Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to the crowd, ‘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 them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then 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. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But 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?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
When I was in seminary, my preaching professors always warned us against making any kind of grand pronouncements from the pulpit. Be careful what you state as universal truth— they would say— because not all statements are going to be true for all people, in all times, and in all places. I think that’s pretty good advice. However, I also think it’s pretty fair to say, with a reasonable amount of certainty— in this time and in this place— that we live in anxious times. We live in a time when we are anxious about money, we are anxious about politics, we are anxious about job security, and we are anxious about our safety and our children’s safety in what is becoming an increasingly violent and dangerous world. We live in anxious times. And that cultural anxiety that’s floating around out there may effect all of us differently, to different degrees, but it’s the rare person among us whose life is not touched by it in one way or another.
In our passage for this morning, we read of a man who is also anxious. He comes to Jesus with a problem. He is fighting over his inheritance with his brother, and wishes Jesus to step in and mediate. But, as is so often the case, Jesus does not do what is expected or demanded of him. Jesus refuses to be the arbitrator, and instead of course, what does he do? He tells a story. He reminds his listeners of that age-old truism--that material wealth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Today’s passage is a story about the folly of that longstanding myth that material wealth will bring us happiness, security, and freedom from anxiety. It is a forceful and powerful reminder that one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions and one’s security does not rest in one’s material worth.
This is all well and good, and I certainly believe all of that to be true. Yet as I prepared for this morning’s sermon, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a certain absurdity to this parable given the anxiety of the times in which we currently live. Is it absurd, I wondered, to talk about amassing unhealthy amounts of material wealth when more than 45 million Americans live in poverty? Is it absurd to talk about the folly of storing up riches when millions of people in our country are unemployed or underemployed, and don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or how they will make their mortgage payment this month? Outside our own country, nearly half the world’s population lives on less than two or three dollars a day. Is it absurd to talk about having too much, when so many people have so little? In the midst of so much cultural anxiety about whether or not we will be able to take care of ourselves and future generations, I find myself asking the question, what does this story have to say to us, in the midst of this very anxious historical moment?
I think perhaps one clue to the answer to this question lies in the very last line of the passage. Jesus explains that the rich man is a fool because he has stored up treasures for himself but was not rich towards God. Now Jesus doesn’t exactly elaborate on what it actually means to be rich towards God, but I think the answer is there to be found, if we’re paying close enough attention.
Notice what the rich man says to himself when considering what to do with all the wealth he has amassed. He says to himself, “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones. And there I will store all my grain and goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘eat, drink and be merry.’” You see, it’s all about the pronouns. Never once in all his deliberations does the rich man think of anyone but himself. If he has a family, we are given no indication that he gives them any consideration. It’s all about him— his barn, his grain, his goods, his soul. The man is not rich towards God, because he thinks only of his own wellbeing. He is oriented only towards himself and his own security— not giving even a second thought to the security or well-being of others.
This is important to note because one of the overwhelming themes found throughout the Gospel of Luke is the injunction to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and in particular, to give special consideration to the poor and needy among us. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, we are called to a kind of radical re-orientation of our lives— a re-orientation away from our own selfish desires, away from our obsession with the kind of false security that we think money can buy. We are called to strive, not for material wealth and security, but rather, for richness of the heart— richness of those values that we proclaim to be at the very heart of God— values such as compassion, generosity, mercy, and love of neighbor. Richness towards God requires an orientation in the world that recognizes that we cannot be concerned only with ourselves or only with our own security, but that we are meant to live our lives in community with others, recognizing our interconnection and interdependence.
And so in this way, we can begin to better understand what Jesus might have meant by this idea of being rich towards God. We can understand that there are in fact a number of ways that we can be like the rich fool, even if we aren’t rich, even if we are simply trying to get by. Because at the end of the day, this isn’t really a story about how much we have or don’t have. It’s not so about whether we are rich or poor, or somewhere in between. It’s about how we orient ourselves in the world. In the midst of our anxiety, do we shut down and shut out others who are in need or do we open ourselves up to a way of life that affirms our interdependence and interconnection with others?
We may live in anxious times, and we may worry from time to time, and that’s okay. But honestly, it’s how we respond to that anxiety that reveals the true depth of our character. It’s important not to let our worries and anxieties blind us from the needs of others or isolate us from our loved ones and our communities. It’s important not to let our anxiety blind us to the truth which we already know— that truth which is proclaimed so profoundly in the 12th chapter of the Gospel of Luke— which is that God is our refuge, God is our strength. It is in God that we find true security, and it is in the gift of the Holy Spirit, which infuses our communities, that we find true richness and abundance.
In a year when anxiety about our security— both economic and otherwise— has taken center stage in our political elections, as Christians, we must not become distracted by the political noise. We must not forget that true greatness, true security, and true wealth lies not in the contents of our bank accounts, or the size of our military, or even our status in the world, but in the state of our hearts. To be rich towards God means that we are rich in the fruits of the spirit— love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. To be rich towards God means a radical reorientation of our spiritual posture— remembering that we do not build up riches in this world for ourselves alone, but rather, that we are called to build up beloved communities together— communities where we care for the least among us— where the hungry are fed, the stranger is welcomed, the poor and lowly are lifted up, and given a place of honor at the table. That’s what it means to be rich towards God, and as Christians, that is how we are called to live.
Children of God, may we strive always towards this kind of richness— in our hearts, in our community, and in our world. And in doing so, may we begin to reveal the greatest treasure we could ever hope to enjoy— the very kingdom of God itself.
Amen, and may it ever be so.