August 4, 2013
|The Rich Fool, Rembrandt, 1627|
On July 24 CNN ran a story reporting that 70% of those with a million dollars or more invested don’t consider themselves wealthy. It showed that only when they hit the five million dollar mark do they begin to feel wealthy. That’s the level at which people feel they have no constraints on their activities.
That was the same day as Pope Francis’ first public mass in Brazil at which he urged resisting the ephemeral idols of money, power and pleasure. In his homily he said, “Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols.” The Associated Press
In an uncertain economy, the Church has a wonderful opportunity to invite lonely, empty people to find satisfaction in Jesus that can never come another way.
Today’s scriptures show us how being rich toward God frees us from anxious insecurity.
Luke gives special attention to what is apparent in all of the Gospels: Jesus’ compassion for the poor, challenging expectations for the wealthy and warnings of the dangers of money. As I have spent the week with Luke 12:13-21, I have frequently thought of Mark Twain’s observation, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Jesus seemed to take advantage of an interruption while he was teaching.
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And 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.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then 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. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But 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?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
We can miss Jesus’ point in this passage in two opposite ways. One is to rationalize and excuse ourselves because we don’t feel wealthy or because we tithe or are generous to charities. The other is to demonize those we think are wealthy as though wealth is universally corrupting. Both approaches are superficial and simplistic. I believe Jesus was warning us of the danger of pursuing money as a life goal rather than using money as a means to a life that grows out of being rich toward God.
Jesus did not suggest the person who asked his help in the dispute over a family inheritance didn’t deserve his share. Jesus did not suggest that the rich man did anything unethical to gain his wealth. Jesus warned against all kinds of greed, that is defining your life by your possessions at the expense of family relationships and secure personal peace. Even seemingly just and noble pursuit of wealth is spiritually dangerous when it supplants being rich toward God.
“Eat, drink and be merry” has come from this parable to represent frivolous, hedonistic living. But in Jesus’ story the rich man first says to himself “relax,” and “merry” is better translated as “be glad” or “rejoice.” It is the same word used by the father when the Prodigal Son came home. (Luke 15:32) The rich man’s problem was that he thought his wealth, rather than God, made him secure.
Jesus used the interruption of his teaching to say most emphatically that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions but in being rich toward God. Jesus is telling us that Malcom Forbes was wrong when he said, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Instead, Jesus wants us to know that being rich toward God frees us from anxious insecurity. In Colossians 3 that we read this morning, Paul gives instructions for being rich toward God.
This picks up from where we left off on July 21 in Luke 10:42 when Jesus said to Martha, “There is need of only one thing.” Get a single focus. “Set your minds on things that are above.” (v. 2) When the only thing that matters is intimacy with Jesus and serving his Kingdom, everything else falls into place. Whether we have a lot of money or very little money, if whatever we have is a means we can use on behalf of Jesus, we don’t need to be anxious whether the economy is up or down.
We skipped verses 4-11 that describe what happens to our relationships when we lose our focus on Christ and things above. That’s important, but the relationships with God’s people described in verses 12-14 are the way we experience being rich toward God every day. Notice how realistic they are. Forgiveness and bearing with each other’s complaints is where the rubber meets the road.
Paul did not write to make the peace of Christ rule in our hearts. He wrote to let the peace of Christ rule. (v. 15) Christ’s peace is available for us to receive. It happens when the word of Christ dwells in us richly, which comes as we saturate ourselves with the Bible, learn and worship God together, and keep focused by doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus with thanksgiving.
In the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi was asked what he would do if he knew Jesus was going to return. He said he would keep on watering his garden. A few hundred years later, the great reformer Martin Luther was asked the same question. He said, “If I knew Jesus was coming tomorrow, I would plant a tree today.” Three centuries after Luther, John Wesley’s reply was, “I would spend my last day exactly as I expect to spend it now.” Daily Devotions from Lutheran Hour Ministries, “Keeping Watch," March 24, 2007
The interim journey for a church between pastors can evoke a myriad of anxieties and insecurities. Money can easily rise to the top of the list along with: Will we find a good pastor? Will we like the new pastor? What if the new pastor changes what we are comfortable with? Will the new pastor bring in new people? We want to grow but are anxious about how new people will change our church. Set your minds of things above so you can be rich toward God. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. Security is not found in budgets and committees. It is not found in ideal pastors or programs. Christ is the only security, and when we focus on him, all these other things fall into place, even if not as we hope.
I do not speak to you today as one who has perfected being rich toward God and so have no anxieties and insecurities. Candy and I have parents at different places on their journeys to the end of this life. We have a son with significant unresolved issues. One of our daughters-in-law deals with bipolar disorder. We struggle with our own finances when unanticipated expenses strain the budget. One way I try to keep focus on being rich toward God when the stress level rises, is repeating what is called “The Jesus Prayer” which comes from Luke 18:13 “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Having walked with three congregations on the journey between pastors, I can tell you the essential issues are spiritual, not about procedures, programs, prospective pastor profiles, budgets, schedules, or votes. All of those things find their place when the congregation together focuses on Jesus.
Being at a place on our journey as a couple where we have never been before, I can also tell you that anxiety is a signal I am being distracted and a reminder to return my focus to Jesus. I can’t tell you I’ve mastered it, but I can tell you that it works. Being rich toward God, frees us from anxiety and insecurity.