To Be Rich Toward God
First Reading Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm Psalm 49:1-11
Second Reading Colossians 3:1-11
Gospel Luke 12:13-21
“My mouth shall speak of wisdom, and my heart shall meditate on understanding.”
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Sunday lectionary does not offer the Book of Ecclesiastes often in the three-year cycle. In fact, only once. Today. Last year, our Thursday Bible Study made our way through the wisdom scriptures, and spent some time in Ecclesiastes with Qoheleth, the Teacher. In his effort to seek and share the wisdom of all that humanity does under the heavens, he comes to the conclusion ... ‘all is vanity’.
He is not talking about the check the mirror as you walk by kind of vanity; or you think everyone is watching you when you walk in the room kind of vanity; or even the Carly Simon kind of vanity, “you’re so vain, you probably think this sermon’s about you”.
The word we translate as ‘vanity’ is actually the Hebrew word ‘hevel’. Take a deep breath with me, and as we exhale, say ‘hevel’. [All breathe in and say hevel] Hevel is an onomatopoeic word, which means it sounds like what it is. Hevel means breath, exhalation, vapor. Nothing but air. So, when Qoheleth says ‘vanity of vanities’, he is proclaiming the unknowable, utterly ephemeral, mysterious, chasing the wind. This is how he describes all our toil and trouble here on earth. Of course, seeking wisdom ... knowledge, insight, and skill ... is a noble pursuit, but it is a journey, not a destination. We should work at our relationships with God and others, but these are works in progress, not perfection. The quest to understand and master everything on earth cannot be attained and ultimately reveals the limits of the human condition. Our only hope is in focusing on God. If our focus is on the work for the sake of the work, it is meaningless. If, however, our work is done to please God; if our work is not for our own achievement, but the building of the kingdom; if our work is done for the glory of God and service of others ... then we might find meaning; we might participate in the mystery; we just might grow in the knowledge and love of God.
The lessons today are about focus. Jesus teaches us about the temptation of placing our focus on money, instead of God. Much of humanity seems obsessed by money and making more of it. Money and the status it affords can become something that divides. We compare and apply rank order by wealth. Some define incredible wealth as at least $5000 a year more than your wife’s sister’s husband makes.
Our precarious relationship with money is one of Jesus’ most popular teaching subjects. An unidentified "someone" sets up the lesson, and demands that Jesus "tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." As Rabbi, Jesus has the authority to interpret Jewish law, but Jesus wants no part of this domestic dispute. Jesus rejects the role, asking, "Who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" Of course, the Lord Jesus ‘who will come again to judge the living and the dead’ is certainly qualified to arbitrate this family squabble over wealth and greed. We might expect Jesus to act as judge or arbitrator here, but this is clearly not His focus. Jesus has no concern over this man's family inheritance. "One's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Jesus is focused on God.
Jesus does not tell the brothers what to do. He gives no answer from the Law. Jesus rarely tells us what to do. Rather, Jesus encourages us how to be. Jesus invites us to be in touch with the mind of Christ. Jesus offers perspective to help us figure things out for ourselves.
In the parable of the Rich Fool, Jesus sets a negative example for followers. If you want to know how not to live, just be like this fellow. A man has so much wealth he cannot store it all. He begins talking to himself. We should probably not read into this that the man is crazy or schizophrenic. Jesus might be pointing out that the Rich Fool is talking to himself, and not God. He is considering his wealth as if it happened all through his own effort, and leaves God out of the reckoning. He views his wealth as an end, not a means. It never occurs to him to share it with others.
For the Rich Fool, the fruits of his occupation have become preoccupation. He is so preoccupied, he goes to great length to care for his possessions by building new, larger barns to store his abundance. We quickly understand what a ‘fool’ he really is, as this very night his life will end. What will he have to show for it? The Rich Fool is playing the game "he who dies with the most toys wins." But riches and fame don't last, we can't take it with us when we’re gone, and he who dies with the most toys is still dead.
The human instinct for possessing more and more can grow monstrous. Some misquote that money is the root of all evil, when 1 Timothy actually states “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Wealth is not the problem, unless wealth becomes your god. The wise are rich toward God, in attention, relationship, and focus. Being rich toward God is both in faith and the dispensation of wealth in accordance with faith. The primary influence is the love of God and the love of others, not the love of money. This parable is not simply a warning to the rich, but calls on rich and poor alike to explore the lure of money ... why we want it, why we need it. Are we caring for creation, our family, our community? Is our faithful use of resources and blessings in line with loving God and loving others? The gospel is not against good stewardship of resources (financial investment, putting kids through college, retirement planning); the question is why we do these things ... what is our motivation. We don’t make money simply because we have to or because we can. We don’t spend money simply because we have it. We create and manage wealth, no matter how much or how little, so that our efforts might serve the kingdom and others, and glorify God.
The Rich man thought his possessions gave him life, and were his life. In the end, they were simply vanity. Our understanding of how we earn and allocate possessions and wealth go beyond money ... daily we are faced with choices, and we must go on making choices over big and small things. The real choice is between reality and illusion. The illusion is that we are in control, that we are each an island unto ourselves, that we can somehow give ourselves life, or even save ourselves. The reality is that the world was made by God and is utterly loved by God, that we are called to participate in the world with God, and that to choose Jesus is to choose to be a part of what the world was made for; it is to choose to claim and be part of God’s image, God’s life that fills the world and redeems it. Where are our barns? What are we storing in them? Perhaps it is time to reconcile our balance of treasures in God. Amen.