You may have seen these VRBO commercials. Arguably AirBNB’s biggest rival. Their motto has really taken off: “Travel Better Together.” Their marketing is currently targeting families. There’s one VRBO commercial that always gets me. A Dad and his daughter are laughing, and bonding, while fishing at the lakefront cabin they rented through VRBO. The voiceover says: “For once her face is not on a screen. She gives you more than one word answers. That face…can only happen at a VRBO.” Where do I sign up?! The message is that families can’t truly bond until they’re at the perfect vacation spot. The thing is that vacations cost money. Those of us who can’t afford such vacations worry we won’t be a close-knit family because we can’t afford that darling VRBO in the woods of Montana. Every day we are bombarded with the message that the more money you have the happier you will be.
The power money has over us. I realize it’s a great time to talk about money given that we’re on the verge of a recession, the housing market is a mess and interest rates are at an all-time high. Feel free to insert awkward laughter here. It’s never a good time to talk about money because money is always hard to talk about. Money is so personal. There can be shame involved as we’re afraid that we’ll be judged for how much debt we have. In addition, money shows what is important to a person and many of us might not want to be confronted with what how we spend our money says about us. It’s best to just not talk about money at all.
Jesus, however, never shied away from talking about money because he never shied away from talking about what is most important. And neither should we.
I’d like to preface this by saying this sermon is not about how we should be ashamed for being such wealthy Americans, but a time to ask ourselves: “What is important to us?” How we use our wealth gives us an answer to that question.
So what is happening in our passage? In Jesus’ day, the eldest brother received most of the family inheritance. It’s safe to say that this is a younger brother asking Jesus to intervene so that the younger brother receives an equal share of the inheritance. To our modern eyes, this is not an unreasonable request as inheritances today are usually distributed equally among remaining family members. But Jesus knows that even if this younger brother did receive an equal share it wouldn’t solve the real issue at hand. By sharing the parable of the “Rich Fool” he prompts the younger brother and us to reflect upon what it means to be truly wealthy.
Notice that the rich young fool puts himself at the center of how he deals with his wealth. He asks himself “What should I do?” “I’ll build bigger barns!” “I will store all my grain and goods.” “I will say to my soul…relax, eat, drink and be merry!” He is all about himself.
Now, you might be thinking what’s wrong with saving up for the future? Didn’t Joseph advise Pharoah to do that in Genesis? You’ll recall that after Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers and ends up in Egypt he rises up the ranks and becomes an advisor to the Pharaoh. In a dream, God guides Joseph to advise the Pharoah to store up grain in order to provide for the Egyptians during a famine that is about to hit the land. The difference between the rich fool and Joseph is that Joseph is looking out for others not just himself. He is responding to God’s call to take care of others.
It isn’t wrong to save for the future, but one can do so and still be generous with others who are not as fortunate and we do so because this is what God calls us to do.
The church has always been known to organize in order to provide for those in need within communities. All over the world, the Church was behind starting schools and hospitals that served the wider community in response to Christ’s call on our lives to serve others. Presbyterian Hospital in New York still serves those in need. Princeton University began as an institution to educate pastors in order to better interpret and preach God’s word. Now I realize that institutions such as these have loosened or severed their ties to the church altogether, but I mention them to shed light on the role the Church had in creating them and why they were created. The call to follow Christ is a call to be about others not just ourselves.
This is why the rich man was a fool. The way to true life is one where we aren’t owned by our possessions, status, money etc. All of that, as many of us know all too well, can be gone in an instant or it becomes apparent they aren’t enough. So we either start trying to add to what we already have or we ask ourselves: “What is it that I really need?”
How we use our wealth, regardless of how wealthy we are, shows what is important to us. You can say anything in place of wealth whether that’s our accomplishments at work or in the community, our talents or even our own kids. While that’s true I sometimes think we use that line of thinking to avoid the topic of how we spend our money.
God calls us to care for others outside of our own inner circles. This will look different for each one of us, but regardless, we each have the same call from God to serve those in need. This goes for people of all incomes. You don’t have to be extremely wealthy in order to be self-centered.
While the rich fool made no room in his life to take into account others, God still takes him into account. This is why Jesus calls him a fool. Not because Jesus is being mean, but because Jesus wants better for him.
This rich fool sees his money as giving rest for his soul. His entire being. He is defined by his wealth. And Jesus wants him to know that’s not really who he is. He was made for something more and Jesus wants us to know the same thing about ourselves.
Jesus wants the rich fool to be rich “towards God.” So what does that mean? If we look elsewhere in Luke and elsewhere in the Bible it means first of all, knowing God. We know God through God’s word to us in the Bible. Mary is a great example of this. Even though she’s afraid, she declares to God in Luke 10 that God is faithful and she knows God’s faithfulness because she grew up learning, knowing, and reflecting upon God’s word as a young Jewish girl. In order to better know God, we need to continue to read and reflect upon scripture. When we do, we are better able trust that what God wants for us is indeed what is best for us.
Being rich towards God also includes sharing ourselves and our resources with others. In Luke 22:26 Jesus says to his disciples: “the greatest among you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” We are to serve others in the same way Jesus did. To be great is to serve. That’s how it works in the Kingdom of God which is the exact opposite of the way it works here on earth. And don’t we pray for God’s kingdom to be here on earth just as it is in heaven in the Lord’s Prayer?
We are called to go against the grain and not manifest wealth just for ourselves, but for others. That’s what it means to be wealthy in the kingdom of God.
In Luke 12:35 Jesus says “For where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” You could also turn that statement around to say “Wherever our heart is there our treasure will be also.” Jesus wants our hearts to be with him. He doesn’t want our hearts, who we are, in material wealth like the rich fool because those things don’t last. Jesus wants our hearts to be with him because Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.
In one of the last scenes of the movie “Return of the King” from the trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” (the books are much better by the way. They always are). For those of you who aren’ta familiar with this story the plot is centered around an all-powerful ring that must be destroyed before the evil Sauron can get his hands on it. If he does he will have the power to destroy all of Middle Earth (the world in which the story is set). But the ring has a history of possessing all those who come into contact with it. Gollum is a creature long seduced by the ring and in the end, it is he who destroys it not because he cares about others but because he’s so possessed by the ring he dies for and with it. Gollum accidentally drops the ring into a sea of lava and jumps in after it. Even as he is dying he still grasps for the ring. Christ wants us to grasp for what is truly life giving instead of passing away with what doesn’t last forever.
There is nothing wrong with money or wealth. But things go awry when those things have a hold on us to the point where we’re willing to give up everything in order to hold on to them. In doing so we end up letting go of what is actually life giving: our families, friends, and most importantly Christ himself. God wants us to instead hold onto Christ because unlike our possessions Christ gives us what we truly need. Himself. In God we know we are loved for who we are, not for what we have. In Christ, we are set free to truly love others because we aren’t just about ourselves. That is something that money just can’t buy.