In today’s text we hear Jesus say: “Life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.” This is an important statement, but one that is not unique to Jesus. Many others have taught this also. However, Jesus does have a unique way of re-stating that question in its positive form. If life doesn’tconsist in the abundance of possessions, in what does it consist? Some people say it consists in our relationships with other people, others say it consists in the fun we have, the experiences we enjoy, the good we do, the wisdom we accumulate, the fitness we attain or the years we live. Christians would agree that these are all good things, but that there’s an additional thing that is even better. As Jesus our teacher puts it – in the words of today’s text – life consists in being “rich in God.”
It is this phrase – “rich in God” – that I would like to use as a starting point for examining today’s text. However, one thing to note before we consider the meaning of this phrase is the particular wording of the phrase itself. I am using the preposition “in” for my translation (“rich in God”), but most English versions of the Bible will use the preposition “toward.” The Greek can be translated either way. Using the word “toward” tends to highlight our attitude – meaning that we seek to have a full and attentive attitude toward God. That is fine. Certainly the text pushes us in that direction. However, as Lutheran commentator R.C.H. Lenski points out, that which is truly rich is not our attitude but what God gives us. We are indeed rich when we are in a relationship with God. To be “rich in God,” therefore, is much more than having a good attitude toward Him.
With this in mind, let us then explore the meaning of this phrase. Considering the scriptures as a whole, it seems to me that one part of being rich in God is to have knowledge of Him. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God’ – St. Paul once said (2 Corinthians 4:6). Our scriptures are an incredibly rich and diverse collection of revelations from God, detailing who He is, what He does and what He wants from His people. Our God has not left us ignorant of who He is but has given us knowledge.
One of the most profound things He’s told us is that He is a God who is both just and merciful. We see this in today’s text. Jesus tells the story of a rich man whose land produced abundantly and who decided to build bigger barns to store his crop. Jesus calls him a “fool” because that very night his life would end. The world might call the man a fool because he worked too hard and didn’t get to enjoy his life, but that’s not the point Jesus makes. Jesus tells us this man didn’t have his priorities straight and was therefore unprepared for the day of his death. Jesus says his “soul is required” of him. That’s judgment language. The man would need to give an account of himself on his last day, but he foolishly had his mind on other things. He was more concerned about building bigger barns.
Last Sunday Pastor Yang reminded us that prayer is not a monologue. We don’t just talk to ourselves and we don’t just talk without listening also. In today’s text the rich man talks, but it is only a monologue. He speaks to himself about what he will do – he will build bigger barns and then relax, eat, drink and be merry. There is no dialogue going on here, no asking the Lord God what he ought to do. No listening to God’s Word on the subject of wealth and abundance.
God judges those who do not listen to or acknowledge Him, for without Him they will go the wrong way. In the same way, God judges all sin as a lack of faith in God’s provision and an affront to His standards of holiness. “He will come again to judge the living and the dead” we say in our creeds. God is not mocked – His justice will prevail. We must all be prepared for the day our soul is required.
And yet, God also tells us of His great mercy. To know God is to know that He is merciful. In this same text which refers to God’s justice, Jesus also hints at God’s mercy by saying these words: “Who made me judge or arbitrator over you?” We hear these words and think that perhaps Jesus is putting off the man’s request, not wanting to get involved. Certainly they refer to the priorities of Jesus’ ministry and Jesus explaining that his concern is not full equality in all things. But these words of Jesus also point to God’s greater desire for mercy.
Jesus came as a teacher and a savior, not as one whose chief concern is to divvy up material goods in this life. God is concerned about justice, as we just noted, but He is also concerned about saving His people, and that’s what He was doing through Jesus.
Last week Pope Francis spoke to a certain issue by saying, “who am I to judge?” The media has probably made too much of his words – no new teaching was being given – but they were right to interpret this as a statement of God’s mercy. In the same way Jesus’ words in today’s text, while not specifically an expression of mercy, still remind us that God is merciful toward sinners.
Knowing God richly means knowing of both His justice and mercy, the relationship of which is articulated most richly in the life, words and actions of Jesus. Jesus died to pay the price of the world’s sin, so that God’s justice would be satisfied and people would be saved according to His mercy. St. Paul said it this way to the Ephesians: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (1:7).
Once we are rich in the knowledge of God, we are then prepared to be rich in the ways of God. Jesus has important teachings for us in this text about being rich in God’s ways. In particular, Jesus speaks powerfully to us about our relationship to material goods.
When the man in the text requests Jesus to arbitrate for him, it’s unclear whether Jesus perceives some greed in him or just uses the opportunity to teach. One wonders why the man sounds so demanding and why he was trying to negotiate without his brother being present. Regardless, Jesus’ warning is important for all of us. “Be on your guard against all covetousness” he says.
Covetousness is an issue we should be very concerned about, especially we citizens of this land, in this place, at this time. I don’t think it’s too much of an overstatement to say that our whole economic way of life in this country is based in large part on covetousness. We are constantly being told that it’s right and good to want more—by all those who are advertising their products and all those who tell us this is essential to our economy.
“Thou shalt not covet” says the Lord in His commandments. Not our neighbor’s house, nor wife, nor servants, nor animals… nor anything that belongs to our neighbor. It’s difficult not to covet when our neighbor has such a nice car, or such a successful career, or takes such wonderful trips. It’s difficult not to covet when the people on TV look so good, do such amazing things, wear such nice clothes. We quickly begin to believe the lies—that we need the best, and that we deserve the best. And then we move to believing that joy comes from what we have.
We so easily see luxury cars, elegant clothes, gorgeous houses and expensive electronic equipment as the treasures in our lives. They are not. At best, they are just things we possess. At worst, they are things that possess us.
“The land of a rich man produced plentifully,” begins the parable. Sometimes people become wealthy. There is nothing wrong with that. But what people do with that wealth is critical. The man in the story built bigger barns so he could keep it for himself, while completely forgetting about God.
During this year’s Vacation Bible School we heard the story of Joseph, who led Egypt through seven years of prosperity. He had the people tear down their barns and build bigger ones to store the excess. But he did it for the right reason – to survive the coming famine – not to live a life of ease. He did it to feed the hungry, including his brothers who had sinned against him.
Joseph’s story illustrates the right motives for building. But let’s be careful we don’t see in it a mandate. We don’t always need to build bigger barns. In fact, controlling wealth is just as much a temptation as hoarding it. St. Augustine had a much better plan. Actually it’s Jesus’ plan – Augustine just had a great way of putting it. He said, “The fool did not realize that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns.”
This statement has become famous because it is so well said and because it is so important. Caring for the poor is better than accumulating wealth for ourselves. But the statement is also remarkable in its choice of words. We might think – as I just said – that giving to the poor is “better” than accumulating wealth. But Augustine actually said that it is “safer.” Reading the context of the quote shows that Augustine had God’s judgment in mind. When we accumulate for ourselves we run the danger of making our possessions our security, not our faith in God.
Jesus teaches us to be rich in God. This is a wealth which will never fail. No market crash, trend change or catastrophic event can ever take this wealth away. When we know Jesus as our savior we have been made rich beyond measure. There is no need to covet other things. God fills us with all the love, purpose and joy we need.
I find it somewhat ironic that the man in the parable had as his goal to “relax, eat, drink and be merry.” I see irony here because in many ways that’s what we do when we come into the presence of God together in worship. We take a Sabbath rest from our work. We eat and drink the sacrament. We make a joyful noise to the Lord in our song. All those things the man wanted are readily available in God’s presence.
A life lived in communion with the Lord God makes us truly rich. May God bless our efforts to live in this faith, to appreciate God’s care of us, and to care for the poor—those with few possessions and especially those who are not rich in God. Amen.