October 17, 2010

Rich Toward God

Imagine something for me for a minute.  Imagine that you’ve just won the lottery.  And I’m not talking about one of those small-prize lottos where you win just enough to cover what you’ve wasted…I mean spent…on tickets.  I’m talking about the Mega Millions or Powerball Jackpot.  Think about that feeling for a minute.  Take just another minute if you need it, I know this will be as close as some of you get to a million dollars and I don’t want to take it away too soon.  Now, what would you do with the money?  How many of you can honestly say that everything about your life would change?  For the rest of you, next week’s sermon is going to be about honesty.  But seriously, what would be some of the changes in your life if you suddenly came upon so much money that you no longer had to work?  Now, I know there are a bunch of folks here who are workers.  You work whether you get paid for it or not because that’s how you were brought up.  But even if you keep working at this or that, unexpectedly coming into enough money that you can literally do anything and everything you ever wanted to do, go everywhere you always wanted to go, see everything you’ve always wished you could see, and so on, would change everything.  All of a sudden you would be in a position of needing to make financial decisions you never had to make before.  Or at least, on a bigger scale than ever before.  Who is going to mange the money for you?  Where will you invest it?  Will you invest it somewhere other than the First National Bank of Serta?  How much will you give?  To whom will you give it?  What will you buy?  How much of it will you buy?

This month we have been taking a look at our attitude towards our possessions.  A couple of weeks ago  we talked about the fact that we have a tendency to try and divide our loyalties between the stuff of this world and the God who created the stuff.  We know that we are supposed to serve God and we usually try and serve Him at least a little bit.  At the same time, however, unless we consciously choose otherwise, we also serve our stuff.  We serve our stuff in ways that are both obvious and incredibly subtle, but at every point we are not fully serving God, serve it we do.  We talked then about the fact that trying to have it all will leave us with nothing.  Now, it’s totally understandable to want to shoot for this having it all, but it is also ultimately a false way of life.  Last week we explored one of the implications of this tendency to so divide our loyalties.  The reality is that whenever we try this we will always wind up giving God less than our best and what we often do give is given begrudgingly.  The remedy for this behavioral pattern is that we must develop the spiritual discipline of gladly giving God our best.  This morning we are going to take a look at one more result of this trying to split our loyalties.  And the result is that we start to view the stuff by right and by privilege as ours to do with as we please.  We start to get the funny idea that it belongs to us.  We start looking at the abundance in our lives as bringing with it opportunities to sit back, relax, and take life easy.  We take the abundance and start looking for wise ways to invest in our own lives.  Now, by all practical accounts this is a smart thing to do.  I am going to raise no dispute with that this morning.  Instead, I want to simply tell you a story and then look at how we can be sure that we are investing our abundance as wisely as possible.

Our story begins much like our story from a couple of weeks ago began.  Jesus was teaching a crowd and out of this crowd, someone asked Him a question which in turn prompted some specific teaching from Jesus.  Grab your Bibles and find Luke 12:13 with me.  Let’s get a bit more specific.  The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a lot of the same stories.  They are organized very differently though in order to present their stories to different audiences and for different purposes.  In particular, Luke, when combined with Acts, can be organized geographically.  There is a natural progression from the region of the Diaspora (which was the name for the conglomerate of ten cities in the regions around Judea) to Jerusalem, and back to the ends of the earth.  With this in mind, Luke 9-19 is often referred as Luke’s travel narrative.  Throughout this section of Luke Jesus is traveling (surprise, surprise) around the Galilean countryside but is heading inexorably towards Jerusalem which is, of course, where He spends the final week of His life.  When we come to Luke 12:1 we see that He has stopped in a certain place and a huge crowd gathers around Him.  What follows in the text is a block teaching that contains much of the same material as Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  For this reason this section of Luke is often called Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (because instead of taking place on a mountain it takes place…o n a plain).

When Jesus was teaching like this, we should not imagine a quiet, well-mannered audience like you might find in most churches on most Sunday mornings in this country.   Instead, there was probably this incredible cross-section of humanity with husbands and wives trying to hear some of the amazing things this teacher had to say while trying at the same time to keep their kids reasonably corralled.  There were people coming and going.  There were people picnicking.  If they had work that was fairly portable, there were probably people there working at whatever their trade was.  There may have even been some buying and selling going on.  But for the most part, people recognized that Jesus was teaching and they were listening.  On this particular day, however, there was a guy in the crowd with a burning problem.  His father had recently died and he was trying to get what he had determined was his fair share of the estate from his older brother.  As the young brother, he really didn’t have much in the way of recourse if the executor of the estate had determined he should only get such and such an amount.  Often when in this kind of a situation people would go to a well-known rabbi to see if they could get him to issue a definitive teaching on the matter.  So, knowing that Jesus was in the region, the guy went to see if he could get Jesus to issue a ruling in his favor.  After all, why even go to Jesus if he thought he was being treated fairly by his brother?  And thinking about it, it sure would have been nice had Jesus made some sort of a definitive ruling here.  I mean, family infighting over inheritance issues was not limited to first-century Judea.  I knew of a family who recently lost their mother and grandmother who left behind a fairly sizeable estate to be divided among the kids.  Though death should be one of those times that unites a family there were squabbles starting nearly before the body was cold.  Yet Jesus doesn’t wade into the mess.

If you have the story opened in front of you, let me just read it for you starting in Luke 12:13:  “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’  But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?’  And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’”  So Jesus is teaching along and all of a sudden there is this voice: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”  Can you imagine all the dirty looks this guy got?  Not only did he interrupt Jesus, but it was for something that most of the folks gathered would have considered pretty petty.  Yet Jesus was gracious and stopped what He was doing in order to put this guy before everyone else in the world: “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”  This was Jesus very kindly putting the man in his place.  Jesus’ response itself was both wise and ironic.  The wisdom can be found in Psalm 26:17: “You grab a mad dog by the ears when you butt into a quarrel that’s none of your business.”  (And if the dog asks for it the answer is always no.)  The irony can be found in Revelation 19:11: “Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse!  Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges the makes war.”  In other words, the irony is found in that Jesus actually is the judge and arbitrator over this man along with the rest of humanity.  But, resolving petty family disputes like this is not why He came.  Instead of getting involved in this man’s squabble with his brother, Jesus gets right at the heart of the issue here: “Guard against all covetousness.”

Let me put this covetousness in a couple of different lights for you.  First, some of your translations may have the word greed instead of covetousness.  That is a perfectly acceptable alternative translation.  I like covetousness a bit better because it carries a broader connotation than does simple greed, but both words work fine.  In that culture while people were no less materialistic than we are today, there were not as many outlets for their materialism as there are for ours today.  In this culture, people generally viewed life as a zero-sum game.  This means very simply that they thought the world to contain only so much wealth.  When one person profited others very naturally had less to get by on.  Furthermore, the social hierarchies that determined which people were among the haves and which were among the have-nots were fixed.  For folks in this kind of a culture, covetousness might take the form of desiring to advance to the next level of social strata.  This kind of desire was generally frowned upon, but it was obviously enough of a problem that Jesus addressed it a lot.  Today, on the other hand, we have a culture that throws off all restraint and openly encourages covetousness.  That’s was TV ads are all about: making us want something that isn’t currently ours.  And let’s face: they’re really good at it.  Remember: our stuff gets lonely and demands we acquire friends for it.  Yet life is more than this.  But then, we already know that…even if we don’t really “know” it.

Well, after making an opening statement on the questioner’s root problem, Jesus tells a parable to make His point more concrete.  Let me read this for you starting in v. 16.  “And he told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?”  And he said, “I will do this: I will tear 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 laud up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’”  Alright, by a show of hands (and be not embarrassed because this is one of Jesus slightly more obscure parables), who here has heard this parable before?  Okay, I want those of you who just raised your hands to forget everything you know about it for a minute.  Forget that you’ve read it.  Forget that you know what’s missing.  Forget that you know who the villain and who the hero is.  Forget everything and let’s just deal with this text at face value.  Jesus tells a story about a guy who is a farmer.  In fact, the word Jesus uses for land carries the sense of a lot of land so we should probably think more in terms of a plantation owner. Anyway, this guy has been farming his land year after year after year.  Each year he does the same things to et his land ready for planting, plants it, tends it, and harvests it.   To be frank, it’s getting old.  Then one year, he has the kind of year he had always dreamed about having but never actually had.  His land produces many times more than it had ever yielded before.  In the minds of Jesus’ audience, this guy just won the Mega Millions Jackpot.  But as the harvest time approaches he discovers that he has a problem.  His barns and silos were designed and built with average year yields in mind.  They were big enough to hold an above average harvest, but nothing like what he has coming out of his ground right now.  He has so much coming out of his ground that once he harvest it and stores it up properly he will be able to retire.  He will be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy life to its fullest without fear of running out of food.  He’ll be able to do all those things, that is, once he figures out what to do about his limited space.  After thinking about it for some time he comes upon an idea; he’ll build bigger barns.  This makes so much sense.  He’ll design and build bigger barns in order to hold all of his crops.  This will, in turn, allow him the freedom to do the things he’s always wanted to do.

Now, at this point, do you see anything wrong here?  Me neither.  This guy has suddenly come into a pretty fantastic amount of wealth and he is trying to decide what to do with it.  He doesn’t want it to go to waste.  Nothing wrong with that one.  This was a day before there were a lot of really good banks in which to invest a lot of money and furthermore, this guy had an abundance of grain, not gold.  He did really the only thing that seemed to make sense.  He built bigger and better places to store it so that when he needed it, he could use it.  Let us, though, take this out of an ancient context and put it in a bit more modern one.  There is a commercial that’s been on TV recently for some kind of cell phone.  The story behind the commercial is that a shopper for a major fashion designer takes a picture of a purse with the phone.  His boss loves it and orders 500 to sell in her stores.  The purse suddenly becomes the next must have item.  Before long, the designer of the purse gets a text message that an order has been placed for 500,000 of the purse.  The purse designer strikes it rich like he had only dreamed of doing.  What is he going to do with all of his newfound wealth?  Find a better bank than the one he’s currently using?  Find some highly rated money managers to handle it for him?  Find some really good investment funds so that he can live off the dividends and sit back to take it easy?  Open IRAs for all of his kids?  All of the above?  Well, again, do you see anything wrong with any of this?  So thus far in the story this guy has done everything right.  He’s come into an unexpectedly large sum of money (or pick some other possession if you want) and handles it wisely by…nearly…all accounts.

Okay let’s tip our hands.  By now you are either wondering why I’m wasting your time with this story in which nothing is wrong or else you are waiting for the catch.  Well, I’d like to think I’m not wasting your time.  So, what’s the catch?  Look with me at vv. 20-21: “But God said to him, ‘Fool!  This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”  So as was the case with so many of Jesus parables, He was telling this nice story and the audience was tracking with Him and then at the end He turned their entire world on its head leaving them reeling.  This guy was just trying to handle his money in the most responsible way he could think of and here comes mean ol’ God to mess up his plans.  Isn’t that just like God?  Things are just starting to get good and Mr. Spoil Sport comes along to take all the fun away.

Well, let’s think a bit deeper about all of this.  The fact is, this parable should be at least a bit disturbing to us.  You can rest assured that it was disturbing to its original audience.  Again: this guy was seemingly doing everything right.  He was not working against God.  He was not denying God in any obvious way.  He was trying to be a good steward of what he had.  I mean, in the minds of Jesus’ audience, a blessing of wealth like he experienced was actually an obvious sign of God’s favor.  God’s sounding this perturbed here would have blown their hair back.  In spite of all of this, look at what’s not here.  There is absolutely no recognition on his part that any of this incredible increase was anything other than luck.  This guy was entirely focused on himself.  He viewed the wealth he came upon (and in the mind of Jesus’ audience had no real hand in accomplishing) as his to do with as he pleased.  He was ostensibly doing all the right things, but with the entirely wrong motivations.  Look at the text again closely.  Focusing in on the parable itself about 15 of the 85 words are some form of a first- or second-person pronoun.  In other words, about 20% of the parable is this guy talking about or to himself.  Focusing in even more on just his speech this increases to closer to 25%.  There is a conspicuous lack of gratitude or any mention of God.  He simply takes it all in stride, assumes he is set for life, and goes about doing with it what he pleases.  My friends, this is another great danger of trying to split our loyalties between God and our stuff: we start thinking that the stuff really does belong to us and that we can use it accordingly.  This is the subtle whisper of Mammon in our ear.  “If you will just worship me, I will meet all your needs.  I will be all yours.  You don’t have to share me with anyone.  You can do with me what you will.  I will make all your dreams come true.  Any pleasure you desire will be obtainable.  Just give yourself to me.”   Here’s the problem with this: Scripture declares very clearly otherwise.  Deuteronomy 28 presents God as in charge of both material increase and decrease.  In Psalm 50:10-12 God declares: “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.  I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.  If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.”  Psalm 104 in beautifully poetic fashion declares God to be the creator and sustainer of the world.  When we are dividing our loyalties, however, we don’t see this.

Look again at what God says to this man who blindly treated his increase as if it were entirely his own and without thought of its real owner and provider.  God asks him the rather pointed question: “…the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  This is a hard question.  I mean, who wants to know that they are going to work hard their entire life and then die suddenly and have all their hard earned estate given to someone who not only hasn’t earned it, but might just blow it on the pleasures of this life.  This fear wasn’t any different back then.  From Ecclesiastes 2:18-23: “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?  Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.  This also is vanity.  So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it.  This also is vanity and a great evil.  What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun?  For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation.  Even in the night his heart does not rest.  This also is vanity.”  In other words, the futility of working hard and not really knowing what will come of it was driving Solomon nearly to despair.  The essence of God’s question is to tell the man that he has wasted all of his time.  He tried to serve his stuff and was deluded into thinking it really was his to enjoy as he saw fit and in the end it was all for naught; a monumental waste of time.  Furthermore, Jesus’ take away from this parable is that all those who store up treasure for themselves and are not rich toward God will come to the same end.  Getting right down to it then, this is not about the money.  Nowhere here does God condemn this man for being wealthy.  This is not about the planning.  God offers not criticism for trying to manage his money wisely.  This is not about the investing.  God makes no remarks about his planning for the future.  This is all about the attitude.  It’s about the attitude that says, “This is all mine.”  It’s about the attitude that says, “I can do with this what I want.”  All those who follow in a similar path as this will discover that they will come to the same futile end as this foolish rich man.  And remember: belief is always revealed by behavior.

So in the end, what can we do about this?  How can we avoid dividing our loyalties and taking the risk of forgetting who the stuff really belongs to in the first place?  Well, the last thing Jesus says here gives us a pretty big clue.  Let me offer you some thoughts on the subject and then over the next couple of weeks we will really get into this.  Jesus says that everyone will discover this futile end who store up treasures for themselves and who are not rich toward God.  In other words, people should respond to abundance in their life by being rich toward God.  The guy in this parable experienced an incredible abundance, but he was not rich toward God.  Instead, he focused on storing up his treasure for himself to be able to enjoy for the rest of his life.  He sought an investment plan that was tragically shortsighted.  What he found out the hard way, we can learn from his misfortune: being rich toward God is the best investment plan.  So how can we practice being rich toward God?  Well here are some things that don’t change.  We should still work as hard as we can and earn as much money as we can.  We should still take what we earn and budget very carefully.  We should invest with all the sagacity we can muster.  We should plan with all the wisdom of the Spirit of God.  But, we must remember that it’s not ours.  Nothing in this world is really ours.  Even of our bodies Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 that we are not our own, for we were bought with a price.  Investing in the wrong things (for example, the things of this world) and in the wrong ways (for example, with ourselves in mind) is not the way to go.  Being rich toward God is the best investment plan.  As we make all of our plans and budgets and investment strategies, let us do it with the goal in mind of being as generous as we possibly can.  What if instead of budgeting with paying all the bills in mind we budgeted first and foremost with being as generous as we possibly can in mind?  What if instead of planning for future big purchases (houses, cars, TVs, and etc.) we planned very carefully to give sacrificially?  What if instead of investing sagaciously in order to get the biggest return on our investment we spent just as much time and energy figuring out ways to invest in the lives of the people around us and in kingdom work around the world?  Let’s get even more specific to this church.  How can your stuff be used to help someone else in this church become fully who God designed them to be?  How can your possessions be used to foster a greater sense of belonging at Central?  How can the things God has given you be used to help spiritually younger believers learn more about living the life of Christ?  How can your belongings be used to serve the kingdom of God more effectively?  Being rich toward God is the best investment plan.  It may not have the kind of payoffs in this life to which you have grown accustomed, but it has eternal dividends that never stop paying.  Let’s face it, for most of us living in this country, we are going to accumulate a lot of stuff over the course of our lives.  Here’s the fact: the poorest person in this church in terms of raw material wealth has purchasing power that makes him or her the envy of 95% of the world.  Pursuing such an investment plan will make your life spent acquiring stuff worthwhile.  The reality is this: God wants us to work hard.  He designed us to work and He is glorified when we do so to the best of the abilities He has given us.  We happened to live in a country in which hard work result in the opportunity to earn a lot of money.  And though there are all kinds of doomsday predictions about the value of the dollar right now it is still the best currency in the world by a good distance.  All of this hard work and earning potential results in an ability to acquire a lot of stuff.  None of this is bad.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of it.  Let us simply make sure that we invest it wisely.  Being rich toward God is the best investment plan.