Greed, Giving, or Gave
Despite there being a game show named "Greed;" despite it being fashionable to be always wanting more, better, different, greed is damnable sin. Scripture, as you heard in the Epistle, ranks greed right up there with sexual immorality, impurity, lust and evil desires. Colossians says greed is idolatry and because of this the wrath of God comes. Ephesians 5:5 admonishes us, "Be sure of this that nobody who is immoral, unclean or greedy has any share in the kingdom of Christ." No wonder Jesus says so pointedly, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed." Greed is a tricky, deceptive sin; that's why Jesus warns us against "all kinds of greed," and then tells us a parable to paint us a picture.
He shows us a man who is rich to begin with. You can't tell that from the English, but from the Greek the point Jesus emphasizes is that the man was rich to start. He was a Donald Trump, a Bill Gates, a Michael Dell. He didn't need money; He didn't need for his ground to produce a good crop. Already his barns were filled; already he had more money than he knew what to do with. Not only could he light his cigars with 100 dollar bills, if he wanted to, he could make cigars out of 100 dollar bills without missing them.
Now this rich man's land produced a bumper crop. This man who had way more than he could ever need or use now has fantastically more. This would be like Donald Trump finding oil on the swamp land he bought, like Bill Gates stocks splitting, like Michael Dell marrying the CEO of Compaq. If the man was rich before, he is filthy rich now. If the man had money to burn before, he has banks to burn now.
Now see this man sunk deep in contemplation. See him in a plush chair, stacks of gold coins on the table in front of him; see through the window behind him mounds of grain and full barns. See his furrowed brow, his chin on his chest, his folded hands resting on his middle-aged belly. What I'm describing is an actual painting. This is what you first see, but as you begin to study the painting. As you move from the mounds of grain in the background, to the tables piled with gold in the foreground, to his neatly folded hands, you notice one more important detail. The rich man is stone cold DEAD!
What you don't see, but the parable tells us is there, is God coming to the rich man and saying, "You fool! You thought because you had money to live for years, you had years to live." And you don't see the angels descending on the screaming rich man to violently drag him off to an eternity of hell. But most of all what you don't see in the painting and probably haven't yet seen in the parable is that YOU are the greedy person, not the rich man. This is a parable like Nathan told David. When David got enraged at the rich man who stole, killed and ate the poor man's sheep, he was really condemning himself for stealing Uriah's wife and killing him.
So here. The rich man isn't pictured as greedy. He starts out rich. He plants his crops as usual, and his land produces wildly! It doesn't say he was longing to be richer or trying to be richer. But O how we long to be like the rich people we hear about who do get richer. O how we envy the Donald Trump who finds oil, the Bill Gates whose stock splits, the Michael Dell who marries rich. This is because we foolishly think if we just had an abundance of things it would mean we had an abundance of life. We don't see that one missed heartbeat and all the money in the world isn't going to matter.
Our sin of greed is exposed by this parable. We do envy the rich who get richer; daydream of being them; think how much better it would be if we had so much money that we could live for years. But how can this problem be addressed? Many think the problem is addressed by being rich TOWARD God as our bulletin translates the last verse. Become a good giver; better yet become a tither. This is how this text is preached. If only that rich man had been rich toward God, he would've been saved.
Do you think being a good giver means someone is certainly saved? Do you think giving erases the foolishness of thinking that since you have plenty to live you have plenty of life? Do you think you address the problem of greed by preaching stewardship? Do you really think that if you are a good steward you can't be greedy? Think again. If you preach this parable as stewardship, you only switch people from the foolishness of believing their riches give them life to the foolishness of believing that being rich toward God does. As if rich people don't live long, but good stewards do.
The answer to greed is not teaching people how to use things, but teaching them they are rich IN God. Unfortunately here I have to go into a rather technical explanation of why the last verse is to be translated "rich IN God" and not "rich TOWARD God." The old Beck Bible and the New English Bible are the only ones I know that translate it "rich in God." But if you search the Greek grammars you will find that the Greek word is to only be translated "toward" when used with verbs of motion. When it's used with a person or thing it is to be translated "in."
Besides being "rich in God" rather than "toward God" fits the context of the parable. Jesus tells the parable to confront the problem of greed not the problem of giving. Jesus is exposing the error of believing that because you have lots of earthly possessions, lost of health, or lots of retirement, you necessarily have lots of life. Greed flows from this fundamental error: that the more I have the more I have to live. And as I said, you don't address that error by telling people to give some of their possessions, or some of their time, or some of their retirement to God. You can still be caught up in greed and be a great giver
What follows this parable also supports the fact that Jesus wants us to be "rich in God" rather than "rich toward God." The very next words out of the mouth of Jesus are, "For this reason, I say to you don't be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, nor for your body as to what you shall put on." Then Jesus goes on to speak of how the God who feeds the birds and clothes the lilies of the field will surely do so for us who are so valuable to Him that He sacrificed His only beloved Son for us. In the 11 verses that follow this parable Jesus pleads with us not to be worried about whether we will have enough. He shows that a person stays alive only because God keeps them alive not because they have health, wealth, or are good givers. Sure, there are other places in the Bible that speak of giving, but here Jesus isn't interested in your giving riches to God but in your getting riches from God.
But we aren't interested in getting God's riches. Our text begins with someone in the crowd interrupting Jesus and asking him to be an arbiter between he and his brother in an inheritance dispute. Jesus had been speaking of the riches of God, of how they didn't need to fear God or the things of men, of how the Holy Spirit would give them the wherewithal to confess His name for the salvation of their souls. Then out of the blue this man asks Jesus to make sure he gets his fair share of an earthly inheritance.
Hasn't a child ever done something like that to you? You're telling them about how precious some family heirloom is. How it was passed down to you from your father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, and you would one day give this precious treasure to them. They interrupt you to ask, "If I sell it, how much do you think I could get?" They just don't understand the richness of what you are trying to give them. They think in terms of cold hard cash. How disappointing!
Well my friends, we do this to our Lord all the time. We care more about the words coming out of the mouth of Alan Greespan than we do out of the our Lord's mouth. We care more about being rich in health rather than rich in God's grace. We care more about having money laid up for years of living than we do about having the daily bread of Holy Communion. And the world makes us feel as fools if we dare to think otherwise. O you can be rich in God but this is only one among many of the riches you better have in life. Have your religion all right, but have your bank accounts in order. Have your faith all right, but have your retirement. Have your wealth in God, but you better make sure you have your health too.
Don't you get tired of it? Don't you long to be like lilies of the field and birds of the air? Don't you long to be like children who really have a heavenly Father? What parent wants their children worried about bank accounts, retirements, or even medical reports? Is our God any less of a loving parent than we sinners? Don't you take bank statements, retirement reports, and medical reports out of the hands of your children before they have a chance to read them? Than can't we live as if our heavenly Father does the same? Can't we live as if we are filthy rich in the grace of God? Can't we live as if have more love from God than we know what to do with?
God says, "Yes!" Scripture says, "Yes!" Faith says, "Yes!" Colossians says, "All the fullness [That is all the richness, all the abundance, all the bounty] of the Godhead dwells in Christ Jesus bodily." And where does the body of Jesus touch your body? What does St. Paul say in Galatians? "As many of you who have been baptized, you have put on Christ." In your Baptism, you have all the life, all the health, all the wealth of Christ. Even if your heart is failing, your bank account declining, and your retirement faltering, in your Baptism you have all the fulness of the Godhead.
Yes, you may hear your accountant say, "Your broke." You may hear your retirement planner say, "You started too late." You may hear you doctor say, "There isn't anything we can do." And you are going to feel poor, dirt poor when you do. And the green eyed monster of greed will raise it's ugly head. "If only you had this or that! If only you could be this or that person." Well, the man in the parable apparently was rich in all the things greed would have us be rich in. But he dropped dead and was dragged to hell. But you have heard from the lips of God Himself, that your many sins have been put away for Christ's sake. "You will not die. You will live forever." I'd say you're rich with health and wealth, and that rich man in hell wouldn't disagree.
Yes, greed moves me to want another body, another bank account, another life. It moves me to want to be rich in the things of this life that count. And, as with all temptation, there is a grain of truth here. This body is dying; my bank accounts do go down, and this life that I feel beating in my chest isn't enough. But the answer isn't to be rich in the things of this life; the answer is to be rich in life. Christ says He comes with abundant life. What I need is His body and His life. And where do I get that? Where is the body and life of Christ given to me? Where but at this altar, in this Meal?
Friends, the text began with a man worried about his earthly inheritance. Then Jesus shows us a man who had no worries, but died leaving his inheritance to who knows whom. Being rich in God means you're a joint heir with Christ. You inherit all that He does, and you don't die. I'd say that's rich. I'd say you have more than enough for today and for an eternity of tomorrows. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XI (8-19-01) Luke 12:13-21