I have to admit, I’m more nervous to preach on this text than I was when I preached about hell. Because for most of us, hell is this abstract belief that we don’t put much thought into, and it definitely doesn’t affect our daily decisions. When we make choices about our careers, our education, what kind of car we drive, who we marry, how many kids we want to have, or where we want to live, when we want to retire, we don’t really consider whether or not hell is real and who’s going there.
But money. Oh, we consider money. In all of our big decisions, like jobs and houses, and all of our little decisions, like premium vs. regular gas, or whether or not we buy that stick of gum, we consider money. Money is probably one of the biggest factors in our life.
Jesus knew this. Jesus spends more time talking about money than heaven, hell, sex and prayer combined.
And so here we are. On the eve of the RRSP contribution deadline, and we are reading a parable about a man making a lot of money and putting it away for the future so that he can take life easy, eat, drink, and be merry. Hopefully he’ll even have enough money to go down south for the winter, so that he can avoid the polar vortex. That sounds a lot like most of us polar-vortex hating folks here, doesn’t it? And yet God calls him a fool.
Now, I think that we’re a long ways off from the world that Jesus occupied. People 2000 years ago didn’t have Pension Plans or Old Age Security or RRSP’s. They didn’t live til their 80’s and 90’s, they had more than 2.1 kids and those kids didn’t move across the country for jobs. And they also didn’t have to pay their darned heating bills.
I think, in our culture, things have changed over the years too. I was talking to one of you recently (who happens to be in their 80’s), and you told me that your father thought that owning RRSP’s was selfish. If you had extra money, you would share it with those who needed it.
Your family followed Augstine’s thoughts about this parable, “The rich fool didn’t realize that the bellies of the poor are much safer storerooms than his barns.”
But, in the 80 years that have happened since, I think many of us have taken a different approach. For many of us, we do our best to not rely on our kids during our retirement years. We work hard when we’re younger, are responsible with our money, and save our nickels so that we aren’t a burden on our family. In our current culture, hitting up your family for cash because you gave it all away is more or less considered a foolish thing.
That being said, there are a couple of things to consider about this parable and how it is applicable to us today.
The first, is that the context of the parable is a man coming up to Jesus and telling Jesus to tell his brother to divide the inheritance. So the brother’s father has passed away, and given the culture of the time, it was the eldest brothers job to divide the inheritance. And that obviously wasn’t happening. Jesus. Make my brother divide the estate.
So, here’s a question. What do you think the relationship was like between the two brothers? Were they best buds? Do you think they went fishing together on weekends? Probably not. It sounds like their relationship was on the rocks. Communication had probably broken down, they probably have 30 years of unresolved conflict between them, and now they had to figure out how to close the estate of their father.
Does this sound familiar? Families arguing over estates? My friend who’s a lawyer told me once about a family that were arguing before the funeral of their parent over some money in the will. And that money was the equivalent of one month’s pay cheque for each of them.
Jesus! Tell my brother to divide the inheritance properly! Now we just pay lawyers to do it for us.
The point isn’t the money. The point is your relationship. The point is that you are letting greed take precedence over your relationship. No wonder Jesus calls him “Man,” which was somewhat harsh tone and is deserving of an eye roll. “Man, who appointed me a judge between you?” When an abundance of possessions is what drives us, we have missed the point of life entirely.
The second thing is that Jesus tells a parable of a certain rich man who had a bumper crop. Now, a careful reading shows that the man was rich before the harvest. This one harvest didn’t make him rich. He already was.
And then when he had his bumper crop, do you notice what he was saying? What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops. This is what I’ll do. I’ll build bigger barns. And then I’ll be able to take life easy.
I, I, I. The man dialogued with himself. He is alone.
This is doubly sad when you take into consideration the important role that family and community played in the Middle East 2000 years ago. Everyone was closely knit together, everybody had a say in everybody’s business, and this was considered the good life, and he had none of it. He was alone.
Being rich has a tendency to do that to us, doesn’t it?
When Ash and I lived in Winnipeg, both us and our neighbours had detached garages. We always saw each other, waved, smiled, said hello, asked how they were doing, even when we were lugging groceries from the garage to the house in the middle of winter.
Now, our house in Steinbach has an attached garage. It certainly is more convenient, and warmer, but we honestly don’t see our neighbours for 5 months of the year. We’re more alone.
Also, when we were living in Winnipeg, one of our friends moved from East Kildonan to North Kildonan. I didn’t question the move, as most of us move houses, but one person said something to our friend that will forever stay with me. He said: “Good move. You’re almost out of the city.”
The point of moving, to this man, was to get out of the city. You move from Elmwood to East Kildonan to North Kildonan to East St. Paul. And I know there are factors such as noise and safety and taxes. But one thing about being out of the city is that the houses are bigger, the lots are bigger, and it’s harder to see your neighbours. Wealth makes us more alone.
This hits close to home for many of us, doesn’t it. Think second homes. Think retirement homes. Think vacation properties. Think cabins. These things that we place an awful lot of value on can actually move us further and further from our primary community and family.
When I was living in Africa, one of my friends said to me: It’s really hard to have a genuine relationship between 2 people who have vastly different amounts of money, because there’s a massive power imbalance. Are you friends because you like each other, or because of the benefits that might come with being friends? Unequal wealth makes relationships harder.
“Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.” Isaiah 5:8
So you have a rich man who is alone and only has concern for himself.
But at least he can eat, drink, and be merry, right?
And he’s even following the Bible when he says this: “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 8:15
He got the first part right, about eating and drinking and enjoying life. But he misses the second part. He completely fails to acknowledge that the days of his life are a gift from God. To him, the highest sense of accomplishment and satisfaction is eating and drinking and living the good life. The highest sense of accomplishment, to this man, is remarkably selfish.
When one of my kids is at day care, one of the first questions I ask is, “Did you have fun?” I don’t even think when asking it, but seriously? Fun is the point of life? I think next time I’m going to ask, “Did you love well today?”
In the man’s speech, there’s no sense of gratitude, or sharing, or generosity, or even remotely believing that life is bigger than oneself.
And then he dies. And I wonder who will care…
In this parable, Jesus is really putting the screws to the man who wants Jesus to divide the inheritance.
It’s like Jesus is saying to man: Think about this. You and your brother are not on the same page, and you want me to ignore that so you can get your stuff. And then when you get your stuff, it’s going to end up pushing you further away from relationships. And then when you die, who’s going to get your stuff?
I imagine Jesus shaking his head and sighing, and the (non-violently) hitting him on the back of the head with a dead fish, because this man is missing the point of life.
I don’t think that this parable condemns people who are wealthy.
I don’t think this parable tells people to not save for retirement, at least, I hope not, because I have a self-directed RRSP through work so that I don’t have to preach til I’m 73.
I don’t think this parable is telling us to be grumpy people who never have fun and don’t eat and drink and be merry.
But I do think that this parable is reminding us that everything we have, from our houses to our families to our cash to our last breath, is a gift of God. It’s reminding us to live in gratitude.
I do think that his parable is warning us about the pitfalls of money. That money and possessions are not the most important things in this world.
I think this parable is a reminder that our relationship with others is one of the most important things in our lives. That we are to love our neighbours as ourselves.
It reminds us to not store up things for ourselves, but to be rich towards God.
Rich towards God can be understood many ways. I’m going to offer you three handles, suggestions, things to talk about over lunch.
1) It’s tax season, and we’re all busy collecting our T4’s and charitable receipts. And when we hand in all those papers to our accountants and to CRA, will they know that you are rich towards God? Will they know that your life does not revolve around an abundance of possessions?
2) Some of us make wills to ensure that our kids won’t have to go to Jesus (or the lawyers) to settle our estates. One of my friends told me this. He said, “I have 3 kids, but in my will, I have 4. That 4th kid is my favourite charitable cause.” It could be MCC, church, MDS, CMU, World Vision, Soup’s On, Today House, an endowment fund, whatever. But are you willing to add a “kid” to your will? How would you react if your parents added a “kid” to the will?
3) Do your possessions, or your money, help your relationships? Or do they hurt your relationships? Does it bring you closer to people? Or further away? Does your wealth build community? Whom does it serve? When I came back from Zimbabwe 13 years ago, one of the ways I navigated through being rich was through the guidelines “Does this enhance the quality of my relationships?” Does it bring me closer to people? What kind of car do I need for my relationships? Does a canoe bring me closer to people? What does social media do to how I interact with people? Do my shoes matter? Do we put up a fence in our backyard, or do we let the neighbourhood kids play on our play structure? It’s not a perfect guideline, as we can pretty much justify anything, but I have found it to be helpful.
Does CRA know you are rich towards God? Are you willing to add a kid to your will? How do you use your wealth to build community and relationships?
These are good questions to ask. And not necessarily easy to answer.
But as we seek to be followers of Jesus, I think that they are really, really important questions.