I once had a head-scratcher of a conversation with a group of young adults.
I should set the scene. I had just preached a sermon about giving back to God what is already God’s. That our lives and our possessions are not our own. In other words, it was a sermon about tithing.
So, standing about after the service, these young adults were talking about something that the sermon had stirred in them: Money. These people were the kind of young adult just starting out solo in the world. I came in just as one asked another in earnest: ‘Do you give an offering?’
In reply, I found myself listening to one young man talk about the reality of the breakdown of his paycheque. Money coming in, and money going out – almost entirely before it even comes in. Rent, utilities, car expenses, groceries: all needing to be paid, and very little remaining for fashion, fun, or taking a special someone out on a date. The others around him nodded in empathy. I must admit that at that particular time of my life, I understood all too well what they were dealing with.
But, two things occurred to me as I listened to that mounting list of bills and expenses: this reality of money coming in and going out again remains regardless of how much money you are making, and despite all the things that needed to be paid, or were desires that required money, there was a distinct lack of any kind of tithe to the church.
Someone else in the group must have observed something similar because they asked: “Yeah, but do you give an offering?”
The incredulous response was: “With what? After I pay all my bills, what little I have left is actually mine and I want to spend it the way I want.”
The conversation went quickly into an argument about how little effort a commitment to the church was, how important it was to be responsibly giving to the church once a person became an adult, and how your giving can also be a tax deduction. And then I was invited into the conversation.
Testing a theory about the whole conversation, I said to the young man: “So, say you had ten shiny sports cars. What if God asked you to give up one of them? You can only ever drive one at a time. So, that’s nine to pick from. Would you give one up?”
And then, “Well… it depends on the cars. Are they all different? Do I get it back after I give it to God? Did I earn the cars myself, or did I win them?”
I think it’s safe to say that we all stood there a little baffled.
It’s never about the amount of personal wealth we have. No matter how much we have, it seems that we are always aware of what we don’t have. And it seems that the more we amass for ourselves, the greater the temptation to keep it all to one’s self becomes. And it seems that the more we earn and keep for ourselves, the deeper the pit of anxiety about losing it all seems to become.
Today’s gospel reading is a caution against those temptations, worries, and anxieties.
It’s not that God doesn’t want us to be prudent about and plan for our futures. Or, that God doesn’t want us to be enjoy the good things in life – in fact, all of creation ought to be able to enjoy the good things in life. This is a part of that whole “give us our daily bread” part of the Lord’s prayer I was talking about last week. God wants us to enjoy life.
This is not a story about selling all that you have and giving it to the church. It’s not about sacrificing your own wellbeing in order to give a proper offering to the church. It’s not about devoting yourself to a life of asceticism and eschewing all material wealth for a life of spiritual devotion to God.
It’s also not a story about the evils of modern farming or grain storage.
Our possessions, our personal wealth, and our plans to secure a future for ourselves in this world are not evil. Extra grain in the bin is not evil. Money, in and of itself, is not evil.
Unlike what some of us have been told over and over, 1 Timothy 6:10 doesn’t say money is the root of all evil. It says: 10 The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from the faith and have impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they made money their goal.
Wandering away from faith and impaling oneself is the reality of the man in the parable that Jesus speaks to the crowds.
This parable is a story about our identities and our subsequent priorities. This parable is told so that Jesus can bring to our attention that what often become the reasons for our excessive accumulation of wealth are in fact reasons tied directly to how we identify ourselves in the world.
Martin Luther spoke about this very thing rather critically when he said that whatever we cling to and confide in becomes our god. A god, as Luther also defines it, is that thing that we expect our good to come from and that thing that we use as a refuge when we are low.
When we identify ourselves by the things, or possessions, that we hold dearer in this world than God, I think we fail to see ourselves as precious children of God.
God asks us to identify as children of God, to cling to and confide in and rely on God to provide a guaranteed future and secured life. When we do this, what we have, what we keep, what defines us materially naturally becomes a measure of who we are and of who God asks us to be. Our lives and our possessions are not our own.
The rich barn guy in the parable is only known to us as just that.: a rich barn guy that God labels a fool. In the story, God calls him a fool, “not because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future, but because he appears to live only for himself, and because he believes that he can secure his life with his abundant possessions.” The barn guy’s reliance is on his own efforts, rather than those of the farmers, the workers, the harvesters, the planters – all the other people who have contributed to this abundance. The barn guy’s gratitude is only focused on himself – no thanksgiving to God for helping the grain grow or for providing a bumper crop. “He has more grain and goods in storage than he could ever hope to use, yet seems to have no thought of sharing it with others, and no thought of what God might require of him. He is blind to the fact that his life is not his own to secure, that his life belongs to God, and that God can demand it back at any time.”
It’s like my friend and the question of the ten sports cars.
Like so many of the parables, Jesus uses this story to put a mirror right in front of us. As both individuals and collectively as the church.
The church’s fussiness in how much we can afford to give to God, the categorization of who can come to the Lord’s table and receive communion, the discrimination in who can and cannot become a member of any particular congregation, who can be baptized, who can be ordained, or who deserves support from the congregation financially or otherwise are just a few ways in which the church behaves as though those decisions are the church’s to make. When we, who claim to be members of the body of Christ, put up barriers to protect what we believe to be ours, we are no different from the rich barn guy, and our priorities are misplaced.
I like to believe that if we place God in the most prominent place in our lives, then we take a proactive action against the tides of anxiety and worry about the wealth that we have in our lives. If we place God in the most prominent place in our lives, then how we invest our lives – our time, our talents, our treasures – becomes an action of stewardship because we are investing what God has entrusted us to share with the world. When we place God in the most prominent place in our lives we realign ourselves such that we are no longer looking inward, trying to horde what we have. We look out and move out into a world where God is ahead of us, preparing the way, securing the future of a world in need, and inviting us to bring what we have been given as precious children of God.
When we live into the identity that God has given us, our priorities get aligned to a deeper and fulfilling relationship with God: a truly beautiful treasure.
Let us pray,
We give you thanks that our identity is determined by your creative and life-giving word. We admit that in our efforts to remain in control, we sometimes take it upon ourselves to safeguard our futures and our comfort and to define our self-worth and identities by putting our own wants ahead of all others or by taking more than what we need. Help us to see ourselves as you see us. Drive back the temptation to define ourselves by what we have accumulated. Empower us to be generous as you are generous: seeing the true treasures of life lived in relationship with you. All this we ask through the one who generously gave up his life for a world in deep need. Amen.
- Johnson, Elisabeth. “Commentary on Luke 12:13-21, Aug 04, 2013.” Preach This Week. Working Preacher.
Kolb, Robert, and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.
- Lewis, Karoline. “Treasured Possessions?” Dear Working Preacher. Working Preacher.
- Stamper, Meda. “Commentary on Luke 12:13-21, July 31, 2016.” Preach This Week. Working Preacher.
 Large Catechism, The Ten Commandments,1, in Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).
 Karoline Lewis. “Treasured Possessions?” Dear Working Preacher. Working Preacher. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4693
 Elisabeth Johnson. . “Commentary on Luke 12:13-21, Aug 04, 2013.” Preach This Week. Working Preacher. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1725
This week’s image is entitled: “The Rich Fool,” by Rembrandt. The symbolism and meaning in this painting are incredibly well thought out. You can find out about the painting here, and about the artist here. This image is modified and presented as Public Domain.