And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)
It’s stewardship season again and it’s got me thinking about money. It’s got me thinking about how well I handle money, and how well we all handle it. I’m not talking about credit ratings, although that could be part of it, no I’m talking about the stewardship of wealth... how well I handle the money I’ve been given. You see, the money entrusted to each of us is a gift, the same way teaching, singing, or working with your hands is a gift. And the question we must ask is how faithful am I at handling the gift of money?
I must confess, what got me thinking about this was the Mega Millions jackpot. The Mega Millions lottery reached a staggering total of $1.6 billion this week – the largest jackpot in US history! When I heard that news, I said a little prayer to God: “Lord, if you let me win that jackpot I will be a faithful steward of my winnings.” (Don’t laugh; I know you prayed it too!) Sadly, I didn’t win ‒ and I’m a little disappointed, but I not too much so, because I should have probably bought a ticket if I expected to win)
We speak that way all the time – don’t we? If I get rich, I’ll be a faithful steward of the money. Following the last big jackpot a person I know said “Preacher, if I win the big one tonight I’ll be giving the church a million dollars tomorrow!” I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I just crossed my fingers hopefully at him. What I should have said is: “What will you give the church if you don’t?” Because God wants us to be faithful stewards with the little we have, not just the lot we might get. In fact, the parable of the talents suggests that faithfulness over a little is rewarded with faithfulness over a lot. (The slave who hid his one talent in the ground had it taken away and it was given to the one who already had 10 talents!) But let’s not get into the weeds just yet.
So, the question still stands: how faithful am I with the money entrusted to me? And how faithful are you with the money entrusted to you? What grade would you give yourself? Do you deserve an “A?” Do you have a plan that you are executing – a plan that includes looking after you and your family, but also includes support for your church and generosity to others? Or would you give yourself a “C” – “Yes, I have a general idea of what comes in and goes out each month and I have general plan for giving and being generous, but emergencies come along now and then that mess up my best intentions.” Or do you deserve an “F” – “I don’t know what comes in or what goes out because I have no real plan for giving ... I’m just kinda living paycheck to paycheck.”
Where are you on the stewardship spectrum? It’s an important question to answer because our money is a gift – and we are called to be good stewards of all our gifts. And money must be very important to Jesus, otherwise he wouldn’t talk about it so much. In fact, Jesus has more to say about money in the Bible than he does about love! Shocking, but true! Jesus tells 38 different parables in the Gospels, and 16 of them have to do with finances and possessions. Does that mean Jesus is more interested in our wallets than our hearts? No, I think it means that stewardship is the more difficult lesson to learn... we need more lessons on how to handle money than we do on how to love our neighbor. And this pre-occupation with money bears out in the rest of the Bible too – there are about 500 verses on prayer in the entire Bible, there are less than 500 verses on faith, but there are more than 2,000 dealing with money and possessions!
So today Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool. It’s precipitated by a request from someone in the crowd who says, “Jesus, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Obviously, there’s a family squabble over inheritance money and one member tries to get Jesus involved in the squabble. But Jesus doesn’t bite... he refuses to play Judge Judy. Instead he issues a warning about the evils of greed: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” It’s a warning against materialism... seeking life in the accumulation of things. And to illustrate, Jesus tells the following parable:
A rich man’s field yielded a bumper crop. His crops were so plentiful that it presented a problem! He didn’t have room to store it all. What to do? His solution? Tear down the existing barns and erect larger ones. Then sit back on easy street and enjoy life – “relax, eat, drink and be merry.”
But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded of you. And the things you have – whose will they be then?” And the parable ends with this warning: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Clearly, hording for ourselves is not good stewardship. Storing up large reserves so we can retire to the good life and do nothing, is not good stewardship. Let the winner of the 1.6 billion lotteries beware! Actually, this message is directed at us all. A bumper crop, or any windfall, is a God-given opportunity to show generosity, to share the blessing with others, not to build bigger barns. Which brings us to the whole issue of materialism.
Materialism, according to the Webster dictionary, is “a theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality... that the highest values or objectives lie in material well-being...” The materialist measures wealth in dollars and cents. To the materialist, the good life is a big house, a fancy car, and a fat financial portfolio. So, the problem with materialists is that they inflate the value of the physical reality and diminish the value of the spiritual reality. I saw a bumper sticker that expresses it perfectly: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”
Now, materialism manifests itself in two primary ways – as possessiveness and covetousness. Possessiveness is being selfish and unsharring with what you have. And covetousness is being preoccupied with having what God has not given you. So, you can be rich or poor and still be a materialist! And there are plenty of people who sit around the table hankering after the “good life” who are just as preoccupied with material goods than those with a house full of stuff. Materialism is a mind-set that turns us “about-face” from God. It’s being money-centered and stuff-centered rather than God-centered. And materialism is alive and well in our modern-day culture. In fact, the consumer culture we live in identifies us principally as materialists. In today’s economy, you and I are known as “consumers.” I have always loathed that name... that our most important identity is that we consume.
Jesus reminds us right after telling this parable (in the very next passage) that “life is more than food and the body more than clothing.” (Luke 12:23) There’s more to life than materialism. Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky says it best I think when he says: “Today we amass material things without ever satisfying our greed, and then we madly squander all we have amassed. But a day will come when there will be no orphans, no beggars; everyone will be as one of my family... and that is when I will have gained everything and everyone.” (The Gospel in Dostoyevsky) It’s a reminder that materialism is temporal and exclusive, but God’s Kingdom is eternal and all inclusive. So, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Presbyterian minister Eileen Lidner laments that our culture consumes such a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources – completely out of proportion to the size of our population. Referring to the financial crisis of 2008, she says, “It wasn’t just Wall Street that got drunk, the whole culture is drunk with consumption, defying all reason.” And she tells this story:
“In 2007, a colleague of mine from the All African Council of Churches was here as a representative visiting certain churches. He was staying in Eileen’s home and with her family. He went out in the morning for a run in her N.J. town. It was garbage day and all the homes had placed their garbage cans out on the road. When he returned from his run he said, ‘Eileen, the garbage cans in America are so large! Do they really have that much to throw away every month?’ What he did not know was that in her town they collect the trash not monthly but twice a week. We consume and discard at an alarming rate in our culture today.”
Back in 1996 I planned a mission trip to Guatemala for our youth and some of our adults. One of the most poignant aspects of that trip was visiting a school located on the edge of the Guatemala City dump. It was run by Sister Gladys and it served the children who lived in squatter sheds on top of the dump itself... cardboard shacks with corrugated metal roofs. The parents of these children worked as pickers in the city dump. They waited for the garbage trucks to dump their loads of waste and they would sift through it for metal, recyclables, and anything they could re-sell. They were the poorest of the poor in Guatemala. We took a walking trip through the dump to see them at work from a distance and were told not to take pictures lest we offend them. I didn’t need to – the picture of them is burned into my memory. Now whenever I see the many things of value that people throw away on garbage day, I think of those pickers in Guatemala, and am reminded of how wasteful we are with our money here. We buy things and throw them out simply because we’ve tired of them.
Christ calls us to re-align our sense of values. Instead of seeing wealth as the accumulation of physical things, it is to see wealth in the Kingdom of God. Instead of investing in materialism to invest in God’s people and their needs. And if I could make a declaration I would declare 2019 the year to alleviate hunger right here in Newport News. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if nobody went to bed hungry in our city all year long? What a wealthy city we would be if God never once heard anyone in our city pray the words: “I’m hungry.” And we could be a wealthy congregation if we would see the value of investing in God’s kingdom and in God’s church here and now.
There’s such deep satisfaction when we invest in God’s kingdom... and it lasts forever ... the satisfaction you get when you buy stuff just can’t compare. Stuff goes into the house and stuff comes out of the house to the garbage and still we are unsatisfied. Because life is more than stuff... seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.
When Mother Teresa died in September 1997, the newspaper posted a photo of her bedroom with all her earthly possessions: a single bed, a change of clothes, a small table and chair with a lamp and her Bible on top. A picture on her wall of the cross with a crown of thorns around it. (Not much for someone who had received millions of dollars over the years from people everywhere.) By earthly standards she’d be considered poor... but I think of Mother Teresa as one of the wealthiest people I ever knew.