots are not the things about which Jesus concerns himself?
I mean really, in the big picture of things, many of the problems we concern ourselves with don’t matter. And, when you have all of eternity as your backdrop, it certainly changes your perspective.
The man went to Jesus for arbitration. He just wanted fairness. We, too, are often concerned about fairness in life. We, too, want to know that we receive a fair shake. But fairness of the kind that troubled the man and often troubles us, that of material equanimity, doesn’t seem to be Jesus’ concern. For Jesus knows that he will give us all we really need, through the cross.
Perhaps the man was as worried for his future as we, too, are concerned about our retirement years, or the kids’ college tuitions, or the maintenance of our homes and properties. Again, Jesus sees things differently.
It begins to feel a bit like Jesus just doesn’t get it.
But here’s the thing: while you and I see in part, Jesus sees the whole. While you and I are concerned primarily for our own temporal survival, Jesus sees an eternity stretched out before us. While you and I become mired in details and problems of our lives, the status of which takes center stage and overwhelm us, Jesus sees into the depth of our hearts and is concerned about our spiritual status.
While I am tied to the secular aspects of my life, Jesus is concerned with the sacred. It’s like Jesus is saying, “At the end of all earthly existence, where will these things be? God is waiting for you, why are you not generous with yourself in godly things? Why are you not rich toward God – focused on God – careful in your relationship with God – building up your relationship with God?”
In the original man’s question, is indication that this conflict with his brother is embittering his heart. His brother is only an obstacle between himself and what he truly wants. This tarnishes their relationship. Who do we see as obstacles rather than people in our world, when contemplating the gifts God has given us?
In the parable, the rich man is drowning in his own self-centeredness. What is his inner dialogue like? Everything is focused on “Me, myself, and I”. He neglects his human connection and has no need for God. His relationships are tarnished. They are beside the point.
God has generously provided him the means to amass the resources that now burden him. God has enabled him to accrue the means to care not only for himself but scores of others. Yet, he neither considers that reality nor acknowledges the source of his blessing. Like Scrooge McDuck, he is willfully absorbed in his material wealth and all it can do for him. He has no need for God. But then God comes along, with a view of the long game and says, “You fool. Your game is up. This very night your life is being demanded of you. Now, what?”
When Jesus concludes his lesson here with his allusion of being “rich toward God,” he is inviting us into that radical reorienting of our lives that Jesus is all about – “radical” because it is not minor, it is not unimportant or inconsequential. This radical reorientation is essential to the Christian life.
God has given us more than we could ever ask for or desire. The children who attend VBS this week will hear about that as they are contemplating the galaxies and planets and the infinite creative genius of our God.
So, perhaps being “rich toward God” is truly living with an awareness of God’s wonderful creative work. Maybe it involves being absorbed in living in a way that acknowledges that it is not “about us” at all, and that the goal of life is not the acquisition of material wealth but living every day mindful that in Jesus, God has given us all we will ever truly need.
Perhaps living “rich toward God” means guarding against greed; a willingness to see ourselves as beloved of God and therefore rich in the most important way possible – eternally in relationship with the divine.
In this radically reorienting relationship, perhaps being “rich toward God” means acknowledging that even our hard-earned carefully preserved wealth comes from God and belongs to God.
Living rich toward God could mean deepening our relationships, prioritizing our human interconnectedness over our technological connectedness, and our human bonds over our personal gain or the bonds of asset management.
Living rich toward God could mean spending more time mindfully connecting with the divine and discovering the riches of deep and abiding relationship with Jesus.
What would we do differently if we knew that tonight our very lives would be demanded of us? How and with whom would we desire to spend our final hours?