What follows is what I believe is my best-ever stewardship sermon. As I make clear, there is nothing about today’s scripture, Luke 12:13-21, 32-34, that is easy. Both the man who asks Jesus to settle his financial dispute with his brother and the farmer in the parable are judged harshly by Jesus. Why? What do either of them do that we ourselves wouldn’t also do?
Are we, like them, failing to be “rich toward God”?
Sermon Text: Luke 12:13-21, 32-34
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Not that I would know this from any recent personal experience, but when your football team wins a really big game, it’s customary for the players to pick up the cooler of Gatorade, sneak up behind the head coach on the sidelines, and dump it over his head. Some day, I hope a team that I root for will have some occasion to do this. Oftentimes, the coach sees it coming, and he braces himself for it. But every once in a while, it’s a complete surprise, a total shock to the system. Imagine: being doused in icy cold liquid on a cold winter day.
Today’s scripture feels like that to me! Here I am, minding my own business, not bothering anyone, reading the Gospel of Luke, when out of nowhere… BOOM! Everything about today’s scripture shocks me, slaps me in the face, knocks me upside the head. I can’t find any wiggle room in this text. I can’t find any way to make it easy on myself. I can’t find any way to soften the blow.
Our scripture begins with a man, a younger brother, coming to Jesus with a complaint: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Sound familiar? Do families today ever fight over a loved one’s estate? You better believe it! I’ve seen it happen twice in my life: once when my dad’s mother died, and one of the siblings was perceived to have gotten more than their fair share. And again when my mom’s mother died, and one of the siblings was perceived to have gotten more than their fair share. In both cases, the siblings fought it out and got past it, but not without a lot of badly bruised feelings on all sides. One of our closest friends had an aunt who died a few years ago. This aunt had never been married, and she never had kids. And when she died, the aunt left her entire estate with our friend’s sister, much to the surprise of everyone else in the family, including all her other nieces and nephews, who thought that their aunt loved them. You probably have similar stories in your family.
It feels so unfair. And it’s not like you can ask the deceased person why they showed such favoritism. It’s not like you can plead your case or defend yourself. They’re dead!
In Jesus’ day, this kind of favoritism was built into the culture: The firstborn son got a double share of the inheritance. So if there were two sons, the firstborn got two-thirds of the estate. The second-born son was entitled to the other third. Daughters got nothing, unless the father had no sons! It sounds like, in this case, however, the younger brother wasn’t getting even the smaller share to which he felt entitled.
So my first question is, “What’s wrong with this younger brother’s request?” Isn’t the younger brother demanding simple justice? “My older brother is stealing from me by taking more than his share. Tell him to stop, Jesus.” Who among us wouldn’t behave in the same way and feel perfectly justified in doing so? Who among us wouldn’t wantto be treated fairly? Who among us wouldn’t want to get our fair share? Is he supposed to just ignore the fact that his brother is ripping him off? What’s wrong with his behavior?
Jesus, however, does see something wrong with it. He perceives that greed is the impulse that motivates the man’s actions, or at least the man is in danger of falling victim to it. So Jesus says, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed.” Guard yourself. Why do we need to be on guard against it? Because greed is the kind of sin that has a chameleon-like quality to it; it blends in; it hides in plain sight. When you fall victim to it, it has a way of never quite looking like greed. I learned a small but painful lesson about this when I was 12. It was my mom’s birthday, and I wanted to buy her a birthday present. She and I both liked Simon and Garfunkel, so I thought I would get her a cassette of their Greatest Hits album. She had a boombox in the laundry room where she spent much of her time ironing, so she could listen to it there. That’s a thoughtful present, right? My sister drove me to the nearby Turtle’s Records & Tapes, and she went clothes-shopping while I went to the record store.
When I got to the store, however, my mind hatched a plan. See, they had Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits on both cassette, which my mom listened to, and record, which I listened to. And I thought to myself, “If I bought the album on record, I could record it using my excellent home stereo system and make a better quality recording than these crummy-sounding prerecorded cassettes”—which was true, as many of you remember. And—since Mom didn’t have a record player herself—she wouldn’t mind if I just kept the record with my other records.
That’s such naked greed, but it’s honestly what went through my 12-year-old mind. Can you believe it? So I bought the record, and waited for Susan to pick me up. When she saw what I had done, she was furious. She threatened to leave me stranded at the shopping center if I didn’t immediately go back in the store, return the record, and get the cassette instead. She wasn’t persuaded by my argument that I could make a better recording from the record. Anyway, I ended up doing the right thing. I’m embarrassed now when I think back on that episode and see how greedy I was being. I couldn’t just buy my mom a birthday present without it benefitting me. But I didn’t see it that way at the time.
That’s the way greed is! It has a way of not being seen that way at the time. We can always justify it. I have a perfectly good iPhone 4, but next month I’m eligible for an upgrade, and don’t I need that bigger screen and those extra features that come with the iPhone 5? It’s an indispensable work tool, after all! It helps me do my job better. It helps the economy if I buy it. So it’s my civic duty to buy stuff I don’t really need. Should I ever stop to wonder what else I could do with the money I would otherwise spend on the upgrade? Should we wonder what else we could do with the money that we spend on the new outfit? the latest electronic toy? the gym membership? the bigger TV? the new car? the bigger house? I’m asking myself here, too! Greed sneaks up on us by looking so practical, so innocent, so… good.
And I know, I know, I know… as a preacher in America, the wealthiest country in the world—a country in which most citizens are in the 95th percentile of the wealthiest people in the world—I should hasten to add, “Of course, there’s nothing wrong with money, per se; there’s nothing wrong with wealth, per se; there’s nothing wrong with having nice things, per se.” And all that’s true! But wealth, money, and possessions afford a great opportunity for greed to sneak up on us and cause us to stumble into sin. The devil will use anything he can to make us fall; in my painful experience, he doesn’t need much; and if he has wealth and possessions at his disposal, that’s an easy day at the office for him, I’m afraid.
So the younger brother’s request doesn’t necessarily seem sinful to us. Similarly, the farmer’s thoughts and actions in this parable may not seem sinful to us, either. After all, the man had a really good year in his business. What’s wrong with that? He received a handsome return on his investment. What’s wrong with that? He had a bumper crop. What’s wrong with that? He didn’t didn’t cheat anyone to earn his wealth. He didn’t steal from anyone. He didn’t mistreat his workers. On the contrary, I’m sure he worked very hard in order to be successful. Are we going to begrudge him for wanting to build a barn big enough to hold this newfound wealth? Isn’t that a practical thing to do? And who can begrudge him for wanting to take life easy for a change, to not have to work so hard? Hasn’t he paid for that privilege? Don’t we all want to do that—at least in retirement, if not before? Isn’t that the American Dream? You know, Jesus calls the man a “fool,” but in so many ways his plans seem the opposite of that.
Why does God judge him so harshly? And if God judges him, where does that leave us?
God judges him harshly in large part because the man fails to understand the simple truth that the psalmist expresses in Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants too.” Everything belongs to the Lord: our lives, every moment of every day, our children, our money, our possessions.
But how is it possible that everything belongs to the Lord? We work hard for the money we earn; we work hard to put food on the table; we work hard to put a roof over our heads. And, yet, somehow it all belongs to God? Is that really fair?
Jesus gives us insight into this idea in verse 16. Notice he says, “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” The land produced. Contrary to President Obama, the government didn’t build that. Contrary to Governor Romney, this hard-working entrepreneur didn’t build it, either. The land did it, which is another way of saying that God did it—because no matter how hard we till and plant and fertilize and water the soil, the land produces nothing at all apart from the God who created this good world, with its abundant resources, to work in in this certain way, in order to support our lives.
Moreover, God blessed us with families who cared for and nurtured and protected us when we couldn’t fend for ourselves. God gave us a wonderful brain and put parents and teachers in our lives who taught us how to use it. God gave us an amazing body, including these amazing arms and legs, hands and feet. God gave us the sun, which provides all the energy we need, whether it’s in the form of the gasoline that fuels our cars or the natural gas that heats our homes or the batteries that power our smartphones and laptops and tablets. Not to mention the fuel that comes from the food we eat, by which we move and think and breathe. All of these good gifts come from God. And it’s only by these good gifts that we are able us to do amazing things like, for instance, farm the land and produce crops. Our contribution, I hope you’ll agree, is very small in comparison to God. We do something, of course, but everything we do is made possible by God in the first place. So of course the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it
But do we believe that? Do we live our lives like we believe that?
Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom… Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out… Where your treasure is, there will your heart be too.” You know what the problem with “treasure in heaven” is? We can’t see it or touch it. It’s so long-term. It takes faith to believe it’s really there, and faith is hard.
By contrast, you know what’s easy? What’s easy is buying into the message of our culture, which tells us in a hundred different ways each day that this life is really all there is; that life ends when we die; that we better get everything we can while we can; that we need to seize the day, not for the sake of God’s kingdom, which is a good idea, but for the sake of our own, puny little kingdoms. I wonder if the reason so many of us are unfaithful to God when it comes to stewardship and finances is because we secretly believe our culture’s message? It’s as if we’re hedging our bets. We have a little bit of faith, but we’re also going to get what’s ours and enjoy life on our terms and eat, drink, and be merry just in case this whole “treasure in heaven” thing doesn’t work out. What’s God going to do about it, after all? He’ll forgive us, right?
To which I say, “Even if God forgives us, we’re still going to face judgment for how we managed the good resources that God gave us—that he gave us to be used… for his kingdom.” That might be painful. Don’t you think?
When I returned from Kenya a month ago, I told you that although I’m a thousand times wealthier than any of the people I taught or ministered to, I wish I were half as blessed as they are. Some of you, like me, have had the experience of going on a mission trip to a Third World country. And while you’re there, you see these faithful Christians living with so much less stuff than we have. And if you’re like me, you think, “How can these people have so little and yet still be so happy?” The answer is, “They’re rich in the only way that matters for eternity. They’re rich toward God.” Brothers and sisters, the question some of us need to ask ourselves today is, “How can I have so much, and yet still be so unhappy?”
It’s time to change. The good news is that we can change… we can repent… and we can be rich toward God.