Sermon: Being rich toward God

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
31st of July, 2022

Luke 12:13-21

‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.’

I am sure you know that the three things about which we should not speak in polite company are religion, sex, and politics. In the days when it went without saying that ‘sex’ was not a topic for dinner party conversation, the forbidden three were religion, money, and politics. We know from the gospels that Jesus got invited to so many dinner parties that he was accused of being a glutton and drunkard, (Luke 7:34) but he does not seem to have read the right etiquette books. Jesus talked religion, money, and politics all the time. And not necessarily in ways that his audience would have found pleasant. Take, for instance, today’s parable about the Rich Fool.

Jesus has finished his ministry in Galilee and is on the road to Jerusalem, where he will be killed. Along the way he teaches prophetically, addressing the unconverted crowds who are following him out of curiosity (Luke 11:29-32) and condemning the Pharisees and the lawyers he accuses of loading people with burdens hard to bear. (Luke 11:37-54) We are a long way from the peaceful meal that Jesus shared with Martha and Mary. When we hear the anger in Jesus’ voice, and observe his condemnation of the crowds, we need to remember the context. Jesus is walking towards his death; the day of judgement is at hand; time is running out. Therefore Jesus has little patience for the curious and the oppressive. At any moment their lives could be demanded of them.

We do not live with the same sense of eschatological, end-time, expectation; we do not wake up every morning wondering whether today will be the earth’s last. Nor, indeed, did the first readers of the Gospel according to Luke. By the time the gospels were written down it was obvious that the Parousia, the return of Christ, was not going to happen within one generation. The ‘in-between’ time, between Christ’s resurrection and ascension and his second coming, was going to last much longer than his first disciples had expected. But while we may not be daily expecting the immediate end of the world, there is a sense in which for all of us time is running short. One of the things of which first responders, medical personnel, funeral staff, ministers, are acutely aware is that life is fragile and that it can end at any moment. We hope that we will die in our own beds at a ripe old age, but this cannot be guaranteed. As the psalmist says: ‘The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away’. (Psalm 90:10) All our days are soon gone, and then, Christians believe, we will have to account to the God who gave them to us for how we have used them.

Jesus, as I said, was not a polite dinner party guest. He talked about wealth and poverty and the correct use of money a lot. Today’s parable is prompted by someone in the crowd who asks Jesus, as a respected teacher and miracle worker, to enforce the correct division of a family inheritance. Jesus, on the road to his death, has no time for such things. He is not like the Pharisees and lawyers, who delighted in being judges or arbitrators on such matters. But this does not mean that Jesus has nothing to say and no judgements to make. He warns the man, ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed’.

Is the man really greedy by wanting the just distribution of an inheritance? The point seems to be that Jesus’ new way goes beyond the laws of inheritance. The inheritance rules in the Hebrew Scriptures tried to be fair, or as fair as they could be in a culture in which the elder was valued over the younger and men were valued over women. Jesus’ teachings go beyond such notions of fairness. The kingdom of God demands more than the lawful distribution of possessions. It demands a radical detachment from belongings. And so Jesus tells the crowd a parable.

I have mentioned before that the Gospel according to Luke is pre-eminently a gospel about and for the poor. We see this when Mary sings in her Magnificat of God filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. (Luke 1:53) We see it in the beatitudes. While in Matthew’s version Jesus talks about the ‘poor in spirit’ and those ‘who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (Matthew 5:3-11), in Luke’s version those who are blessed are simply the poor and the hungry. In Luke’s version, unlike Matthew’s, Jesus pairs the blessings with woes: woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full now. (Luke 6:20-26) Later on this year we will hear the story of the rich man and Lazarus and, surprise!, the story does not end well for the wealthy person. (Luke 16:1-13) In today’s parable the poor are an unmentioned but essential element of the story.

Before looking at what the rich fool does wrong, I want to hastily say that there need be nothing wrong with being wealthy or with money per se. As John Wesley preached:

In the hands of His children, [money] is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked; it gives to the traveller and the stranger where to lay his head. By it we may supply the place of a husband to the widow, and of the father to the fatherless. We may be a defence for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to them that are in pain; it may be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame; yea, a lifter up from the gates of death.

And Wesley’s advice on the use of money for the people called Methodist was to gain all they could; save all they could; and give all they could.

This, of course, is what the rich fool did wrong. He had gained all he could: not through any especial diligence of his own, but simply because his land produced abundantly. Possibly he could argue that by putting the produce in barns he is ‘saving all he could’. But he is certainly not giving all he could. He is hoarding food, neither selling it nor sharing it, in a subsistence culture in which the poor could literally starve because of such behaviour. His language tells us that he does not care about the community around him; six times in three sentences he says ‘I’, three times he says ‘my’, and the only being he addresses is his own soul. He is utterly self-centred and isolated. Then, suddenly, the man who could not even share his food finds that his very life is demanded of him. We are not told what happened to him after death, but the later parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) does not suggest a happy ending.

How can we ensure that we are not among those who store up treasures for ourselves; that we instead live as those who are rich towards God? I have mentioned before Wesley’s frustration that as Methodists grew richer they also gave a smaller proportion of their wealth away. In one of his later sermons he lamented, ‘I am distressed. I know not what to do … The Methodists grow more and more self-indulgent, because they grow rich,’ and in another, ‘I am pained for you who are rich in this world. Do you give all you can? I pray consider, what are you the better for what you leave behind you?’[1] But that was Wesley in the eighteenth century. In the twenty-first century I do not think that many people cling to their wealth because of simple self-indulgence. I think that today people are more likely not to ‘give all they can’ because they are worried about the future.

I suspect that many people in Australia store up treasures for ourselves as insurance. Will we be able to afford the health and aged care we need as we grow older? What about those we love? Will we be able to help them financially if they need it? Wesley would completely understand that concern. In his sermon on the use of money he did tell people that the first use should be to ‘provide things needful for yourself; food to eat, raiment to put on, whatever nature moderately requires for preserving the body in health and strength. Secondly, provide these for your wife, your children, your servants, or any others who pertain to your household.’ So I do hope that you are all appropriately feeding and clothing your servants and those who pertain to your household, but only moderately, as nature requires.

This anxiety about the future is not only an individual one. I sometimes say, only half-jokingly, that Australia is the country where religions come to die. In Australia’s post-1788 history religions have usually grown through immigration. Today that means that the religions that are growing in Australia include Hinduism and Islam because of the countries from which Australia’s most recent migrants have come.[2] But as I watch Hindus expand their temples to make room for the faithful, I want to warn them. The first generation of migrants will probably keep their faith at the centre of their life. The next generation will still feel strong ties of affection to it. But I suspect that the third generation, the grandchildren of today’s immigrants, will be, like most other Australians, indifferent to the religion of their ancestors.

The only time in Australia’s history when religion did not grow by immigration, when Australians chose to join churches, was in the decades immediately after World War Two. This congregation, established in a multipurpose hall in 1951 and then with this church building dedicated in 1965, was a product of that religious expansion. But within a couple of generations we were back to the usual pattern; religions growing by immigration; most Australians indifferent. This means that the older members of our congregations remember as ‘normal’ a state of things that was profoundly abnormal, while the rest of us have only ever known our church to be in decline. Of course we are worried about the future when we look back to the congregations of the 1950s and 1960s and compare them to those of today. That fear of the future can lead us to store up the church’s treasures of money and property, knowing that we are never again going to see congregations like those in the fifties and sixties filling up the churches – and the churches’ offering bowls.

Yet God is faithful. I am frequently asked whether I see the church as having a future and I always answer ‘yes’ because the future of the church is in the hands of God. It may not look like church as we have known it, but God will continue to be worshipped, God’s people will continue to gather, and God’s world will continue to be served. We have seen that around us: Trinity Uniting Church has now become the Rhema Chinese Church; the Kew Uniting church hall now houses Boroondara Community Outreach. God is still worshipped; the community is still cared for. Things change, but as we will hear Jesus tell us next week, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’. We do not need to fear the future, even though we know it will not look like the past, because the God who cared for us in the past will accompany us into that future. We can be rich towards God, because God is always rich towards us.

And I will speak more on this next week …

[1] Quoted in Edward H. Sugden, ed, Wesley’s Standard Sermons, vol. 2, p. 310.

[2] Interestingly, the only Christian denominations currently growing in Australia according to the Census are ‘Christian (not further defined)’, ‘Protestant (not further defined)’, and the Orthodox denominations of which the Greek Orthodox Church is the largest: see Religious affiliation in Australia | Australian Bureau of Statistics (abs.gov.au)

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