Sermon 10-13-13: “Rich Towards God, Part 1: The Rich Fool”

October 17, 2013


There are few teachings of Jesus that step on our toes like Jesus’ teaching about money. In today’s scripture, Luke 12:13-21, Jesus tells a parable to illustrate our need to be “rich toward God.” If we are going to “be on guard against all kinds of greed,” as Jesus commands, we need to ask ourselves questions such as the following: Am I making this decision out of fear or faith? Am I letting money call the shots when it comes to decisions about college, career, home, car, vacation—or even Christian ministry?

As I say in this sermon, one reason that money is a struggle is because it is the subject of spiritual warfare: we have an unseen spiritual Enemy working against us. Being prepared to fight this spiritual battle is also what it means to “be on guard.”

Sermon Text: Luke 12:13-21

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

A year ago last June, a Virginia man named Herson Torres was making $11 an hour unloading trucks at Target, when he got a text message out of the blue from a high school classmate: “Hey, I got this job for you where you’re going to get paid $25,000.” “Doing what?” Torres texted back. “Robbing banks,” his classmate told him.

Don’t worry, his classmate said. It’s all perfectly legal. They would be doing it on behalf of a CIA operative who called himself Theo. Theo said that the spy agency needed to test the security of some local banks in the area. Torres and his friend would go into each bank unarmed, and present a note to the teller demanding money.

If the teller didn’t comply with the request in a certain amount of time, or if they spotted an armed security guard, they were supposed to leave the bank immediately, and make their way to the next bank on the list. If they got caught, Theo told them, the feds would get them released within 24 hours. And for their trouble, in addition to the potential $25,000, they would also receive well-paying government jobs.

So… A cool $25,000 for a few days’ work. All perfectly legal. Plus, the promise of a better-paying job than your current job. You’d even be doing your patriotic duty. Would you do it? 

Torres and his friend did. And because this was, of course, a terrible bank-robbing scheme, they got caught. And Theo and the feds didn’t get them out of jail, of course, “Theo” wasn’t who he claimed to be. But the police and prosecutors believed that Torres and his friend believed that the scheme was legit and eventually dropped all charges against them. All’s well that ends well, I guess.

Maybe we wouldn’t do something like that. Maybe it’s too far-fetched. But we surely understand the temptation, right? Money makes us do crazy things sometimes.

Like, for example, creating great strife and division within families when it comes to settling an estate. Maybe you’ve experienced this in your own family?

In Jesus’ day, when a father died, the firstborn son was entitled to 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. And so he brings his complaint to this wise Rabbi, Jesus.

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.” Is he supposed to just ignore the fact that his brother is ripping him off? What’s wrong with his behavior?

Maybe nothing… Jesus isn’t denying that the man might have a legitimate complaint and that maybe a judge should settle it. He’s only saying it’s not his job to do so.

Jesus does perceive, however, that underneath the man’s complaint about his brother is a potentially deadly spiritual problem. Jesus says, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” Be on your guard. We used to have a good, sweet dog named Presley before we got stuck with Neko, the annoying little black monster we have now. Presley was an English Springer Spaniel. And he was an excellent watch dog. And even though he was the sweetest dog ever, his bark was ferocious-sounding! That dog would hear a leaf falling to the ground outside and start barking! God forbid there be a doorbell or a knock on the door on TV. He would get so riled up! We’re like, “Presley, calm down! There’s no one there! It’s just theTV.”

It sounds like Jesus wants us to be like Presley when it comes to identifying greed in our life, doesn’t it? It’s not like Jesus says this about other sins. He doesn’t say, “Be on guard against adultery.” Why? Because it’s much clearer when you’ve crossed that line. Why is greed different? Why do we need to be on guard against it? Because our sickness about money 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.

You know how on the cop shows on TV, whenever the police break in and pull their gun on the bad guy, the bad guy grabs the nearest innocent bystander and takes them hostage and hides behind them—and dares the police to shoot? Greed is a little like that: it’s an evil motive that has a way of holding hostage and hiding behind perfectly good and innocent motives.

Even in the case of today’s scripture, the younger brother’s complaint appears to be a matter of simple justice: his brother is stealing from him. It isn’t fair! And he’s disrespecting his father by not doing what his father wanted: which was to leave a portion of his estate to his younger son.

My point is, when we are being greedy, we will never be only greedy. We will always be able to justify ourselves with other, perfectly good and innocent reasons. That’s the nature of greed. And that’s why we need to be like my dog Presley when it comes to being on guard

By the way, late in life, Presley went completely deaf. And he was worthless as a watchdog. It’s easy to see that many of us Americans have gone completely deaf when it comes to this particular sin.

So Jesus tells a parable about greed that has a way of stepping on my toes like almost no other parable that Jesus tells. And maybe it steps on your toes, too? It steps on our toes because, well… the rich fool’s decision to build bigger barns to store all his grain after this bumper crop makes him wealthy seems wise… Prudent… Sensible. After all, now that the baby boomers are facing retirement, our airwaves are flooded with commercials making the same appeal: It’s not too late: invest with our firm, put your money here, take out a reverse mortgage—whatever that is—so that when you grow old, you can “Take it easy!” So that in your old age you can, “Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.” Well… What’s wrong with that? I kind of want that, too. Don’t you? And yet Jesus tells us that something is wrong with this picture.

And what’s wrong with the picture is fear. Fear is motivating this man. Who knows what will happen in the future? By keeping the money for himself—instead of investing it in God’s kingdom for God’s purposes—he’ll be safe and secure for years to come.

But you know that’s not true, right? Last year, Sports Illustrated found that within two years of retirement, 78 percent of all NFL players are bankrupt or in severe financial distress. How is that possible? It’s possible because the problem of having money is that we tend to spend it. Like the bank robbers I mentioned earlier, money has a way of making us do crazy things. But even if don’t squander it, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed—as the rich fool learned the hard way. The only real security we have is found in God.

So, if you want to be on guard against all kinds of greed, as Jesus says, then the next time you make an important financial decision, ask yourself these questions: “Am I making this decision out of fear or faith? Am I buying this thing because I can afford it or because I’m making wise and faithful use of this money? Is money calling the shots when it comes to decisions about college, career, home, car, vacation—or even Christian ministry?”

Writer Richard Foster says that when he was a senior in high school, he was invited to spend a summer doing mission work among the Eskimo in northern Alaska. He had a strong conviction that God was calling him to do this. The problem was, he had no money. All of his family’s money went to pay his ailing parent’s medical bills. Yet he still felt called. As an act of faith, he decided to tell no one about his financial need except God. He believed that if God wanted him to go do this mission work, the funds would become available. Almost immediately, he said, a check arrived in the mail from people who knew nothing about his call from God. The note said, “For your expenses this summer.” And in similar ways, he said it was beautiful to watch as God took care of every provision for the trip.

When he returned home from his Alaska mission trip, he now had no money for college. He spent the summer doing ministry instead of earning money. One day after church he was invited by a couple to have lunch with them. They asked about his college plans and before long they formed a group among their friends to financially support Foster through four years of college and three years of graduate school.[1]

My point is, fear can work in both directions: to cause us to do something we shouldn’t do or to prevent us from doing something we ought to do. Foster had the faith to not let money—or the lack thereof—call the shots: He didn’t listen to money when it told him, “You can’t go on this mission trip because you can’t afford it!” Instead he let faith call the shots: “I believe if the Lord wants me to do this, he will find a way for me to pay for it.”

One reason this parable has a way of punching me in the gut is that the man’s death is so sudden and shocking. I wish God had given him a warning before telling him his time was up. But don’t you see that through this parable God is giving us an urgent warning: We’re all going to face death at some time or another. Nothing is guaranteed. All we know for sure is that we have this present moment. What will we do with it? How will we make the most of it?

So another question we ask to be on guard against greed is this: “If I knew that my time on earth was nearing an end, what would I do differently with the resources that I possess? How would my priorities be different?” My father knew he was dying of terminal cancer for about a year before he died. He was a good man and a good father, but he was never overly affectionate. He was pretty buttoned-up with his emotions. But as he approached death his faith in Christ strengthened, and he was transformed. I saw him nearly every day, and nearly every day he would say something like this: “Brent, I love you, and I’m so proud of you. You may get tired of hearing me say it, but I’m going to keep on saying it.” And a part of me was like, “Who are you and what have you done with my father?” But a much larger part of me loved hearing it, and, no, I didn’t get tired of hearing it.

What if we lived every day, not morbidly fearing death, but mindful of the fact that all of us only have a limited amount of time to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. How would that knowledge change how we live?

Obviously, what I’m talking about is hard, and it’s hard in large part because of the hold that money has over us.

Why does money pose such a huge spiritual problem for us? Why does it control us through fear? Why is it often so destructive? Why are we willing to do crazy things—like those bank robbers I mentioned earlier—for its sake?

The reason is this: there is an evil spiritual force at work behind money that threatens to harm and even destroy our spirits. This is clear when Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that we cannot serve God and Mammon. Mammon is a Greek word for money, but here Jesus is speaking of it as if it’s a personal force—a rival god that demands our allegiance. Next week, when we look at Luke 16, Jesus refers to money as “unrighteous Mammon,” and by that he doesn’t mean that money is spiritually neutral. And whether it’s righteous or unrighteous depends on how we use it. No, he’s saying that money—by its very nature—is unrighteous. And he’s saying this because he understands what the apostle Paul understands when he says, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

I know it’s not cool for us 21st century Christians to believe in Satan and demonic forces. Just last week I blogged about the controversy that Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia stirred up when he told a magazine reporter that he not only believed in heaven and hell, but he also believed in the devil. The reporter couldn’t believe that a brilliant, worldly wise, sophisticated jurist on the highest court in the land could believe in Satan. But as Scalia correctly pointed out, “Jesus believed in Satan.”

Cool or not, I believe in Satan—and I’m here to warn you that it’s clear from the words of Jesus and from the rest of the New Testament that one of the most significant ways Satan attacks us is through our wallets, purses, bank accounts, IRAs, and 401k’s.

I was sharing this conviction with my wife, Lisa, and she reminded me of our own testimony about the way Satan uses money to harm us. Years ago, I was working in sales in a job I hated (but one that paid well). I was poised to quit my job and go back to school and get my engineering degree. It’s a long story, but this was an important step that eventually led me into pastoral ministry. It turns out that the company I worked for had made a clerical error on my paycheck earlier in the year, which I thought was a raise! So now that I’m about to quit my job, and take this next important step of faith in my life, and the company tells me that I owe them thousands of dollars in backpay. Huge financial setback and test of faith. A couple years later, Lisa had to go on medical leave the last few months of her pregnancy with our first child. That cost us a couple of months of her salary. Just when we reached a place where she could afford to quit her job and stay at home! Huge financial setback and test of faith. We experienced a long series of financial trials through three years of seminary and my early years of ministry—including three inexplicable transmission failures on an otherwise reliable Honda of all cars! Huge financial setback and test of faith.

And you might say, “That’s life,” and it is… but in our lives we have trouble not simply because we’re sinners who make bad decisions, but also because we have a spiritual Enemy working against us. Remember that next time you’re stressed out about money or fighting with your spouse about money!

All that to say this: Over the next few weeks, I’m going to challenge you to be more faithful in the area of money and finances. I’m going to challenge you to step up to a tithe—which means committing 10 percent of your income to God’s kingdom through this church.

As I do so, I promise you this: If you decide to be faithful to the Lord in this area of your life, expect to meet resistance to this plan, and it won’t simply be from within yourself but from external circumstances, too. Expect a new financial trial or setback to come your way. Expect to find plenty of perfectly sensible reasons why you can’t take this step of faith this year. Expect it. And when these trials and setbacks and challenges come, they should not be an excuse not to be faithful to the Lord when it comes to money. Trust that he will take care of you.

Being rich toward God means not treasuring things of this earth, but building up a treasure in heaven. Because where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

If you hear these words, and you feel guilty because you know your heart isn’t in the right place, here’s a very practical solution: Put your money where you want your heart to be—by investing in God’s kingdom—and guess what? Your heart will soon follow.

[1] Richard Foster, The Challenge of the Disciplined Life (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 47-8.

3 Responses to “Sermon 10-13-13: “Rich Towards God, Part 1: The Rich Fool””

  1. And the way to “invest in God’s kingdom” is very simple. Jesus lays out the best investment strategy of all: give your money away to the poor–directly to them.

    Now where is my faith so I can act on his word!

    • brentwhite Says:

      Was Zacchaeus doing something wrong, then, when he gave only 50 percent of his wealth to the poor a few chapters later?

      • It’s not about what Zacchaeus did. He was called by the Spirit to give four times what he owed. He was called to make amends. He was called to an act of repentance. It’s not about what the rich young man was told to do by Christ. It’s about what God calls us to do. What does God call me to do? We sinners are called to acts of repentance. For most, wealth is a God that must be turned away from. It’s not about doing something ‘wrong’. It’s about sinners worshiping God. It’s about repentant sinners storing up treasures in the right place. It’s all pretty straightforward if I ask, listen and respond.

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