Luke 12:13-21 – The Parable of the Rich Fool

The angel of death surprises a rich man by Jim Janknegt

A man in a crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to give me my share of what our father left us when he died.”

Jesus answered, “Who gave me the right to settle arguments between you and your brother?”

Then he said to the crowd, “Don’t be greedy! Owning a lot of things won’t make your life safe.”

So, Jesus told them this story:

A rich man’s farm produced a big crop, and he said to himself, “What can I do? I don’t have a place large enough to store everything.”

Later, he said, “Now I know what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, where I can store all my grain and other goods. Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You have stored up enough good things to last for years to come. Live it up! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.’ ”

But God said to him, “You fool! Tonight, you will die. Then who will get what you have stored up?”

“This is what happens to people who store up everything for themselves but are poor in the sight of God.” (Contemporary English Version)

Let’s be honest before God because there’s no way we are going to fool him. The truth is, we all worry. 

And the more stuff we accumulate, the more worried we get. And the more worried we get, the stingier we become – to the point where we encase ourselves around more stuff, which requires bigger places to store all our stuff.

Here’s a bit of a reality check: We are not self-sufficient independent automatons who are meant to function by themselves without ever needing help.

The Rich Fool by Rembrandt, 1627

If we have some success in this independence venture, we then expect that others ought to be able to do it, too. Such thinking leads to a lack of generosity, believing that others just need to work harder or smarter or better. They’re lazy, we may reason. So, I’ve got no responsibility to share any of my largess with slackers.

We seek after whatever it is we desire. If we seek the kingdom of God, we will pursue the Lord Jesus and aim our love toward knowing him. But if we seek materialism, wealth, and the accumulation of stuff, we will never have enough because worry and fear shall always overwhelm the voice of God. 

I make it sound easy, as if the choice were so clear. On one level it is, but, like most things, it’s complicated because we are all a weird hybrid of competing loves and desires.

So, let’s make a few distinctions that might help us clarify our kingdom calling. Materialism is not the same thing as hard work. 

Materialism:

  • Is a shield we lug around to protect us from failure and poverty
  • Puts us on a performance treadmill, and is tied to our self-worth
  • Is a never-ending quest for security and protection
  • Seeks to avoid the criticism of others by seeking their approval with stuff
  • Believes that money will take away feelings of hurt, pain, and discomfort

Whereas hard work:

  • Is about healthy achievement and a patient growth of assets
  • Seeks to improve and is satisfied with a job well done
  • Takes away fear and worry 
  • Brings gratitude and joy

Any worldly fool can make money; but the wise and righteous person is able to manage resources in a way that glorifies God, builds up the church, and blesses the world. 

And it all begins with knowing the difference between depending on God versus depending on self and stuff.

The rich farmer in Christ’s story is a fool not because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future, but because he lives only for himself, and because he believes he can secure his life with his abundant possessions.

In the parable, the rich guy only talks to himself – not to anyone else. The man doesn’t express any gratitude to God. There is neither any thanking the workers who have helped him plant and harvest this bumper crop, nor any sharing his wealth through giving them a bonus.

The farmer has more than he could ever hope to use, yet he seems to have no thought of sharing it. And there is clearly no thought of what God might require of him. The rich man is outright blind to the fact that his life is not his own to secure, that his life belongs to God, and that God can demand it back at any time.

The Rich Fool by Bertram Poole

No amount of wealth can give any of us what we need most in life: healthy relationships, the love and enjoyment of friends and family, or eternal life. Nobody can buy their way into heaven or eternal bliss. What’s more, money cannot provide protection from disease and disaster.

Here’s another reality check: The rich and the poor all die, just the same. And the one who is wealthy cannot take a bit of it with him.

At issue here, for Jesus, is neither saving for retirement or for future needs, nor enjoying the good things in life. In fact, that’s wisdom.

The issue, for Jesus, is about what’s most important to God. It’s about priorities. God cares deeply about how we invest our lives and use the gifts given us. The Lord is vested in us, so he cares about how we love God and neighbor. God wants us to orient our lives toward the divine mission to bless and redeem the world.

In other words, God cares about whether we care, or not, about others.

As a hospital chaplain, I’ve seen my share of death. And I have never once heard anyone say, “Gosh, chaplain, I sure wish I hadn’t given so much money and stuff away. I wish I had kept more for myself.” But I’ve sure heard plenty of the opposite.

A spiritual reality check: We, and our resources, all belong to God.

We are merely stewards of everything we own. God gave it to us. God can take it away. Including our life.

The good news is that, since we, and everything we have, belongs to God, our future is secure in Christ.

Merciful God, thank you for giving me everything I need for life and godliness in this present world. Forgive me for ever doubting your goodness and ability to provide for me. Let my life bless the name of Jesus, and may I steward all that you have given me with care and compassion. Amen.

Mark 10:17-22 – Jesus Intervenes

Eastern Orthodox mural of Jesus and the rich man

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth. (New International Version)

We are all addicts. 

We all have our own sin addictions which keep us stuck in guilt and shame.

We may not all struggle with the same sin. Yet we all have some besetting sin(s) that we must be weaned off of. The most pervasive addiction found in Holy Scripture is neither substance abuse nor alcohol – it is the addiction to wealth and money.

Maybe your initial response was of someone else, besides yourself: “I don’t have as much money as____” or, “So-and-so has a real problem with that!” Those statements are what we call, in terms of addiction, denial. 

In truth, all of us are in some sort of denial about how much we really trust in paychecks, bank accounts, investments, and owning material stuff. I’m no exception. I own more books than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime, and yet, I tend to believe I don’t have enough of them.

Even the poor can have an addiction wealth and money by thinking about it and wishing for it to an unhealthy degree, as if wealth is the thing that will ultimately make them happy.

People in denial rarely have any idea how much they are hurting others, themselves, and God.  In fact, the consistent witness of the early church fathers is that the sheer accumulation of stuff is the same as stealing from the poor. 

Because of denial, people need an intervention. They need to be jolted back to their senses. Intervention is a gift. Someone cares enough about the person to intervene. Yet, interventions don’t always work. The person can choose to walk away and refuse to change.

Jesus did a gracious intervention with a rich young man. The man was addicted to wealth and money, but he didn’t see it. In fact, he thought he was quite godly and spiritual. It’s a sad story because the man walks away untransformed by his encounter with Jesus and did not accept the gracious invitation to follow the Lord. 

Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man, 1879

The man simply did not see himself as hopeless and desperately needing to change. He held to his denial.

The man approached Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Whereas I would probably get all excited about being asked a question like this and launch into some long-winded gospel answer, Jesus immediately picked up on the attitude and the need behind the question. 

What must I do to get? It’s almost as if the man wants to acquire eternal life like he would acquire wealth. “I am a successful businessman with plenty of money, and a respected citizen with lots of wealth – now I want to be a success with God, as well.” 

The question may have been sincere, yet it was misguided. Eternal life is not spiritual real estate for an upwardly mobile person to acquire and possess. The man seems to believe he can purchase eternal life, as if everyone has their price, even God. “After all,” he may have been reasoning, “I have gotten everything else in life, so why not obtain eternal life?”

Jesus questioned the question. He went after the underlying assumption of doing something good to obtain eternal life. The fact of the matter is that the man cannot do anything. He can’t because only God is good. Jesus points him to God by changing the action from getting to entering. And he changed the language from a market acquisition to entering into a journey.

Jesus was inviting the man to walk with him.

Eternal life is a journey of faith in the God who is good, and not a transaction to get it. And, we too, must be careful not to treat eternal life as if it were a transaction, as if we must get a person to sign on the dotted line through a “sinner’s prayer” or some other formula that will seal the deal for eternal life. 

Instead, eternal life is a walk of obedience with God and his commands.

Jesus responded to the rich man with the Ten Commandments, specifically the ones which focus on human relationships. Jesus wanted him to realize that the path into the kingdom of God and eternal life goes through and not around how we treat our fellow human beings.

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann, 1889

The Lord sought to expose the impossibility of continuing in life on the rich man’s terms. The guy just could not imagine what he might be lacking. So, Jesus helped him out. Christ gave him some major interventional language…. Sell. Give. Follow.

Sell everything. Give to the poor. Come, follow me.

One cannot simply add Jesus to their life, like adding a new car or a new fishing rod. Rather, one’s heart must change in order to accommodate real, genuine eternal life. 

Jesus offered the rich man someone to be, rather than something to get

It’s one thing to give from what you have; it’s another thing to surrender your life and all you have. 

In the New Testament Gospels, there are no easy conversations with Jesus. He gets personal in every encounter and gets under everybody’s skin. Christ doesn’t settle with superficial small talk when there are people whose hearts are little more than idol factories. 

Jesus never leaves us alone, because there is always the invitation to “Come, follow me.”

Christ exposed the wealthy man’s divided loyalties – he was trying to serve both God and money. But he would have to choose between the two. 

And that is our choice, as well. 

The question for us is not, “Am I completely devoted to money?” Instead, the question from our Gospel story today is, “Am I trying to serve God while maintaining a moonlighting job with the world?” 

God wants from us an undivided heart; the Lord desires absolute allegiance.

Jesus is looking for those who are poor in spirit, who recognize their great need for God – instead of believing that they are okay and just need to add a little Jesus to their lives. 

God is looking for spiritual beggars who understand their desperate situation and don’t practice denial by sugar-coating their actual spiritual state.

Like a drunkard who won’t give up his vodka; like a sex addict who won’t give up strip clubs or emotional affairs; or like a workaholic who just can’t come home; the rich man would not give up his disordered love for money and possessions. 

So, Jesus did an intervention. 

The Lord Jesus didn’t ask everybody to do exactly as he called the rich man to do. He didn’t ask the very wealthy Zacchaeus to do it, and he didn’t tell Peter to sell his fishing business. 

But Jesus does tell us to do something which seems impossible. Yet, where the impossible exists, so exists grace.

Blessed Lord, you have taught us that all our doings without loving generosity are worth nothing. Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Ephesians 4:17-24 – Put Off the Old, Put On the New

So, I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (New International Version)

What breeds ignorance and immorality amongst people?

I’m sure if you asked that question to a dozen people you might get a dozen different responses.

According to the Apostle Paul, it comes from a disconnection from truth. And biblically, since the very character of God is truth, then ignorance and a closed heart also result from estrangement from God.

The Christian tradition informs us that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is to be shaped around the person and work of Christ. Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus, we are to share a common life together. That life is to revolve around the truth of Jesus.

That means we will put off non-Christian ways of relating to each other and put on a Christian way of relating to each other. 

We will, then, speak truthfully and live honestly, because we belong to each other – we are responsible for one another.

Just as Jesus so closely identified with us in his life, death, and resurrection, so we are to so closely identify with each other that we take responsibility for each other and hold one another accountable. My problems are your problems – your issues are my issues. This is a stance of connection, not division.

Believers are firmly moored to Christ and to Christian community. With the enablement of the Holy Spirit, they are able to forsake the old life with its unhealthy routines of living and embrace a new life with good healthy habits of daily life.

Some people continually struggle to overcome bad habits. In part, it’s because they are living a half-truth life. They might be connected to Jesus as Truth yet remain stubbornly independent. Such persons remain disconnected from Christ’s Church.

One never realizes sustainable holiness over a lifetime apart from Christian community. In other words, real and lasting change comes from both the truth of Christ and the truth of Christ’s Church.

“No one can have God as his father who does not have the Church as his mother,” said both St. Augustine and St. Cyprian.

The magisterial Reformer, John Calvin, upheld the ancient teaching of the Church:

“The Church is our mother, inasmuch as God has committed to her the kind office of bringing us up in the faith. This method of education is not to be despised…. She has the milk and the food by which she continually nourishes her offspring. This is why the Church is called the mother of believers. And certainly, the one who refuses to be a child of the Church desires in vain to have God as Father.”

John Calvin

This is a consistent understanding throughout Christian history. That’s because the ancient church fathers (and mothers!) knew people are hard-wired for community. What’s more, truth is located not only in the Head of Christ but also in the Body of Christ. Decapitating head from body is to sever the truth in half. Head and Body, Christ and Church, have always been meant to go together as one.

To know the truth intellectually and cerebrally is only half of personal transformation. There also must be a bodily living of the truth – and to do that takes the Body of Christ. Life in Christ is life together as Christians.

Just as it was not our choice to be born into our biological family, so we are born again into a spiritual family, the Church. And just as that crazy uncle, obnoxious cousin, bossy big sister, and the entire family system can be difficult in our biological family, so it is the same in our spiritual family.

We might choose to be estranged from Church, but this in no way diminishes the truth that we need a faith family and a spiritual community.

I very much understand that both biological family and spiritual family can be (and are) toxic for many people. I am not suggesting we passively remain in abusive relationships. What I am saying is that doing away with community altogether is an awfully bad idea.

As much as I, in the past, have wished to run away and live alone in the woods with only bears and raccoons as my friends, I didn’t do it, mainly because I knew better. I knew I needed a supportive community of redeemed people if I was every going to truly honor God and experience becoming holy as God is holy.

If we want to participate in the life of God, it comes with community.

It is, therefore, necessary to hold one another accountable, as well as help each other to be truly holy.

We need to embrace the teachings of the New Testament toward one another:

  • Love one another (John 13:34)
  • Be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10)
  • Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
  • Exhort one another (Hebrews 3:13)
  • Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16)

A lack of self-awareness, empathy, and understanding comes from being disconnected from community. Yet, when we embrace the truth of Christ and Christ’s Church, we aren’t fooled by evil, and we discover the strength of life together in the Spirit.

So, like a new set of clothes, take off the old tattered ones and put on the mind of Christ.

Grant, almighty God, that all who confess your Name may be united in your truth, live together in your love, and reveal your glory in the world. Guide the people of all nations in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good. And guide us to live together as countercultural models of goodness and reconciliation, in our neighborhoods and beyond, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 107:1-9, 43 – Let the Redeemed Say So

Psalm 107 by Hope Smith

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
    those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
    from the east and from the west,
    from the north and from the south.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
    finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty,
    their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
    until they reached an inhabited town.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he satisfies the thirsty,
    and the hungry he fills with good things….

Let those who are wise pay attention to these things
    and consider the steadfast love of the Lord. (New Revised Standard Version)

The psalmist encourages and invites us to consider God’s steadfast love (Hebrew “chesed”). In all truth, an eternity of pondering and discovering such love will never plumb the depths of the Lord’s faithful love.

Maybe there is so much hate, bitterness, and vitriol in this old fallen world because people don’t consider the God who is Love. After all, there isn’t much room for malicious anger whenever people are expressing gratitude.

We are divinely hard-wired to give and receive affirmation, gratitude, encouragement, and love. Doing the opposite of that throws a huge monkey wrench into our daily living. It’s not sustainable to live by criticism, ingratitude, judgmentalism, and hate. It goes against who we are as humans.

Instead, it is sage to acknowledge, appreciate, ponder, and express the great love of God for humanity. The Lord’s love never runs out – it is inexhaustible.

Many people have stories of wandering far from Love, stumbling in the darkness, and finding themselves in desperate straits. Like the prodigal son, they are found by the God who is Love. And instead of being chided for their herky-jerky life, they are given a prominent place in God’s kingdom.

Some of you wandered for years in the desert,
    looking but not finding a good place to live,
Half-starved and parched with thirst,
    staggering and stumbling, on the brink of exhaustion.
Then, in your desperate condition, you called out to God.
    He got you out in the nick of time. (Psalm 107:4-6, MSG)

Praise and thanksgiving become the reflexive practices of the folk who have returned home to God. And the psalmist calls us to speak out those stories of hope and deliverance.

Telling our spiritual stories to others is important – both for the storyteller, and also for those who listen. Together, the spiritual community of the redeemed becomes strengthened in their bonds of faith; and everyone is emboldened to share with others. 

Far too many Christians are reticent to talk about what God has done or is doing in their lives. Shame, embarrassment, or a host of other reasons might prevent us from being vulnerable enough to let others in on God’s deep work within.

We all likely have had the privilege of hearing another person share their heart and experience of hardship and God’s deliverance. It was uplifting, encouraging, and helpful. So, let’s not keep our stories to ourselves. Stories are meant to be told, not hidden. Bringing to light our faith journey is healing for all, as well as declaring that Jesus is the light of the world.

Author Frederick Buechner wrote a book several years ago entitled, “Telling Secrets.” Buechner tells of his own experience of keeping some stories inside and never letting them see the light of day. One of those stories was growing up with an alcoholic father and all the other stories that went along with that singular story.

It was only in finally telling the family secret of alcoholism that he discovered a better path forward to healing and blessing. He writes:

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets, too, because it makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own.”

Frederick Buechner, “Telling Secrets”

Buechner went on to say:

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it, the chances are you will recognize that, in many ways, it is also your story. It is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”

Shame is like a vampire. It lives in the shadows, feeding upon secrets. But when our stories are told and see the light of day, the vampire of shame is destroyed by the bright rays of truth and vulnerability.

We then become open to genuine relationships without propping up a false self to pose for others. We place ourselves in a position to receive and give love. In other words, we can meaningfully connect with both God and others because we found our voice and told our story.

Great God of deliverance, I praise you that I have a story to tell of your grace and faithfulness. Help me to tell of your mercy in my life so that the name of Jesus will be exalted, and that your people might be built up in the faith.  Amen.