FIRST READING Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14; 2:18–23
Chapter 1 2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
Chapter 2 18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19 — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23 For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
PSALM Psalm 49:1–12
1 Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all you who dwell in the world,
2 you of high degree and low, rich and poor together.
3 My mouth shall speak of wisdom, and my heart shall meditate on understanding.
4 I will incline my ear to a proverb and set forth my riddle upon the harp.
5 Why should I be afraid in evil days, when the wickedness of those at my heels surrounds me,
6 the wickedness of those who trust in their own prowess, and boast of their great riches?
7 One can never redeem another, or give to God the ransom for another’s life;
8 for the ransom of a life is so great that there would never be enough to pay it,
9 in order to live forever and ever and never see the grave.
10 For we see that the wise die also; like the dull and stupid they perish and leave their wealth to those who come after them.
11 Their graves shall be their homes forever, their dwelling places from generation to generation, though they had named lands after themselves.
12 Even though honored, they cannot live forever; they are like the beasts that perish.
SECOND READING Colossians 3:1–11
Life in Christ includes a radical reorientation of our values. Just as the newly baptized shed their old clothes in order to put on new garments, so Christians are called to let go of greed and take hold of a life shaped by God’s love in Christ.
1 So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. 5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. 7 These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. 8 But now you must get rid of all such things — anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
GOSPEL Luke 12:13–21
The holy gospel according to St. Luke the 12th chapter.
Glory to you, O Lord.
In God’s reign, the “rich will be sent away empty.” Jesus uses a parable to warn against identifying the worth of one’s life with the value of one’s possessions rather than one’s relationship with God.
13 Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], “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.”
A woman who lost her husband several years ago developed a friendship with a man who had also lost his spouse. After dating for a while, it became apparent that they were a perfect match. Getting the blessing from all their children, they set a date and invitations were sent out. The invitations read like this: “Phil, Richard, Karen, Allison, John, Matt and Steve request the honor of your presence at the marriage of their mother and father. Because they are combining two households, they already have at least two of everything. So please, no presents! Reception and garage sale immediately following the ceremony.”
Stuff, as I like to call it! We accumulate stuff from garage sales, to trunk sales and flea markets, to dumpsters, to folks riffling through our trash to find something of value; stuff seems to be everywhere. Now before I sound too self-righteous, I have to admit that this sermon is directed first at me. Depending on what the items are, I love stuff. When it comes to tools, miscellaneous hardware and lumber, I can’t seem to throw anything away. I have screws, nuts, bolts of all kinds, straps, cabinet hardware, all mostly sorted, that I can’t seem to part with. By many measures, I have too much of it. I’d love to de-clutter the basement, but that would mean getting rid of stuff. Wouldn’t it be simpler to build a metal building in the backyard and move some of it there? O yea, I just did that! Some of us even pay monthly storage rental fees that far exceed the value of the contents, just to store those things, “Too good to throw away.”
There’s an old story about two brothers who inherited the family farm. One brother was single and the other was married with three children. As the story goes, there were two houses and four barns on the farm, so the structures were divided evenly. The animals were divided equally and when there was an odd number, they had a cookout. The land was divided equally as well, acre by acre, pasture by pasture. Some thought these brothers were taking this fairness thing to extremes, because every evening they would make certain that the animals were back to whichever brother they belonged and any grain left over, was divided into sacks and taken to each one’s granary.
This worked fine until one day when the younger brother began to think about this arrangement. “This isn’t fair … not fair at all, he thought. We must change this arrangement. My brother has a wife and three children while I’m single. He has more mouths to feed than I. I know what I’ll do.” And that evening, under cover of darkness, the younger brother took a sack of grain from his own granary and took it to his brother’s granary and left it there. He continued to do this every night thereafter.
That same day the older brother thought to himself, “This isn’t fair … not fair at all. We must change this arrangement. My brother is single while I have a wife and three children. They will take care of me when I’m old and can no longer work on the farm, while my brother will have no one to care for him. I know what I’ll do he said.” And that evening, under cover of darkness, the older brother took a sack of grain from his granary and took it to his brother’s. He too continued to do this night after night.
One very, very dark night, as the story goes, when each of them was moving grain from their granary to the other’s, they ran smack into each other. When they recovered and realized what the other had been doing, they embraced in a brotherly embrace and, I’m told, they continued their practice until the day when they were too old to carry the sacks of grain anymore. To this day, their descendants carry sacks of grain each day to help them remember and honor the unselfishness of their ancestors.
As the legend goes, the spot where they met, where they collided with each other that very dark night, was the very spot that God declared that His temple would be built. For nowhere, on the entire earth, was there a place where a better example of unselfish, brotherly love could be found, than there. It’s a moving story and one that’s quite different from the parable Jesus tells in our gospel lesson!
It’s so different in fact, that at first, it’s tough to get our minds around it. We’ve all known unselfish people, but the degree to which these two brothers loved each other and only wanted what was best for each other, goes far beyond simple unselfishness. It’s much easier for us to imagine the rich man stuffing his new barns full of excess grain, than to comprehend someone freely giving it away to another. Greed, and its companion covetness, is something we seem to understand pretty well.
All we have to do is turn on the television when the Power Ball jackpot reaches some obscene amount of money and listen to the interviews of people saying what they’ll do if they hit the big one. We’ve heard plenty of these conversations, and I won’t say that it never happened, but I can’t remember anyone saying that they were going to tithe their winnings to their church or some charity. You can almost hear them thinking, I want it all and I want it now. Greed of that magnitude, is easy to understand.
Those who want it all, and want it now, are like the rich man in Jesus’ parable who receives a more abundant crop than normal and instead of finding a way to give a portion of it away, pulls down his barns, builds larger ones, and stores the grain and everything he owns there. Then he sits back to relax, eat, drink, and be merry not knowing that tomorrow he will die. If I was the person making the billboards from God, I would put one up that said, “What part of you can’t take it with you don’t you understand? — God.”
But, before we get too high and mighty and smug about how we would behave if we received a more than abundant crop, let’s be honest with ourselves. Would you or I, regardless of what we might say to a television reporter while in the line at the local convenience store, really, in our heart of hearts, give our abundant harvest away?
The question we need to ask is, are we ever satisfied with what we have, or do we constantly strive for more? It doesn’t help that a recent news item told us that we would need at least a quarter of a million dollars if we want to retire comfortably. I wonder what message that sends to the poorest of the poor in our country.
It reminds me of a folktale from England about a poor woodcutter who went out to cut some wood so that he could make enough money to feed himself and his wife for the day. He found a tree that would bring an adequate price but as he raised his ax, a forest fairy stopped him. The tree was much older than he and so he was asked to spare its life. The man countered that without the money that the tree would bring him, he and his wife would starve. “Then,” the fairy said, “if you spare the tree I’ll give you three wishes.” Three wishes! He thought, dreaming of the wealth he could acquire with those wishes. The man agreed and promised to never cut down the old trees in the forest and the three wishes were granted.
The poor woodcutter ran to his wife screaming that they were now rich. His wife, as you can imagine, was skeptical. But the woodcutter explained about the forest fairy and how he promised never to cut down old trees and was then granted the three wishes. The woodcutter and his wife began to argue about what to wish for. “A house,” he said. “No, a palace,” she replied. “A bag of gold then, to pay for the servants we’ll need,” he said. “Why wish for only a bag when we could have a wagon full of gold?” she countered. On and on through the evening they argued. Finally, worn out from arguing, they stopped and the woodcutter said, “I’m hungry. I wish we had some sausage.” Poof, a big plate of sausage appeared.
Angrily, his wife began to tear into him since he so foolishly wasted a wish. “Oh,” the woodcutter said, “I wish those sausages were attached to your nose.” And so they were! Sobbing, the wife sat on the floor and her husband said, “I suppose there’s only one thing to do now.” And so he wished that the sausages were off of his wife’s nose. And they sat down for dinner and a fine dinner it was! Greed can cause us to do some foolish things.
Jesus was teaching one day and someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide our father’s inheritance with me.” To this Jesus responds, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then Jesus decided to turn this family squabble into a teaching opportunity: He said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Then He told them the parable of the rich fool. We read the parable a few moments ago and the gist of the story is the man was focused on the things of this world and not on God. This is an important parable and we need to put ourselves in this story.
Having the blessing of living in one of the richest countries in the world, we need to see that we have much more in common with the rich fool than we’d like to admit. Sadly, far too many of us find ourselves dominated, in one way or another, by the pervasive materialism of our age. Far too many suffer from the desire for bigger houses, nicer cars, a boat, a swimming pool, a large screen television, a camper, new furniture, designer clothes—the list goes on ad infinitum.
Modern advertising is carefully designed to increase our need to acquire. We buy a certain hair product because, after all, “I’m worth it.” Such advertising is even aimed at our children. I suppose it reached its epitome a few years ago with “Cool Shopping Barbie.” If you don’t remember that particular doll, it came with Barbie’s own MasterCard and a cash register with a MasterCard logo on it. It even had a terminal through which Barbie could swipe her card.
Of course, MasterCard has always been adept at pushing their product. Who in this room has never heard, “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.” And before that, there was the seductive lure of, “I bought my sombrero in Rio de Janeiro . . . so worldly, so welcome . . . MasterCard.” Because this subject hits us where we live, it’s difficult to approach the topic of materialism without the risk of being tuned out. Yet we must admit that most of the world’s people don’t live as we do. It bothers us and yet, like the rich young ruler, we don’t want to give up what we have. But there’s another problem.
Some of us may not be as affluent as we may appear. One man was asked, “What would you do if you had all the money in the world?” He replied, “I’d apply it to all my debts as far as it would go.” Many, many families are in serious financial trouble today. We’re told that the average American family operates just three weeks from bankruptcy. Indeed, one survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics discovered that the average family spends each year $400 more than it earns. No wonder that another survey reveals that 70 percent of all our worries these days are about money.
Like most of the stories that Jesus told, the emphasis here is on practical application. The rich fool had devoted his life to acquiring goods. Now it was time for him to die. What would happen to the goods? Would they go on the auction block? Would they go to ungrateful relatives? What was the point of his life? He thought his wealth had bought security but it couldn’t protect him from the grim reaper. Of what use was it then? Of what ultimate benefit is wealth to us? What then is its proper place in our lives?
First, we need to see that the tragic thing about this man’s life was not his wealth, but his lack of commitment to God or anything else in life. There was nothing in the world that he was committed to except making money. All his thoughts, all his energies, all his ambitions had to do with the accumulation of wealth. Now, he’d come to the place where he had all the money he would ever need. What’s next? When you get to where you are going, where will you be? The tragedy of this man’s life was not the abundance of his wealth, but the poverty of his values. He had counted material success as the greatest goal in his life.
Interestingly, the word “success” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. Yet the word is so important in our society. For many, it may be the most important word in their vocabulary. To be a financial success is their chief goal. Let me ask you this, if you were to make a list of the things you’re committed to besides making a living, would that list include your family, your community, your church, the American Cancer Society, an organization that encourages youth per chance?
At the same time, if you made a list of the things you do for your family besides simply supporting them, would it have taking time for your spouse, or for your children? Patricia Clafford once said, “The work will wait while you show the child the rainbow, but the rainbow won’t wait while you do the work.” What are the ways that we give of ourselves, not simply our money, but of ourselves to the things we believe in? Mammon is an insatiable god. There’s never enough to satisfy it. And yet Mammon can never give us peace within, only external trappings. Mammon never built a happy family or a loving heart.
We need to steer clear of the trap of saying, “Oh, someday I’ll have time for these things, but first I have a mortgage to pay off, an orthodontist to support, college to save for.” All these are important, so long as they’re not the single focus of our lives. For those whose lives are dominated by wealth, who are forever putting off more important things, because they’re so busy seeking after financial security, tomorrow never comes. We need to make certain that we know what our priorities are.
Second, it’s important for each of us to have a plan by which we manage our resources. I said that many of us have more in common with the rich fool than we might care to admit. Our problem is not money, its managing the money we do have. It’s amazing how much money goes through our hands in a lifetime. A few years ago the website smartmoney.com reported that the average American will spend $2.9 million in a lifetime if he or she lives to the age of 81. That’s a lot of money. Of course, most of us will let that $2.9 million slip right through our fingers. For many of us the problem isn’t money; the problem is management.
One man said it’s true that money talks. Usually it says good bye. If we don’t have a plan for the wise management of our financial resources, our money will continually say good bye to us. The question that God asked the rich man, “Then whose will these things be?” indicates that the man had made no provision for the disposal of his wealth after his death. It’s amazing how many persons never get around to making a will. Probably we don’t like to face the fact that one day we’ll be leaving this world’s possessions behind. But it’s true, we can’t take it with us.
Somebody asked, “I wonder how much money a certain billionaire left at his death?” A wise friend replied, “He left it all.” Someday so shall we. Wouldn’t it be smart to make sure that the money we leave behind us will be put to good use? If we don’t properly plan, Uncle Sam will do it for us. Either that or greedy relatives will take care of the task. It might cause a few family feuds as it did in our lesson for today.
Jesus knew the wisdom of good management and good planning. Remember some of His teachings: “No one builds his house upon the sand . . .” And on another occasion, “No one builds a tower without first sitting down and counting the cost . . .” Jesus wants His followers to be wise managers of their resources.
Third, it’s obvious that the rich fool never discovered the joy of generosity, the joy of using his money to bring happiness to other people. His name isn’t as well-known as that of the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts or Andrew Carnegie, but once there was an American philanthropist named Dr. Daniel K. Pearson. Daniel Pearson had a lasting impact on colleges throughout this land.
Pearson grew up in poverty. He worked his way through college, living in an attic and cooking his own frugal meals. He was a school teacher, studied medicine, and afterward was a farmer. Later he engaged in the lumber business where he was quite successful. He was blessed with a wife, of whom Dr. Pearson has said, “She wanted me to make money to give it away.”
Pearson had a great knack for making money. But he didn’t keep it. He used it to help young people who were struggling for an education. He provided endowments to forty seven colleges, particularly in Appalachia. Here’s how he described his life: “I have had more fun than any other rich man alive. They are welcome to their automobiles and yachts. I’ve discovered that giving is the most exquisite delight in the world. I intend to die penniless.” And he did.
As one biographer said, he died a poor, but happy man. By the dawn of the twentieth century Dr. Daniel K. Pearson had given away more than $6,000,000. I can’t even imagine how much that would be in today’s dollars. Pearson knew the joy of living for others. We could truly say that he “laid up his treasure in heaven.”
You and I will probably never have six million dollars to give away, but we can learn the joy of generosity. There are worthy, often wonderful, people who need our help. The rich fool lived only for himself, he never learned the joy of generosity. Finally, Jesus called the rich man was a fool, because he neglected his responsibilities to God.
Bruce Larson, in his book Believe And Belong, tells about a very wealthy Christian businessman who was asked back to his church to speak to the Sunday school class he attended years ago. The children were curious about this man, now worth millions, and asked him to tell how it all began. He said, “Well, it all began right here in this church. Those were hard times. I was a young man with no job and very poor. We had a guest preacher who said, ‘Give your life and all that you have to Jesus and He will bless you.’ I had $3.54 in my pocket. It was all I had in the world, and I put the whole thing in the plate. I gave my life to the Lord that day and He has blessed me ever since.” He closed his talk with a time for questions, and the first hand up was that of a little boy in the front row. “Mister,” he said, “Could you do it now?”
Now that’s a hard question, isn’t it? It’s easy to trust your resources to God when they total $3.54, but it’s different when you have millions. Perhaps that’s why Jesus so often warned against the danger of wealth. On the basis of disposable income, it ought to be easier to tithe when you make $80,000 a year, than when you make $20,000 a year. But somehow it doesn’t work that way, does it? Somewhere along the way our money quits serving us and we begin serving it. “Thou fool,” says Jesus.
We need to learn from this rich man; there is no lasting security in wealth. We need to take these four principles to heart: focus on God first, plan and manage our blessings, learn the joy of giving and finally, never neglect our responsibilities to God. No, we can’t take the things of this earth with us when we die, but, the riches we store up in heaven will last for all eternity.