notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Being rich toward God
Good Shepherd 1/8/2004 (Communion Service)
Hosea 11.1-11, Luke 12.13-21
I don't expect you to have much sympathy for me. I'm the man in the story who asked Jesus to persuade my brother to divide the inheritance with me.
I don't expect you to have much sympathy for me because since that day I've felt condemned as the greedy one. And maybe I was being greedy then. But there's more to my story than that.
Scapegoating me leaves everyone else to get away without thinking too hard about their own attitude to wealth and possessions. That's not what The Teacher intended. That won't help any of us.
You see, I don't think my intentions were that dishonourable or unusual. There was money in the family, and I was dreaming of one day having a share in that money. Like you would, perhaps, if you were in the same position.
All I wanted was some capital to put into a small property. Somewhere in a slightly nicer part of town, a good environment for my wife and I to bring up our family, better schools there, better prospects. Just that little dream. I'd got friends who'd made that move - it had worked out well for them. I had all the leaflets from the estate agents. If my estimates about the inheritance added up, my little dream could come true.
I thought my brother would understand that. I know he had little dreams of his own that were very similar to mine. But somehow his estimates about the inheritance didn't add up with mine. Somehow what had been a decent enough relationship between brothers went very sour, as neither of us would give up on our dreams.
As my brother held the purse-strings it looked like my dream was doomed to die. So when I saw him in the town that day I thought that Jesus might intervene for me.
I asked the Teacher to tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me. I was shocked by his reply: "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?"
Well, I thought Jesus was a judge and arbiter. I thought that was the whole point of a Messiah, to be a judge over our affairs. Every religion I could think of has placed a judgmental God at its core. I knew plenty of religious devotees who felt their beliefs entitled them to condemn others to hell and damnation.
But here was this man, Jesus, resisting my plea, refusing to judge my brother, refusing to arbitrate in our affairs, throwing the responsibility back onto us. This was breathtaking and very, very, challenging. Because now we had to face each other and work out a solution in the light of what Jesus said next.
He told a story about a man obsessed with the idea of building bigger and bigger barns to store more and more of his grain and goods, thinking this would set him up for life. The story ends with the man's premature death, and God saying to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
The Teacher told this story to warn us against greed. To show "how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God." It wasn't a judgment on us, but it left us to make our own judgments about what we should do with our obsessions.
At first I thought the story condemned my brother. After all, he was the one wanting to keep the wealth to himself, to set himself up for life while excluding me and my dreams.
But then I realised it could also be about me. Because I too was storing up things for myself - in my head, by living in a dream stimulated by other people's ideas about the good life, surrounded by estate agents' marketing materials and glossy brochures from fancy schools.
The teacher's words left my brother and I with a few options about seeing this problem in a different way. They all revolved around another question he raised but left us to answer: a question that seems to hold the key to a satisfied life. What does it mean to be "rich toward God"?
That's a very challenging question. It suggests that what you most value in life influences the sort of life you live. If you most value wealth you'll probably be very smart but very anxious; if you value God you'll also value things like family, community, peace, etc, and you may dress cheaply but you'll be satisfied.
Being rich can buy us many things. But being rich towards God can buy us some very differnt things altogether. That's what Jesus made us remember. He made us think that with money we can buy:
- a bed, but no dreams;
- books, but not intelligence;
- food, but not appetite;
- adornments, but not beauty;
- medicines, but not health;
- entertainment, but not joy;
- a crucifix, but not a Saviour...
Jesus left us with two questions to consider:
First, what are the things you think will make you rich?
Second, what are the things you think will make you rich towards God?
We knew that we would only be truly happy and fulfilled when our answers to both questions were the same. And we knew that that could take some time, some prayer, some work.
I won't tell you what my brother and I did about the inheritance. The Teacher didn't tell the story just for us, but for everyone having to deal with their hopes and dreams in a material world.
But I'm grateful I can learn from those many other religious devotees whose beliefs have inspired them to faithful, careful, generous living, whose lives suggest to us what it means be "rich toward God".
People like Jean-Baptiste Vianney, Cure d'Ars, spiritual guide, 1859 (festival 4 August), who lived a life of extreme asceticism, denying himself far more than most of us could imagine we would, devoting himself to the care of the poor and destitute and to guiding others in the Christian faith. We can't all be like him, but we can all take something from his words, with which I close:
My children, reflect that a Christian's treasure is not on earth but in heaven. Therefore our thoughts should turn to where our treasure is. Ours is a noble task: that of prayer and love. To pray and to love, that constitutes the greatest possible happiness for us in this life.
This sermon is a rehash of two previous ones :
A Holy Trinity evening service, 3rd August 2003, and a Blue Coat School talk on 2nd May 2002 - Treasures & Riches (previously unpublished)
With money we can buy - words seen on the wall of a restaurant in Guatemala: translated by Judith Escribano, quoted from a Christian Aid group study guide: For love or money
Cure d'Ars quote from Celebrating the Saints - Daily Spiritual Readings for the Calendar of the Church of England