Proper 13c, July 31, 2016

August 1, 2016

Unconventional Wisdom

Luke 12:13-21


12:13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 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. 19 And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 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?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”


One of the wisest things Jesus demonstrated on more than one occasion was the importance of not getting drawn in to the middle of a family conflict. Jesus was fearless in the face of armed and malicious adversaries, but he was very careful when it came to getting enmeshed in a family squabble. He refused to get enlisted by Martha to shame Mary in to helping with the dishes, and here we see him bolting from the request of a man who wanted him to resolve a family property issue. Those situations can get ugly fast. Jesus preferred to deal with people who actually hated him than to get between a couple of brothers or sisters.


So if you have a problem with one of your family members don’t go looking for Jesus to help you get what you want – you’re better off getting a lawyer. Jesus isn’t going to touch it.


But Jesus did have a few things to say about how we are to deal with abundance. And what he had to say can be pretty challenging to us. This is one of those passages that serves to remind me of how difficult it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Because what Jesus taught doesn’t conform to the way we generally think. Jesus was not what we would call a successful financial planner. Jesus was a perfect spiritual director, and he was wise about material things, but what he taught takes us in a far different direction than the one we would choose if our only interest is in accumulating financial wealth.


But it’s not a simple problem. We don’t just get to decide if we love God or money and consequently go in one direction or the other. As we all know, life is much more complex than that. Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, was virtually homeless and he didn’t have any dependents. This is not to say that his teachings on money aren’t relevant to our lives, but it is to say that our relationship with money is more complicated than his was. If you don’t have to pay rent or a mortgage and provide for the needs of children you don’t have to worry as much about money.


The church I served before coming here hosted a breakfast each Sunday morning for anyone who needed a free meal. It had some other food ministries as well, but that event was a powerful part of my Sunday morning experience. I would go down each Sunday and visit with the servers and the attenders of that meal. I became acquainted with a man who I knew as Mr. Irvin, and I often invited him to say our blessing before the meal. Mr. Irvin was a very devout Christian. He spent most days in the public library reading and studying the Bible.


Mr. Irvin came to Little Rock from New Orleans when he became displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and he had been homeless for a couple of years, but he told me that the move had been a blessing for him. Mr. Irvin was homeless, but he wasn’t desperate. He had figured out how to live on the streets of Little Rock. He didn’t like sleeping in the shelters. He had slept in a vacant boxcar for a while, but he said he usually stayed in a parking garage. He generally wore clean clothes, and he told me it’s not that hard to find clothes or decent food. He generally looked very well kept, and when I asked him where he kept his stuff he responded by saying, In my pockets.


Mr. Irvin had what I would call a very vibrant relationship with God, but he didn’t have a lifestyle than many of us can relate to. He had lost contact with his family, but from what I could tell he wasn’t very unhappy about that. I consider Mr. Irvin to have been a person with a good heart and a rich spiritual life, but there aren’t many of us who can keep all of our stuff in our pockets, and I don’t think Jesus expected us to live like that.


I think the thing I learned from Mr. Irvin was that desperation is something that we can either overcome or be afflicted with regardless of the level of our wealth. I certainly encountered a lot of desperate people who came to that Sunday morning breakfast, and I never could have had enough money to solve some of their problems. I also believe there are some wealthy people who are tormented by their need for more of something that their riches are unable to meet.


Balancing our need for money with our need to be dependent upon God is one of the great challenges of life for those of us who have the good fortune to have well-paying jobs, nice homes, children and grandchildren. Where exactly do we draw the line between providing for ourselves and our families in a world that’s increasingly expensive and being rich toward God?


There are preachers who can give you an exact figure. In fact I’ve been instructed in more than one workshop that we are to be enthusiastic advocates of the tithe. There are people who think God has instructed us to provide the church with 10% of our incomes. I’ve never heard God declare if that’s before or after taxes. In fact I’ve never heard God be so clear about the number. Certainly there are some verses in the Old Testament that talk about bringing the first fruits to the Temple, but I’ll never be convinced that Jesus wants us to give an exact figure of any kind.


What I hear Jesus say is that we are to give our whole selves to God. We aren’t to give a slice of ourselves and a correspondingly similar percentage of our income. I believe that in a profound way we are to give ourselves entirely to God – to be ridiculously generous toward God. And at the same time we are to manage our assets in a way that we provide for the needs of those to whom we are responsible.


I may be wrong about this. In all honesty I may be so compromised by the assets I have at my disposal that I’m providing us all with justification for not reducing ourselves to the most moderate level of existence possible and being an absolutist about giving 10% — before taxes. But I don’t believe Jesus was legalistic in this or any other way. I think Jesus understood that this is a challenge for us. Jesus didn’t give an exact instruction on what we are to do. He told us we are to love God and we are to love our neighbor, and I assure you this does mean we are to be generous, but we’ve got to figure out what it means to not be as spiritually foolish as was this man in our text this morning.


It’s not easy for us to embrace the unconventional financial wisdom of Jesus. We are challenged by Jesus to do be wiser than this man who couldn’t think of anything to do with his good fortune than to create more financial security for himself. I believe what this story primarily exposes is the foolishness we are inclined to practice if we don’t make an effort to hear the alternative wisdom of God. This man only seemed to have consulted his own store of wisdom, and he hadn’t bothered to store up much of that. He didn’t give thanks to God for his bountiful harvest, he didn’t seek guidance from God on what he should do with his abundance – he only: … thought to himself, what should I do …


He didn’t think long or hard about what he should do. He did what many people might have done – he did the thing that was most advantageous to his selfish soul, and he went on to congratulate his soul for providing himself with such an ample supply of grain. A supply of grain that was of no use to him when his life came to a sudden end.


It may be that the real curse of money is the way in which it can deaden our imagination. It’s not that money is evil, but if we aren’t careful it can become the thing that rules us.


There’s a very tragic movie that came out a few years ago called: Into The Wild. It’s the true story of a young man who had become very disillusioned with life, and he disappeared from his family and friends. Following college he took the money his family had set aside for him to attend law school, and he gave it away to a charitable organization that sought to eliminate hunger in the world. He set out for Alaska, but before he did he drove into the desert, abandoned his car, and burned his credit cards as well as the remaining dollars he had on him.


He was both disturbed and noble. He worked a few different jobs as he made his way to Alaska, and after he worked at one job for a while he built up a bit of an account. It would have gotten him pretty far along in his journey, but he ended up giving a big chunk of it away to a new friend. In a letter he wrote that accompanied the gift he said, Life is more exciting when I don’t have any money.


And there’s certainly some truth to this. Part of the problem with an abundance of money is that it can be very dulling to our wits. If you can afford to buy whatever you want you don’t have to be very resourceful or creative. An abundance of money can put distance between people and it can put distance between ourselves and God. It’s not the only thing that can get between ourselves and other people and God, but it’s not uncommon for it to get in the way. Unfortunately the lack of money didn’t resolve the problems of the young man in the film. He remained very isolated and his isolation contributed to his untimely death.


Gaining more money doesn’t generally solve our most pressing problems, but getting rid of it won’t automatically fix things either.

Certainly greed is a terrible obstacle to our spiritual development, but there isn’t a good formula for eliminating that spiritual obstacle. Greed can afflict someone without enough money as well as someone with too much. Our only hope is to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and to be diligent in our efforts to love God and our neighbors more than anything else.


People who nurture love in their hearts for God and for their neighbors aren’t just going to consult themselves on issues of money. Money can cause any of us to do foolish things, but it’s power over us diminishes when we work to allow the unconventional wisdom of God to replace those automatic plans that pop in to our heads when money rules our lives.


Money isn’t an easy thing for any of us handle. It’s probably one of the most universally challenging things we have to deal with. It can be used to do a lot of good for ourselves and for others, but it can lead us down some foolish paths. We all need help as we seek to navigate those dangerous waters of wealth and want, and there is help.


Thanks be to God that we aren’t alone in this treacherous journey, and by the grace of God we will find ways to use what we have to bring joy into our hearts, peace into the world, and glory to God.





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