The Poverty of Greed – Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

August 4, 2019

Last week’s reading started out as a lesson in prayer, but shifted into a reminder that God wants to provide for us, if we will only ask. But asking God to give us his Spirit is a lot different from asking God to give us stuff. This week, Jesus carries the lesson a step further.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says we should seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and ‘all these things’ will be added as well. But what happens when our priorities get mixed up? What happens when we forget that all good things come from God, when we start thinking our success is due to our own efforts alone? What effect does that have on the way we view our place in the world, and our relationships with others?

And what about our failures, and our lack? If we give God the glory for all our blessings, doesn’t it seem fair to blame God when we are lacking and when we fail? Where does fairness come into the picture, anyway? Why do some people seem to attract wealth, while others struggle to pay the bills?

Money is always about more than just money.[1] Maybe that’s why Jesus talks about it so much. Here in the 12th chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he is teaching along the way. Today the topic is greed, and Jesus is going to challenge some commonly accepted ideas about wealth and what we should do with it.

But this lesson is not a “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s” kind of lesson. Jesus is more concerned with attitudes of the heart than the difference between tithes and taxes.

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 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.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 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.  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, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” – Luke 12:13-21

We’ve skipped a few verses at the beginning of this chapter, so you need to know that Jesus is in the middle of teaching about the need for faithfulness under persecution. And someone – who has apparently not been listening at all – decides to interrupt him.[2] Completely off topic, this guy demands that Jesus help him get his fair share of an inheritance.

Actually, if we can get past this person’s rudeness, it would not have been unusual for someone with a legal dispute to appeal to a local rabbi for help. Law and religion were so closely intertwined, there was barely any distinction between a judge and a teacher. If an older brother had refused to share the father’s inheritance, the interrupter might have seen Jesus as someone with the legal authority to resolve the dispute.

Or, … this young man might have been rebelling against his older brother, who was just trying to keep the family together by keeping the property together. We don’t know. But Jesus saw straight into this young man’s heart, and knew immediately that the man’s legal concern was not the real problem. Money is always about more than money. The real problem was his greed.

I’m sure the young man was surprised when Jesus refused to help him. If this teacher could make blind people see and crippled people walk, didn’t he have the authority to do a simple thing like force an older brother to do what the law said he should do with their father’s property? And what did all this talk about greed have to do with fairness?

The misuse of wealth was actually a major topic of discussion in first century Palestine, and almost every chapter of Luke’s Gospel has some reference to money and material resources.[3] The tenth Commandment – you shall not covet – was familiar to everyone.

Greed is nothing more than a desire to have more than we actually have, and Jesus used this “teachable moment” to explain why greed has no place in the Kingdom of God. Instead of an interruption, Jesus treated the man’s demand as an opportunity to teach that the ways of God are nothing like our ways.

Greed just makes you poorer, because it puts all your energy and attention into what you don’t have. God is all about abundance and generosity.

So Jesus tells a story, a story with a twist. We’ve heard it often enough that it doesn’t hold much surprise for us, so let me show you where the surprise came for these people who heard it the very first time.

Without any more labor than he usually put into his farm, a rich farmer’s land had produced a bumper crop, and he could tell that the harvest was going to be great. In first century Palestine, this would have been evidence of God’s blessing on a good guy. Good fortune meant you’d done something to please God, and God was smiling on you.

Surprise number one: Jesus says this rich farmer is not a good guy. In fact, he’s a fool. Jesus drives this point home by having the rich farmer talk to himself. In first century Palestine, people who talk to themselves in a story usually turn out to be the bad guy. But it gets worse. Listen to what the farmer actually says – as he talks to himself.

“I know!” says the farmer. “I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, to store all my wealth! Then I can relax, eat, drink, and be merry!”

Okay, this just doesn’t make sense. You don’t tear down your barns right before harvest! And why is he storing his wealth? …

Surprise number two: This farmer is not only looking more and more like the bad guy in a story where common sense says he should be the hero, his behavior is just backwards from what you’d expect. Farmers grow crops for other people to buy and eat. There is absolutely no point in growing that much food just to keep it for yourself – it will rot before you can use it all! Building bigger barns to hoard what you will never be able to use is just … wasteful.

Then Jesus delivers the punch line: “You fool!” God says, “This very night your life is required of you. So now, who’s going to get all that wealth you accumulated?”

Surprise number three (and this is the big one): God shows up. This is the only parable in the entire New Testament where God shows up as an actor in the story.

And surprise number four: instead of being an indicator of God’s favor, the rich fool’s wealth brings death to his door.

This is the real poverty that comes from greed. The more we want, the less satisfied we are with what we have. Enough is never enough. Greed is like a tapeworm in our souls, constantly consuming and never being satisfied. And in the end, when our lives are on the line, whatever we’ve managed to accumulate for ourselves does us no good.

Research shows that people “with money on their minds are self-sufficient, self-focused, and anything but selfless.” In fact, “people who are reminded of money are really good at pursuing goals, but they’re not that interpersonally kind or warm.

They’re kind of standoffish, keeping in their own head, not interested in being friends with anyone.”[4] It’s not so much that they are anti-social. It’s more like they’ve become ‘siloed,’ or isolated by simply thinking about money a lot.

We aren’t talking about wealthy people, necessarily, just people who think about money a lot. Some really wealthy people don’t think about money very much at all, while some middle class and very poor people think about money all the time. It’s the thinking about money that creates the isolation.

Other research, on the other hand, tells us that people who do at least three generous things a week are more likely to extend their lifespan and require half as much medication as they grow older.[5] Generosity makes you healthier, while worrying about money isolates you.

No wonder Jesus calls this rich farmer a fool! By focusing on his own accumulation of wealth and goods, he has isolated himself from others, just the opposite of what the Kingdom of God is about. The Kingdom of God is about community, living and working together for the glory of God, staying connected with God and with our brothers and sisters in Christ. The Kingdom of God is all about being rich toward God.

So, how can we do that? What, exactly, does being rich toward God mean?

Being rich toward God means placing value on the same things God values. It means loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.[6] It means loving mercy, acting justly, and walking humbly with your God.[7]

It means enjoying a rich spiritual life praying, reading God’s Word, and forming deep friendships with other believers who also follow Jesus Christ and want to learn from him together. It means being honest with ourselves about our own hoarding of God’s riches, the gifts he has given to each one of us to use for his glory.

It means repenting of the sin of trying to be self-sufficient, so we can trust God to provide for all our needs. It means letting go of making sure we have enough before we give anything to anyone else.

It means accepting God’s abundant love, receiving the Holy Spirit poured into our lives. It means embracing the risk of giving away as much as we can, in order to make Jesus known to people who need him. It means giving up the poverty of greed so we can experience the joy of generosity.

In Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessolonika, he commended his co-workers there for doing all the right things in ministry. And then he wrote, “Finally, then, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.”[8]

Do what you are already doing to please God more and more, thinking less about possessions and money, and more and more about God at the very center of your lives. The Psalmist writes, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”[9]

As we approach this Table today, as we offer up our worship and praise and thanks to the God who saves us, may we strive to strive less. May we hope to hope more. May we love without reservation, and give of ourselves without holding back anything. May we give up the poverty of greed in exchange for the gift of abundant giving, even as Christ gave himself for us.

[1] Patricia J. Lull, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, 312.
[2] Luke 12:1-12
[3] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 389-390.
[4] Bill Ward for the Star Tribune, August 30, 2012, Variety section, page 1.
[5] Brad Formsma, I Like Giving .
[6] Mark 12:30-31
[7] Micah 6:8
[8] 1 Thessalonians 4:1
[9] Psalm 73:25-26

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