Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
Matt was in Baltimore last weekend, for a weekend of watching Orioles’ baseball with his dad, in celebration of his father’s 60th birthday. On Matt’s way home Sunday, stuck in traffic on the beltway, he saw a bumper sticker he had never seen before. The first time he saw it, the bumper sticker was on a small, sleek, Porche sportscar. The second time the bumper sticker was on an imposing Mercedes sedan. The bumper sticker read:
“Don’t be fooled by the car, my treasure’s in heaven.”
Few bumper stickers I’ve seen say as much in as few words. The owners of the bumper stickers are making SURE you notice that their cars are really, really expensive and fantastic, while simultaneously implying that they have a deep spiritual life, and know better than placing too much value on their fancy cars.
The bumper stickers tell us a lot more about them than even they realize, I think! The false piety in the bumper sticker’s message is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up! While I’m a firm believer in talking openly about many taboos in our society, I think perhaps these kind of people are the reason our mothers told us it was tacky to talk about money.
The man in our Gospel passage today has a similar kind of insensitivity. He has come to hear Jesus deliver a discourse, and man, what a discourse he overhears! In one lecture, Jesus teaches his listeners the Lord’s Prayer, then goes on to talk about the nature of demons and evil and divinity. This lecture is very heady and profound. The Pharisees invite Jesus for lunch in the middle of this discourse and true to form, Jesus manages to insult and alienate them. After lunch, Jesus comes back to teach more and he find that the crowd outside has multiplied. Now thousands of people are waiting to listen to him. There are so many people there, they are stepping on each other!
Jesus does not disappoint, either- He comes out with two guns blazing. His first sentence after lunch warns people to beware of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. This is an inflammatory, shocking statement.
At this point, the man in our story interrupts Jesus. Like so many followers we’ve been hearing about on Sundays lately, the man seems not to connect with Jesus’ words at all. Instead of asking a follow up question about the Lord’s Prayer, or asking Jesus if he was implying that he was GOD, or asking what Jesus’ beef with the Pharisees was all about, the man instead asks Jesus to arbitrate a dispute between his brother and him. His brother has inherited the entirety of his family’s estate and the man does not think it is fair. He wants Jesus to make his brother give him half the money.
Can you imagine? You’re at the downtown Pavilion, PACKED with people, listening to the Son of God speak and you have the gall to interrupt and ask Jesus to settle a matter of an inheritance?
Money makes people really, really stupid. Or, rather, greed makes people really, really stupid.
This man’s passion about his own problems and his own desires, put blinders on him. They blinded him to the spiritual reality that was right in front of him and all around him. Jesus was giving him a view into eternity, a view into the spiritual realm-a view that could have changed his whole life. If the man had really listened closely to the Lord’s prayer, he would know that God provides his daily bread, that God provides everything he could possibly need.
But because this man had blinders of greed on, he misses the wonder of the reality of God in his midst.
Jesus tells him, to remember to “be on guard against all kind of greed, for life does not consist of an abundance of possessions.”
As wealthy Americans, we should put a copy of this verse on our flat screen TVs, iPods, Jimmy Choo shoes, Ethan Allen furniture, and IRA bank statements. As a culture our relationship with money is just as screwed up as the man who wanted Jesus to settle the matter of our inheritance. We tend to either get in denial about money and spend wildly until we’re deeply in debt, or become so obsessed with our savings, we become misers who cannot appreciate the deep richness of the life around us.
For many, money makes us afraid. We do not understand how much we should pay in rent, what we should save for retirement or our children’s education, whether we should buy or rent a house, how much we should tithe and what in the world we should do with our money when we die. We buy “stuff” because we feel anxious, or competitive, or because we feel a deep yearning for the object. We don’t always feel in control of what we buy. More than once, when I open my American Express bill, I have gasped and said, “How did that HAPPEN?”
And when we hear Jesus’ words about greed and possessions we feel condemned. We feel we have failed in our Christian duty and that makes us feel sad, so we go out and buy something that makes us feel better. Or, if we’re feeling really guilty, maybe we donate some money to a good cause.
The good news is that Jesus’ words are not meant to condemn, but to redirect.
Jesus wants to redirect him, and us, from believing that our value and our future are rooted in what we have. He tells this really unusual parable-unusual in that it is really simple and straightforward. A rich man’s fields are incredibly abundant and he stores up their riches until his barns are bursting! God finds him and yells at him-God tells the rich man that he is going to die and all these stored goods will be useless.
(Maybe Warren Buffet was meditating on this parable when he decided to give 85% of his billions to charity! I bet his children would have loved to get ahold of Jesus and complain about that particular inheritance!)
Those of us who do not deal with the problem of what to do with a multi-billion dollar fortune still need to be redirected. We need the Holy Spirit to nudge us, to guide our attention away from our stuff and the process of acquiring more stuff and direct that attention towards the one who created us and created all the stuff in the first place.
Money and things will never satisfy our deepest longings. We long to be loved. We long to be safe. We long to be understood. We long for an end to our anxiety. We long for health. We long for reconnection with those from whom we are estranged. We long for justice. We long for forgiveness.
And of course money and objects give us some measure of comfort and can greatly ease our lives, but they can never fill our deepest longings. Money and resources cannot give us the deep assurance that we have been made for a purpose and out of deep love. Money and resources cannot know us.
No one knows this better than babies. You could give little Carter all the toys in the world, and not one of them will give him even an iota of the comfort of being held in his parents’ arms.
God loves us deeply, better than the best parent out there. God knows us intimately. God accepts us wherever we are and longs to be in relationship with us.
And when we consent to the reality of God’s presence around us, when we consent to the relationship God wants to have with us, we become filled with the peace that comes with that kind of deep relationship.
And when we become filled with peace, we become free to deal with questions of money and possessions out of a deeply rooted place. We come to understand that life is abundant with love and relationship and even resources. We begin to treat money less as the enemy and more as a tool God gives us to use as we seek holy lives. We see money as a resource rather than as an end. We see possessions as gift, rather than as entitlements.
We come to understand that our life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, but in an abundance of relationship with God.
Thanks be to God!