Sunday, July 31, 2022

Learning To Be Rich Toward God


July 31, 2022 – The 8th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 13C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 17:15.  

If I were a rich man,
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum,
All day long, I'd biddy biddy bum,
If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn't have to work hard,
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum,
If I were a biddy biddy rich idle-deeddle-daidle-daidle man. [1] 

In the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevya the dairyman sings those words at first while shoveling hay for his lame horse but later while dancing around his barn, triumphantly waving his arms about as he imagines what his life would be like if he only had more money. “If I were a rich man…” Who among us doesn’t sing some form of those words in their heart? If I were a rich man…if I had a little bit more money…if I got paid what I’m really worth…if I won the Mega Millions jackpot…then my life would be better…all my problems would go away. But would they?

Twenty-one years ago this summer, I sat in the small home office of farmer in the middle of Illinois as he looked at soybean and corn futures on a computer monitor and tried to decide what to do. A faithful man, who made buckwheat pancakes every morning of his children’s lives whether they wanted them or not, this farmer explained to me that commodity prices had been depressed for several years. Instead of selling his entire harvest each year, he had put much of it into silos, hoping that the prices would increase, but they hadn’t. Now his barns were full. He had no place to store his crops. And he didn’t know what to do.

“I know what I will do!” the rich fool in Jesus’ parable said to himself. “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all of 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.’”

In the parable Jesus tells the crowd, the rich man did not get rich by accident. He might have been a fool in God’s eyes, but everyone in the town knew him to be a shrewd businessman. He knew that when the land produced abundantly—a bumper crop—the price of grain would fall. Rather than sell his harvest at a discounted price, the man decided to use his capital to tear down his barns and build larger ones, increasing his capacity to wait out the glut. Maybe next year there would be a drought. Maybe global supply chains would be interrupted and geopolitical instability on the heels of a global pandemic would send prices through the roof. This rich man could afford to wait. And the longer he waited the richer he would become.

Except that he forgot one thing: “You fool!” God said to him. “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The man who excelled in agribusiness somehow forgot that his life was on loan and that the owner of that debt could call it in at any minute. There is no barn big enough to store enough grain that we could ransom our own lives.

But Jesus wasn’t giving advice to rich farmers in ancient Palestine, nor was he speaking to middle-class farmers in modern-day Illinois. He was speaking to a crowd of ordinary people in response to a man whose brother had refused to divide his father’s estate and share it with him. “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,” the scorned sibling had said to Jesus. And the parable of the rich fool was Jesus’ way of teaching all of us how to be rich toward God.

Notice that the brother—not unlike the rich farmer—assumed that he was in the right. Instead of asking Jesus for an interpretation of the Jewish laws of inheritance governing his particular situation, he jumped to the end and asked Jesus to tell his brother to split the estate between them. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity,” Jesus might have responded, quoting Psalm 133. Although there were rules that determined how much of an estate should be given to each brother, scripture makes it clear that it is better—even ideal—when siblings can live together on the family estate and share their inheritance rather than liquidate the property and divide the proceeds among them. But this angry brother was already beyond that. They were past the point of negotiations. He wanted his check, and he wanted it now.

But how will an inheritance check make everything better? How will all that money help a man feel his parents’ love when he cannot even sit down and break bread with his sibling? Like fences and neighbors, careful estate plans make for better sibling relationships, but the key to maintaining a healthy family isn’t making sure that everyone gets the right amount of money. It’s remembering that a parent’s love cannot be measured in real estate or an investment account. It’s making sure that material things do not take the place of what really matters. It’s remembering that one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.

We all want to be the rich farmer. We want to have enough grain stored in our barns that we can say to our souls, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Tevye’s song becomes our retirement plan. If I were a rich man, I wouldn’t have to work hard. If I had enough money, I wouldn’t have to worry about anything. If I save enough, I won’t need anything else. Everything will be taken care of. But our lives do not consist in the abundance of possessions. Our true security does not come from a retirement account or a pension or an inheritance check. That is vanity.

If the most important question in our life—the one we ask the most—is, “When will I have enough,” then we are not being rich toward God. We cannot belong to God if our bank accounts make us feel like we belong to ourselves. Everything we have belongs to God, and we must give it all back. The rich farmer didn’t produce anything. The land did. The angry brother didn’t earn his inheritance. His parents did. You are not responsible for your own success. God is. And learning that truth is the first step to becoming rich toward God.

But that truth runs contrary to everything our economy, our nation, and our lives were built upon. There is no truth more difficult for us to apply to our own lives, yet no truth is more central to our salvation. Your entire life is one big loan from God. It is an obligation you can never repay. And you don’t even have to try. 

In fact, until you stop pretending that the sum total of your life’s accomplishments is anything other than a gift from God, you’re going to have a pretty hard time figuring out that God’s love is the only thing that can save you. Not your money, not your career, not your family, not your perfect plans, not even your best success—the only thing that can save you is God’s gift of love that is Jesus Christ. And God has already poured that love out upon you in lavish measure. If you want to experience that love—if you want to know the freedom from anxiety that comes from that love—if you want to be rich toward God—stop storing up treasures for yourself and start giving it all away.

[1] Lyrics from “If I Were a Rich Man” by Chaim Topol from Fiddler on the Roof. Connection with this parable made by Klyne Snodgrass in Stories with Intent, 2008, p. 400.

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