“Rich Toward God”
Rev. Jeff Bacon
August 4, 2019
Let’s open our hearts together in prayer. Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, help us to understand your will for us in this materialistic world. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
There was a very wealthy man who was near death. He was very sad because he had worked so hard to become wealthy and he wanted to take his wealth with him to heaven. So, he began to pray constantly. An angel hears his plea and appears before him and says, “Sorry, but you can’t take your wealth with you.” The man implores the angel to speak with God to see if God might bend the rules, just this once. The man continues to pray that he will be allowed to take his wealth with him. The angel reappears and informs the man that God has decided to allow him to take one suitcase with him. Overjoyed, the man gets his largest suitcase and fills it with pure gold bars and places it beside his bed. Soon afterward the man dies and shows up at the pearly gates of heaven. He’s greeted by St. Peter who sees the suitcase and says, “Hold on sir, you can’t bring that in here!” The man explains to St. Peter that he has special permission and asks him to check with God. Sure enough, St. Peter checks and comes back saying, “You’re right. You are allowed one suitcase, but I’m supposed to check its contents before letting it through.” St. Peter opens the suitcase to inspect the prized possessions that the man found too precious to leave behind. With the suitcase open, St. Peter starts laughing and exclaims, “You brought pavement?” [The streets of heaven are paved with gold!]
The rich fool in our passage from Luke today might have wanted to bring his biggest barn full of grain to heaven. Luke’s story recounting Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Fool is a tough one though, especially for those who have worked hard during their careers, saved for retirement and who want to live comfortably and not be a burden to others. This tough story begins with Jesus being interrupted by someone in the crowd who is appealing to Jesus to opine on the inheritance laws. The person is probably a younger son who doesn’t think that he’s being treated fairly by his elder brother after the death of their father. Generally, the eldest son would get a double share of the father’s wealth. So, if there were two sons, like in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the eldest son would get 2/3 and the younger son would get 1/3. If there were no sons, the father’s possessions would be divided among his daughters, but the daughters were then required to marry within the father’s tribe, thus keeping his wealth within the tribe. Like the Prodigal Son, the younger son in the crowd is focussed on the wealth that should be his. Jesus cautions him and the others gathered around to “be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Then, Jesus uses this encounter as an opportunity to tell the gathered crowd the Parable of the Rich Fool. The problem is that the rich fool sounds like a good businessman. He chooses not to take up valuable producing land with additional barns so he plans to take down the old ones and build larger, more efficient barns. He decides to store grain during a period when the market is oversupplied, with resulting poor commodity prices, and then sell it when supply and demand are in his favour and prices are higher. He’s expanding when profits are good and re-investing capital in new barns. It’s no wonder he’s wealthy!
So, what’s the problem? In Genesis, Joseph instructs Pharaoh about saving a share of his harvest for lean years. Is being prepared for a rainy day a problem? Is the prudent management of your business a problem? Is wealth a sin? We need to carefully explore what Jesus is trying to tell us about faith and wealth, and what we should do in our economically driven, materialistic world.
There was a very wealthy man named Alfred who was a chemist, an engineer, an innovator, and a successful military armaments manufacturer. One day, his brother Ludvig died. The following day, the newspapers erroneously reported that Alfred had died rather than his brother Ludvig and they printed an obituary. Someone made a grave mistake – literally. Can you imagine picking up the morning newspaper and seeing your own obituary! What’s even worse, is that the headline read, “The Merchant of Death is Dead,” and then went on to say, “Man who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before died yesterday.” Needless to say, Alfred was upset and it caused him to reflect about how he would be remembered if he had really died. It was like God calling down to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.”
Like Alfred, the rich fool gets a special reminder about his mortality and what is truly important in life. The rich fool might be a shrewd businessman and he might manage his abundantly producing lands efficiently, but he might also be too self-centered and too focused on his wealth; instead of the things in life that really matter. In the parable, “He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he says, ‘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.” Wow! The man is clearly focused on my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods and finally, my soul. He has excluded everyone from his life, including God. The poor guy doesn’t mention family or friends at all and he doesn’t acknowledge his neighbours or the community, many of whom would have worked on his land and helped him build his barns.
There are many wealthy people in the Bible – land owners with homes and servants and businesses, and many are heroes. The father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son was very wealthy, with land and servants. The Good Samaritan was wealthy enough to pay for the lodging and treatment of the injured man and was able to write a blank cheque to the innkeeper for additional costs. Jesus visited and was entertained by Martha at Martha’s home. Other wealthy women provided and funded some of the first home churches for the Apostle Paul. Maybe Jesus is telling the man in the crowd and all those who were listening not to be focussed on wealth. It’s about the proper stewardship of God’s resources and the proper acknowledgement of the gifts bestowed upon us.
The rich fool says that after he builds and fills his new barns with all of his grain and his goods, he will have ample goods laid up for many years and he will be able to relax, eat, drink and be merry. It’s interesting to see this common old adage in our Bible reading! But, in the parable, God responds, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” Together, the rich fool’s self-indulgence and God’s response are very similar to Isaiah 22:13, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” The Apostle Paul also quotes this in his first letter to the Corinthians and versions of it show up in Tobit, Sirach and Ecclesiastes. We can’t take it with us, so we should focus on what’s really important while we can. I think that most people nearing death are not focussed on material wealth; they’re focussed on loved ones.
That’s what went through Alfred’s mind as he read the derogatory obituary about the Merchant of Death. Alfred’s brother Ludvig died in 1888 and unbeknownst to Alfred’s family and friends, before Alfred died in 1896, Alfred left most of his assets in trust to fund awards known as the Nobel Prizes, one of the most prestigious being the Nobel Peace Prize. The man I’ve been speaking about is Alfred Bernhard Nobel. He has many patents to his name, one of the most notable being dynamite, but he’s now best remembered for his annual Peace Prize honouring those who confer the greatest benefit on humankind.
What was important in the end for Alfred Nobel? Certainly not taking a suitcase of gold bars with him to heaven. But it’s not just giving a bunch of money to a worthwhile cause when you die either. Jesus says that “so it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” “Rich toward God” might be the key phrase. Luke has been telling us that being rich toward God is helping one’s neighbour with loaves of bread in a time of need; helping an injured stranger back to health; prayerfully trusting that God will give us, forgive us, and deliver us. When we are not distracted by wealth, we can put God first, love our neighbours as ourselves, and be truly rich toward God. Amen.