Monday, August 02, 2010

Sermon on Ecclesiastes 2:18-26 and Luke 12:13-21, for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, "Rich Toward God"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The rich man in the parable thought to himself: “my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul.” This is the refrain of the rich man who thinks that all his possessions and wealth, yes even his own life or soul, belongs to himself. The sad story of a lonely, miserly, rich man, who laid up treasure for himself, but tragically found out that none of it belonged to him. Not even his life. He thought that by storing up his surplus, he could secure both his possessions and his life of leisure. But when his life was suddenly taken from him, he found that he’d secured neither possessions nor his life. This lesson Jesus told to a man who was seeking after his family’s inheritance. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

A man wanted Jesus to help settle a family dispute. Normally the oldest brother controlled the father’s estate after he died. So probably this younger brother was trying to get Jesus to take his side to convince his brother to give him his fair share. Jesus, as a well-respected rabbi, would be an impressive authority to back up his claim. Just imaging if Jesus would’ve done so, what would have been the result? Probably it would’ve pushed this family dispute over an inheritance to an even higher level. Either the older brother could grudgingly cave in and give his brother the share he wanted, or he could stubbornly refuse and escalate the fight. Either way the relationship would be pushed further apart. Jesus taking sides would’ve solved nothing.

Instead, He exposed the danger in making life consist in the abundance of your possessions. Suppose the man gave up the fight for the inheritance, and accepted Jesus’ teaching, he may well have lost all chance at his inheritance. The older brother may have taken everything, but he would have the opportunity to be rich toward God. As Augustine put it: [the man] “asked for half an inheritance on earth; the Lord offered him a whole inheritance in heaven. The Lord gave more than asked for.” Most of us probably know of family situations that turned into bitter disputes over possessions and the inheritance of a loved one. Sometimes those grudges last for years and years. Most of us probably also know of family situations where the opposite happened, and the death of a family member brought the family back together, and reconciliation happened as old wounds were healed, and disagreements faded into insignificance.

What’s the difference? Their attitude towards the things of this life. These attitudes often begin long before death, and they consider only the things of this life. The attitude that was brewing in the young man is seen in its fullest expression in the rich fool of Jesus’ parable. An attitude of greed and selfishness. My, my, my, me, Me, ME! A self-destructive attitude of privilege; demanding what I think I deserve. An attitude that can tear grieving families apart as they squabble over what their loved ones left behind. Rich in things and poor in soul (LSB 850).

So instead of siding with the young man, Jesus warned to guard against all covetousness, because our life doesn’t consist in how many things we have. What is covetousness? The 9th and 10th commandments tell us not to covet our neighbor’s house, his wife, or any of his possessions. To covet is a sinful desire for what our neighbor has. A discontentment with what we have and a greedy desire for what we don’t have, or what someone else has. Coveting can quickly turn into deceptive ways of trying to get what doesn’t rightfully belong to you. Jesus warned against this sinful desire of covetousness because it is a consuming desire that is never satisfied. Never satisfied because there’s always something more that we want. Or if we have everything that we want, we’re filled with anxiety and worry to protect it. Nothing will reassure us that our possessions are safe.

The exact opposite of this attitude of greed and coveting what we don’t have or doesn’t belong to us, is the attitude of contentment, and being rich towards God. This attitude can start very early in life and shapes how we live our life and manage our possessions. For those families who’ve seen reconciliation around the death of a loved one, they’ve discovered that forgiveness, relationships and love were more important than quarrels over things or dwelling on old wounds. Take care to avoid covetousness and greed, and instead seek to be rich towards God. Find satisfaction in what God has given you, and don’t forget that you’re accountable for it to Him.

The rich fool in the parable thought he was living the philosophy of Ecclesiastes, heard in today’s reading. He said: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry!” If we find ourselves rich and well-supplied, we might also be tempted to think the same. Flaunt our wealth, kick back, splurge on expensive toys and things, and enjoy the good life! Isn’t that what Solomon meant when he wrote: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil?” Solomon did acknowledge that it was good to enjoy life and our work, but there’s a crucial difference. The all-important next phrase in Ecclesiastes tells it all: “This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” Enjoying your wealth and the good things that God has blessed you with is not wrong in itself, but the rich fool was rich in things and poor in soul. He wasn’t rich towards God because he thought he was the one responsible for his bounty, and he counted everything, even his life as his own. He didn’t recognize as Solomon did, that all these things he had were from the hand of God and apart from God we cannot have enjoyment.

The rich fool became the embodiment of Solomon’s warning that the one who pleases God will be given wisdom, knowledge, and joy, but that the sinner will given the business of gathering and collecting only to give it to the person who pleases God. The rich man lost everything, when he failed to realize that even his life was on loan from God, and that God could demand the return of that loan at anytime. All that he stored up for himself in his barns was gone in an instant. If we make life to be merely a matter of our possessions, then our own desire will consume us and we will lose both possessions and soul when we die. We’ll forget that our life is on loan from God. But if we live for God and are grateful for every day that we receive as a gift—if we realize that all is from the hand of God—then we will find enjoyment and satisfaction in our work. Then when we die, we can go in peace and good conscience.

Changing that attitude toward our life and possessions makes a world of difference. The difference between hoarding our possessions, tenaciously guarding them for fear of losing them, and giving away generously from the bounty that God has blessed us. The difference between being lonely and having no one to celebrate with, and having friends and loved ones to share in our joy. The difference between being blindly unaware that God may call for the return of everything, and living as a steward who can in good conscience give everything back in full at anytime that God should call us from this life. It’s realizing how God wants us to use our possessions in this life.

Augustine made this beautiful observation: [the man] “did not realize that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns.” He could’ve used his surplus for the good of others. Andrew Carnegie, while not a Christian, was a famous philanthropist who thought the same. He famously said: “surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.” For the wealthy to use their excess to provide for the good of the poor and those in the community is a great trust and honor. How much different would the rich man’s situation have been if he’d used that surplus to feed the poor? If we would see our wealth, our possessions as God’s trust to us to give, use, and spend wisely? If our hearts were moved by openness and generosity, and not selfishness or greed?

Finally, to be accounted by God as a good steward of all that we’ve been given, we need to be rich toward God, as Jesus said. Becoming rich toward God is something that only God can work in us. Being spiritually poor on our own, we cannot create this wealth on our own. But Jesus tells us to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven. We do this by laying hold of the treasure of Jesus Christ and His heavenly riches toward us. Jesus became poor so that by His poverty He might make us rich. His precious blood that flowed on the cross for our forgiveness is called more precious than gold or silver (1 Pet. 1:19). There is no greater wealth to be had than to have the impossible debt of our sin erased, and to be given in exchange the heavenly inheritance of Jesus. This is why our faith also is counted as more precious than gold (1 Pet. 1:7).

Faith is the willing reception of all God’s gracious gifts, and the active trust that clings to Jesus in all things. Faith receives the treasure of God’s Word to enrich and enlighten it. Faith moves us to live as though everything belongs to God and may be returned at anytime. Faith moves us to live with generosity and openness, knowing that our life doesn’t consist in the abundance of our possessions, but in the abundance of our God. Faith sees and lays hold of all God’s abundant promises, and treasures them as from the hand of God. To be rich toward God is to have God Himself as our greatest treasure and desire, and to seek to put nothing else in His place. Take God up on His promises, and be assured that a full and overflowing heavenly storehouse prepared by God is worth more than all the earthly wealth and possessions that gold, silver, and any money can buy. In Christ Jesus, we truly are rich toward God.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.
Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. What was the “refrain” of the rich fool? What was his attitude about his possessions and life? How was the young man in danger of developing this same attitude? What is tragic about this attitude?

2. Why didn’t Jesus offer to settle the dispute in the way the young man suggested? What was the deeper problem? Explain in your own life what it means to be “rich in things and poor in soul.” What is the contrasting attitude that God desires? Cf. Phil. 4:11-13

3. See the small catechism explanations for the 9th and 10th Commandment. What does it mean to covet? How should we look at possessions instead? Matt. 6:19-21; Ps. 89:11; 50:10-12

4. When loved ones have died in your family, did it result in squabbles and hurt feelings over things, or did it bring reconciliation between family members? What made the difference? What was the heart of the problem (or the cause for reconciliation)?

5. Reread Ecclesiastes 2:18-26. What is the difference between Solomon’s attitude toward riches in vs. 24-25 and the rich fool’s? How does one find enjoyment?

6. How does realizing that all our possessions and even our life are on loan from God change the way that we live and manage our life? When can God call for the return of those loans?

7. How should we use our excess wealth or surplus? How do we become rich toward God? Matt. 6:19-21; 1 Peter 1:7, 19. How is Jesus our greatest and everlasting treasure?

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