PULPIT AND PEW
RICH TOWARD GOD
From Luke 12:13-21
by Carl P. E. Springer
Preached June 18, 2017, Summer Conference
St. James Lutheran Church, Green Bay, Wisconsin
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 his possessions.” 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 laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 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.”
The pericopes for this, the first Sunday after Trinity (Epistle lesson: I Timothy 6:6-19 and Gospel lesson: Luke 12:13-21) are taken from the Swedish Psalmboken, the hymnal and lectionary used in the Lutheran church in Sweden and adopted by the Augustana Synod for use in this country in the first part of the last century.
The Sundays after Trinity are in what we call “ordinary time,” that is to say, they are counted using the ordinal numbers (First Sunday after Trinity; Second Sunday after Trinity, etc.). You see, the word “ordinary” didn’t originally mean “not special” (as it is usually understood today). That’s what the word eventually came to mean, I suppose, because it designates all the Sundays in the church year that aren’t in the festive seasons of the great church celebrations, like Christmas or Epiphany or Easter.
The colors of the altar and pulpit paraments during the Trinity season are usually green, symbolizing the new life that the church is to lead in light of the redemptive life, death, resurrection, and ascension of God the Father’s Son and the gift of his Holy Spirit to the Church at Pentecost (celebrated just two Sundays ago). Likewise, the pericopes for this season do not focus on the extraordinary events of Jesus’ miraculous birth, death, resurrection, and ascension. Instead, they center largely on his teachings about how we are to live a Christian life. This will be our focus, too, this Sunday.
In Luke chapter 12, the first verses, we find Jesus teaching his followers about how his followers are to live their lives in extraordinary moments of trial and tribulation. When it’s a matter of life and death, Jesus tells them not to be afraid of those who can kill the body. The one to be afraid of is the one who can cast your soul into hell. At such moments, he urges his listeners not to be afraid to confess Jesus before men, because the Son of Man will confess his confessors before the angels of God. To those who lack self-confidence, he gives his assurance that the Holy Ghost will help them to say what needs to be said in such extraordinary moments, when they are hauled before “the magistrates and the powers.” All of this may well be part of every Christian’s life sooner or later, but these certainly aren’t daily, ordinary occurrences.
And that’s when our text for this morning’s deliberation starts, when “one of the company says to him: ‘Master speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me.’” Somebody in the audience breaks into Jesus’ flow of thought and asks him a question that is pretty much unrelated to anything that Jesus was saying. What does this man’s inheritance have to do with confessing Jesus before the angels of God or the Holy Ghost giving us courage to speak when we may lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel?
Maybe you’re familiar with this phenomenon. It’s actually kind of rude. With interruptions like this one, it becomes pretty apparent pretty fast that somebody was not paying any attention at all to what you were saying. You get a good idea of how much more such people care about themselves rather than you. This is a selfish question, one that only has to do with the life of the man in question and nobody else in the crowd of people whom Jesus is teaching.
“Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” Jesus replies. He doesn’t ignore the man. That’s one strategy when you’re being interrupted. He could have just kept going or started talking about something else. But Jesus responds to the man, even though it’s clear that he’s not entirely pleased. He is a little short with him, isn’t he?
Jesus will be a judge all right; he will “judge the quick and the dead” when he returns in glory. He will divide the sheep from the goats. But he’s not like Moses or the judges and kings of Israel, or lawyers and judges today, making sure that everything’s done right and fairly here on earth. He doesn’t ask the man: “So, how much did your brother get? Was he the first born? You mean he got the grand piano, and you just got a couple of old chairs and the couch?”
What Jesus tells the man is: “Take heed and beware of covetousness.” Jesus doesn’t judge or divide, but what he does do is to issue a caution that gets at the heart of the man’s question. The word “covetousness,” that is to say, wanting something that belongs to someone else, isn’t quite adequate to express what’s all included in the Greek word. Pleonexia means: “Wanting more.” And in the Greek original it says: “every kind” of wanting more. A better translation might be: “Take heed and beware of every kind of wanting more.” So that would include envy and greed, too. Hating someone who has more than you. That’s envy. Just wanting more in general. All the time, in any way possible. More, more, more. That’s greed.
“Take heed and beware of every kind of wanting more.” Pleonexia in all of its various guises and manifestations is absolutely incompatible with the Christian life. And that’s why Jesus warns the covetous man and us so sternly. You can’t “serve God and mammon.” You just can’t. There’s a reason why two of the 10 commandments in Luther’s Small Catechism are directed against covetousness. In fact, Jesus issues a double warning: “Take heed and beware.” This particular sin warrants our special attention. Don’t just assume that this doesn’t apply to you or that “wanting more” is something that only other people need to worry about. Or that it’s really obvious and easily avoided. Pleonexia sneaks up on you. It can look really innocent to begin with. After all, an awful lot of our daily living is wrapped up with questions of “more.” How much more food, drink, clothing, healthcare, housing, transportation, etc., do we really need? How much more do we want? What’s enough? What’s more than enough?
“A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” The reason pleonexia is so dangerous, is that it looks like it’s going to give us “abundance.” It promises full contentment. But in fact, it does just the opposite. It makes us discontent with whatever abundance we already have. Contentment means thinking that we have enough. As the epistle lesson for today reminds us: “Having food and raiment, let us therewith be content.” Without contentment, therefore, no matter how much abundance we actually have, we will be forever tormented, anxious, fearful. We won’t ever realize “the great gain” that is “godliness with contentment,” the greatest, most valuable possession of all, even if you have nothing else.
Contentment. The man who asks Jesus this question is clearly not content. He doesn’t see who Jesus is, and what that means for him, even though his Savior, the Savior of the world, is right in front of him. He doesn’t say like Thomas at a moment of revelation (as this moment could have been for this man): “My Lord and my God.” All he can think about is his father’s inheritance. And what his brother has—and what he doesn’t. This man wouldn’t be content, I suspect, even if he got all of his father’s inheritance, every last bit of his ancestral stuff. His problem isn’t a material one; it’s a spiritual one.
When we talk about living our lives in this world, we mostly get it wrong. We are concerned about “the things which we possess.” Food, clothes, house, money, property, etc. We fall asleep during sermons about our souls’ ultimate destiny, heaven or hell, but our mental antennae are on high alert when the subject turns to the stuff we possess or would like to possess right now: “What belongs to me? What belongs to you?”
It could be just one other person, one close relative, like a sibling in this case. Families talk about these issues with each other in a way they would never talk with anybody outside the family. And these are issues that can tear a family apart — permanently. Or, on a larger scale, it could be a question of how to divide things up among 300 million people, or 7 and a half billion. That’s not just a family squabble; that’s politics. And, of course, this is pretty much all that the newspapers and TV pundits ever talk about. How to make sure we have income equality or good health and schools for all. So some people don’t get treated much worse or much better than they deserve.
“Fairness.” That’s what this man is concerned about. This is the great majority of the world’s concern, too. And it’s a legitimate concern. But Christians are supposed to be different. We “turn the other cheek”; we’re generous; we give without expecting something in return. Even though it’s not fair. We don’t care. Christianity goes way beyond “fairness.” Or perhaps I should say that we’re not supposed to care. In fact, it may well be that we’re not much better in this respect than anyone else. Unbelievers can often be more generous than so-called Christians.
“And he spake a parable to them.” This pericope started out with a question about an inheritance. Jesus didn’t answer that question directly, as we have seen. But as he so often does, he responds to it indirectly. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He gives the man the answer that he really needs. He tells this man a story about something just as ordinary as an inheritance, retirement. Another ordinary thing in our ordinary lives. But, as we shall see, Jesus’ parable is far from ordinary.
“The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully.” Now here’s a man who would seem to be the picture of contentment–unlike the questioner who had been unfairly deprived of his inheritance. This rich man had no need for covetousness, envy, or greed. He had plenty.
“And he thought to himself: What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits.” He had run out storage room where he could keep all his surplus. Here’s the kind of problem that greed poses. It’s not a real problem, of course. In his self-sufficiency, this rich farmer is unlike those, then and now, whose primary question is: “What shall I eat? Or “What shall I drink?” Certainly his question is unlike that of the jailer at Philippi addressed to Paul and Silas: “What shall I do to be saved?” This is not a fundamental, existential, question that he asks himself; it’s just a storage question.
And the only solution the rich farmer can think of, the only solution of all possible solutions: “This will I do, I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I store all my produce and my goods.” The pseudo-solution is just as uninspiring as the pseudo-problem. “Sir,” one is tempted to ask the parable’s protagonist, “what about giving all of your plenty, your abundance — or maybe even just some of it — to the poor? How about sharing it? No, that could not possibly be the solution. “Barns, barns, bigger barns,” is all he can think of. More places to store his “more than enough.”
If he can just do this, the rich farmer imagines that he will be able to say to himself: “Soul take thy ease. Eat, drink, and be merry.” This is the common human instinct that retirement planners often prey upon. Our “dream of ease.” They like to show us pictures of gray-haired couples walking hand in hand along a beach. Or happily fishing with grandchildren. There are no thorns or thistles, no sweat of the brow (see Genesis 3) in these representations of retirement. Just merry ease. And it’s not just ease for a short weekend getaway. The rich man tells himself: “You have many goods laid up for many years.” His goal is “endless vacation,” the way one popular resort scheme puts it.
There is something deep within each one of us, it is true, that yearns for perfect easy contentment that will last “for many years” – actually, forever. Nothing else will do. And at its heart, this urge is an urge planted in us mortals by God himself. What we all really want is to be restored to his eternal, undying image. Our souls are restless until they rest in God, as Augustine finally realized, halfway through his restless life.
“But God said unto him: “Thou fool.” The rich shrewd farmer is actually foolish. And so are we. We think that this ease, this contentment that we so crave has something to do with how many goods we’ve laid up. It doesn’t. Not at all.
One of Martin Luther’s favorite fables was the one about a foolish dog with a bone in his mouth. As he crossed a bridge over a river the dog spotted the reflection of himself and the bone in the water. Foolishly, he opened his mouth to try to get the other “bone.” In the process, of course, he lost the bone he already had in his mouth as it dropped into the water. Luther titled the fable “Greed.” Greed makes you lose everything. Not only what you thought you were going to get, but everything you already had. And greed, like every sin, makes us foolish, too. Just like the dog in the fable.
The rich farmer is a fool because, as God declares, “This night your soul shall be required of thee.” In this ordinary life of ours there do come extraordinary moments. Moments of crisis, of judgment. We will all have to give an account of ourselves, not every day, but eventually. Every “idle word” that you let slip, that you never apologized for. Every hungry, thirsty, lonely person that you didn’t have time for. “This night” will come for each one of us. And on that night your soul is the only thing that matters. Not your stuff. Not where you stored your stuff. But your soul. That thing that was breathed into Adam by his creator and brought him to life. That thing that makes us different from all of the rest of creation. The image of God impressed into our physical selves. Are you taking care of that? Are you making sure that your soul is as well housed and well fed as your body? If you’re not, you’re being foolish.
God goes on to ask the foolish farmer: “Whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?” What happens to all your stuff when it’s “this night” for you? Here’s how the parable ties in with the question the rude listener asked Jesus about the inheritance. For the farmer who worked so hard to put together all these goods and store them, all of these things most certainly won’t be his tomorrow morning. They’ll be divided up among his heirs, among people who didn’t work for them. They may well be lazy, unworthy, disputatious. You see “these things,” somebody’s precious things once, now displayed out on the lawn and in garages at yard sales on Saturday mornings. All the treasures of one generation, disregarded and discarded by the next.
“So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” So, are you rich toward God? What’s your bank account, your retirement funds, your pension plan in God look like? We are the richest nation in the world in the richest age the world has ever known. Even the poorest person in America is incalculably richer than poor people in Jesus’ time. We have lots of barns or the equivalent of barns. We put our fear, love, and trust in all sorts of things: money, family, savings, insurance, the modern equivalents of barns — anything but God. You might as well capitalize and worship it: our great false god “More.”
But it could be argued that we are poorer in soul than ever. More selfish, more calculating, more covetous. More greedy, if we are rich; more envious if we are poor. Tiny, grasping, impoverished, beggarly souls housed in richly adorned, comfortable, well nourished, but perishable bodies.
“Rich toward God.” What would that look like? If you really were rich toward him and him alone? If you really put all of your efforts into loving, serving, and trusting in him above all things? The only kind of “wanting more” that will make your soul truly rich is wanting more of him.
Do you know someone who is rich toward God? Who doesn’t care as much about himself or herself as about God?
And who loves his neighbor as himself? That’s the second great commandment, as Jesus calls it, and it’s just like the first (Matt. 22:36-40) That’s how you can tell if someone loves God. “Behold, how they love one another,” Tertullian reports a pagan observer of the early Christians saying. Follow the faith of these saintly people. Imitate them. Paul tells his followers to be imitators of himself (Phil. 3:17). He gave himself utterly to his congregations.
Above all, imitate Jesus, the one who told us this parable. Jesus is our Savior, first and foremost, but he’s also a role model. He tells us to take up our cross and follow him. Foxes had holes and birds had nests, but the Son of Man did not own a house, a place to lay his head (Matt. 8:20). Did he worry about what he was going to eat or drink or how he should be clothed? He knew that his heavenly father who adorns the flowers, who watches over the sparrows, would keep him supplied with everything he needed for today. How much more for you, you of little faith (Matt. 6:28-31)?
Now, we can’t be rich toward God all on our own. We are greedy, envious, covetous, foolish by nature, and that will never change just because we wish it would or even will it to be so. The only way we can be rich toward God is through his Son, who though he was rich, yet for our sake became poor that we through his poverty might be rich (2 Cor. 8:9). The only thing that will make you able to be rich toward God isn’t a commandment to that effect from your parents or the pulpit, but the generous Holy Spirit, the Lord of life, the Giver of life, who will put the willing spring in your feet that will take you down the path that leads to righteousness.
In our Gospel lesson, Christ says that he’s not the judge of such matters. He wasn’t then, it’s true. But he will be when he comes again in glory. How we live our lives is a very serious matter to him. But if he’s our judge, the good news is that he’s also our lawyer, our advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1-3). And when “this night,” the night when our soul is required, comes for us, we will point to the extraordinary things he has done for us, not the ordinary things we have done in our lives. He has forgiven your greed, your envy, your always wanting more. He has nailed your sins along with himself to the cross. And all he asks of you is that you believe that with all of your heart and live your life accordingly.
Lutherans never forget that the central teaching of the church militant is justification by faith. We are saved not by what we do in our life, but by what Christ did for us in his. We are justified by faith. But if justification is of primary importance, sanctification, that is to say, how we live our lives in faithful response to his grace, is of great concern to Lutherans, too. And so we have spoken today of how we should live our lives in this world as followers of Christ who lived and died for us so that we could live with him “in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.” Justification is the great article on which the church on this side of eternity stands or falls. But that is a temporal, a temporary process. We have been declared righteous, justified in God’s gracious eyes, and we accept that by faith. But the sanctified life dedicated to loving God and our neighbor that we begin imperfectly to live out here, will be continued in heaven. It will go on forever. Of the three great elements in the Christian life, faith, hope, and love, love is the one that abides (1 Cor. 13).
My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us live our faith-lives following the commandment of Jesus that we love one another (John 13:34). Faith and love are different, but they don’t exist without each other. Faith isn’t faith if it doesn’t flow into love. Love isn’t love if it isn’t grounded in faith. That is how we will be found truly “rich toward God.”
May the Holy Spirit give our foolish, foolish hearts the wisdom to see that the only barn that matters is the lowly stable in Bethlehem that stored very little except for the one thing needful, the incarnate Word of God. And may he enlighten the eyes of our understanding that we “may know what is the hope of his calling and what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints which God has wrought in Christ and the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 1 and 2). Amen.
(Scripture quotations are mainly from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.)