Prosperity is good, right? But it comes with challenges to both nations and individuals. American society is admired throughout the world as industrious and productive. Americans work many more hours than most others in the industrial world and they take fewer vacations.
I know you are aware of your pastor’s impressive educational resume; Wellesley College and Yale Divinity School. But did you know she began her formal education in Oxford? That’s right. Two weeks before her fifth birthday she enrolled in St. Barnabas Church of England First School. I used to deliver and collect her and her older brother Andrew every day from school on my way to and from Mansfield College. We traveled on one of those iconic red double-decker buses. One day on the bus, two English businessmen in three piece suits were talking within earshot about how they would never work for an American company. “They work you too hard.”
Because of a variety of historical and geographic reasons our nation has produced a level of prosperity previously unknown to humankind. Most of us would consider this a good thing, but prosperity has its dangers. Jesus once said, “What profit is it to a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul.” This warning rings true for both people and nations, so let us consider some of the dangers that come with prosperity.
The first danger is when prosperity becomes the goal of life. Recall Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me please,” said Alice, “which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a great deal on where you want to get to,” said the cat. How many Americans see the accumulation of wealth and possessions as the principle game and goal of life? We might ask ourselves then, where are we going? What are we building? What are we working for? What are we storing up, and for whom do we store it?
You all know the saying, “You can’t take it with you!” Let us hear what the Bible says about this? Listen to this passage from Ecclesiastes:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?
And hear this passage from Psalm 49 that we had for our first reading,
Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave. When we look at the wise, they die; the foolish and stupid perish together and leave their wealth to others.
In other words, you can’t take it with you.
Today’s Gospel begins with a dispute between two brothers over an inheritance. Sadly, this sort of family feud is not an uncommon occurrence, then or now. If you have ever seen a family fight over money and possessions, you will know that it is one of the most unpleasant interactions there can be.
Under the rules of primogeniture the inheritance would fall to the older brother. But the younger brother is greedy. But Jesus refuses to arbitrate the dispute; after all, who can judge whose greed is right? So, Jesus 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.”
And then Jesus told them the parable about the rich farmer who built bigger barns to hold his abundance. This story is only told in Luke’s Gospel, but it is consistent with everything Jesus ever said about wealth and consumption.
As we listen to this story let us be careful not to dismiss this farmer too quickly as a fool. If we turn him into a caricature, it is all that more easy for us to dismiss him, rather than seeing something of ourselves in him.
After all, was this acquisitive farmer really so bad? Jesus doesn’t portray him as a monster. His prosperity didn’t come from theft or graft. He is not Bernie Madoff, pillaging the retirements of thousands. Or big Pharma that help create the opioid epidemic to profit off the suffering of others. Jesus says nothing about him mistreating any of his workers or exploiting them. There is no dishonesty or criminality here. Just prosperity. Sun, soil and rain have collaborated to make him rich. He seems to be a careful and conservative fellow. You know people like him. Perhaps you are one. He isn’t a bad man.
So, what is he? He is a fool, says Jesus. And what makes someone a fool? “We all make mistakes, but a fool persists in them.”
What is this man’s persistent mistake? His folly is that he lives for himself. Notice how he talks to himself, he plans for himself, he congratulates himself. He even talks to his soul, saying “Soul.” In other words he lives completely for himself. It never occurs to him that the brief candle of his life could be snuffed out at any time. And then it is. His sudden death proves him to have lived as a fool.
In religious terms the rich fool was an idolater. He had put his wealth and possessions in the place of God. To be an idolater doesn’t have to be as obvious as bowing down and worshipping a graven image. It can be a subtle as counting on your wealth and possessions to do what only God can do. The rich fool derived security, comfort and meaning from his abundance. But things cannot provide real security, comfort, and meaning. Only God can.
“So, God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? ’And Jesus concludes his parable by saying: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
I’ve preached on this text a number of times and never really noticed the phrase “rich towards God.” It’s a great phrase. What might it mean to be rich toward God? What does being rich toward God have to do with our wealth? Let us be clear that wealth is not evil. The farmer’s abundance was not evil. Many people think the Bible says that “money is the root of all evil,” but it doesn’t. The Bible doesn’t say, “Money is the root of all evil,” but “love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10) And Jesus didn’t quite say, “You can’t serve God and money (even though that is the way the NRSV translates it). You old timers who grew up on the KJV know what Jesus said. He said “You can’t serve God and Mammon,” which is not money per se, but the god of money. The personification of money as a false god, an idol.
It is the love of money, the worship of money, that endangers the soul, not money itself. Money is neutral, neither good nor evil. Money is an instrument. It is what we do with it that counts. Whatever abundance we have is a gift of God to be used for the purposes of God. That was what made the rich farmer a fool. He thought all he had was his to use for himself. To store and save. And he did nothing with it. In the end he had nothing to show for it. He missed his opportunity to be rich toward God.
Now being an American has great advantages, but it also carries grave spiritual dangers. As you know there are great disparities between rich and poor in our land, but some polls have shown that Americans vastly underrate the extremity of the inequality, so let us look at some numbers.
The net worth of U.S. households and non-profit organizations was $94.7 trillion in the first quarter of 2017, a record level both in nominal terms and purchasing power parity. If divided equally among 124 million U.S. households, this would be $760,000 per family; however, the bottom 50% of families, representing 62 million American households, average $11,000 net worth. I know I don’t make $760,000 a year.
But the inequality gets even worse when we look at the rest of the world. Here’s a wild statistic from Oxfam: The 26 richest people on earth in 2018 had the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population, some 3.8 billion people. And while the richest saw their wealth increase by 12 %, the poorest half saw their wealth decrease by 11%. Which is even more astounding since the poorest in the world have actually been getting less poor, just not as fast as the richest are getting richer.
The solution to this problem obviously transcends the scope of this sermon, but you can see the analogy to our parable. You and I, like the farmer, are rich by accidents of weather, geography and history. If you were born in Ecuador, the chances are exceedingly slim that you would be born rich. And many of the people who want to immigrate to America merely want better for themselves and their families, just as many generations of Americans have since the founding of our nation.
Most Americans don’t think of themselves as rich. There is always somebody richer. But notice how our cars and houses get bigger and bigger, and things that were once considered luxuries are now considered necessities. Are we any happier that we were before we had 35 kinds of olive oil to choose from? Ask any elder who lived through the Great Depression if they feel that our nation feels better, stronger, more unified today than it was then during some truly hard times? Or if people today seem happier, and more at peace with themselves. Today, we have incredible abundance, but we also have crime and drugs and gated communities. “What does it profit us to gain the whole world and lose our soul.” So, has our abundance really been that good for us, not to even raise the question of whether it is good for the world?
I want to tell you a story about a man who was rich toward God. I know nothing of his religious faith or background, but I know of his generosity.
His name was Dale Schroeder, and he worked as a carpenter in Iowa for 67 years in the same business. He owned two pairs of jeans and a rusty Chevrolet truck. Schroeder grew up poor and was never able to go to college. He never married and had non children. So, shortly before he passed away in 2005, he approached his friend and lawyer, Steve Nielsen, to discuss what to do with his life savings. Nielsen said,
He wanted to help kids that were like him that probably wouldn’t have an opportunity to go to college but for his gift,” Nielsen told the station. “I said, ‘How much are we talking about, Dale?’ And he said, ‘Oh, just shy of $3 million.’ I nearly fell out of my chair.
Most of that money went into Schroeder’s scholarship fund, which helped future teachers, doctors and therapists fulfill their dreams of continuing to higher education.” (From Yahoo Lifestyle, July 19, 2020)
The money is now gone, but the 33 recipients, who call themselves “Dale’s kids,” though they never met him, all pledged to pay it forward by funding someone’s college, which was one of the conditions of the fund. Dale Schroeder was a wise and generous steward of his treasure, which continued to give even after his life was over.
Now you and I as Christians believe that life is more than food and clothing, that there is a higher moral law than the law of the jungle, and that our ultimate goal and destination is to God and not to advance our own prospects.
I raise these dangers for us if we have ever been tempted to think that Christian missions are merely icing on the church’s cake, or that stewardship of our wealth is pretty much just about the annual November fund drive.
I am really talking about a spiritual issue, about faith and hope and love, and about personal integrity. I’m asking what it might mean for those of us with abundance to be rich toward God. Because, if you can’t take it with you, what will you do with it? Amen.
(I preached this sermon on August 4, 2019 at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI. To listen to an audio podcast of this sermon go here.)