One of the last things that happens when you graduate from seminary is the staff from the Church Pension Group comes to talk to you about money management. They help you understand how retirement funds work for clergy, encourage you to make sure you are doing some additional savings and investment planning, and remind you that, like tithing, how you manage your finances is a witness to your congregation for being good stewards. That lesson is reiterated each year, as the priest is encouraged to be a smart investor through email reminders. We even go to a wellness conference a few times over the course of our ministry to make sure we are tending to our financial wellness in addition to vocational, spiritual, and bodily wellness. The lesson to clergy again and again, is to be good stewards of our financial resources.
So imagine my discomfort with the parable from Jesus today. At first glance, this is a story about smart financial investments. A man has a bumper crop – the land produces so abundantly he cannot fit the excess crops into his current barns. Knowing that the land is fickle, maybe even having taken some notes from our ancestor Joseph who prevented a seven-year famine by stockpiling during a seven-year boon, the man decides he will just have to build a bigger barn to hold all the extra crops. Quite frankly, his actions do not sound that far off from what any investment counselor who might tell us to do – store the excess away so that when a rainy day comes, or even when retirement comes, we can still “eat, drink, and be merry.” All in all, his logic sounds pretty spot-on to me.
Here is the kicker though: the day the newly enlarged barn is finished is the same day that the man will die. All those plans, hopes, and dreams for a secure retirement are gone. He never gets to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He never gets to retire in comfort. He never gets to eat, drink, and be merry. Our immediate reaction to this tragedy might be to proclaim how life or God is not fair. But into our disappointment, Jesus says, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
In these last words from Jesus, Jesus takes the wind out of our sails. Jesus reminds us that being a good steward of our resources means lots of things: being smart with our money, saving for times of famine, giving to the church, and caring for our neighbor. But most importantly, being a good steward of our resources is not just about sound financial practices. Being a good steward of our resources is also managing our relationship with our money – and more specifically, managing our relationship with God in relation to our money.
Now some of you may be thinking, “Here she goes. She’s going to tell me how I need to give more money to the church to right my relationship with God.” No need to get too anxious today. I do not think Jesus is looking for a specific action today – as if to say, “Do not be like the man with the barns. Give your full ten percent to the church and all will be well.” No, what Jesus is trying to do is help us see that our relationship with money matters. Unlike a polite dinner guest, Jesus never shies away from talking about money. He is constantly warning us about the potential of riches to corrupt our relationship with God. So the answer to what the rich man should do may not be a clear-cut formula, but we get some obvious clues about what Jesus means about being rich toward God.
Going back to the story is particularly helpful. The most obvious thing that we see happening in the parable is that the wealthy man has become completely self-absorbed and ego-centric. Listen again to the words of the parable, “And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” The list is long: What should I do? My crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul. All the words of the wealthy man are self-referential.[i] Nowhere does he talk to God. Nowhere does he talk to his family or a trusted friend. Nowhere does he consult his property manager, or the local priest. He never praises God for the abundance. He never acknowledges that the land has provided. He never even considers sharing his abundance. He is self-interested, self-protecting, and self-centered. And all of that focus on the self comes from a relationship with money and with God that is out of whack.
So how do we avoid the slippery slope that leads to self-centeredness and greed, luring us to constantly redefine how much is “enough”? What exactly is being rich toward God? Jesus tells us the answer to our quandary throughout Luke’s gospel. As one scholar explains, “Being rich toward God entails using one’s resources for the benefit of one’s neighbor in need, as the Samaritan did (10:25-37). Being rich toward God includes intentionally listening to Jesus’ word, as Mary did (10:38-42). Being rich toward God consists of prayerfully trusting that God will provide for the needs of life (11:1-13, 12:22-31). Being rich toward God involves selling possessions and giving alms as a means of establishing a lasting treasure in heaven (12:32-34).” In other words, “Life and possessions are a gift of God to be used to advance God’s agenda of care and compassion, precisely for those who lack resources to provide for themselves.”[ii]
Last year, while serving on the board of the Episcopal Ministries of Long Island in New York, we were surprised by a bequest of about 1.3 million dollars. The bequest came from a woman who had seemed to be of little consequence. Each year she had probably given the charitable group about $25 a year. We assumed that was about all she could do. So when the gift came in, we were stunned. After some prayerful discernment, we elected to put one million into our endowment, to ensure that we could keep helping ministries on Long Island. But the three hundred thousand would be for us to try new and innovative ministries – and luckily for us, there was already a proposal on the table that we thought we could not afford: a food truck that would take food around to the homeless in Brooklyn, and maybe even host a social worker and or nurse. I do not know what sort of life this woman led or how she managed her money. But even in death, her richness toward God was obvious to us all.
The challenge of Jesus this week to be rich toward God is not just a challenge for self-centered men of means. Though we may be tempted to finger-point, Jesus and we know that money has the power to corrupt all of our relationships with God. And unfortunately, the consequences are not limited to our relationships with God – our ability to live lives rich toward God impacts our neighbors too. The good news is that we have a community of faith sitting right next to us who can be our support system as we work to turn our hearts and our riches to God. Now I know we all value being respectful dinner guests, but this time, we are going to need to follow Jesus’ lead. In order to really turn our hearts and riches toward God, we are going to need to start talking with our friends about the place of money in our lives and in our relationship with God. We are going to need to talk about our struggles and failures. And we are going to need to celebrate our victories and successes. We are basically going to need to become a giant support group for becoming rich toward God.
I once heard about a “congregation who invited families to not buy any unnecessary new thing for six months in order to break the culturally-induced habit of trying to buy happiness. But they didn’t just invite people to do this, they formed a culture in which they supported each other. They read and talked about a common book on abundant life, they kept in touch via small groups and email, they shared where they were succeeding and struggling and what they were learning. In short, the formed a community so that they could stand against the all-too-human and culturally supported belief that if we just had a little more we’d be happy.”[iii]
I do not know what model or what goals are going to work for each of you. But I do know that just by our very citizenship in this country, we face more temptation toward greed than in probably any other country. If we are going to follow Jesus, to avoid a life of self-centeredness, and claim a life of being rich toward God, we are going to need each other. Whether you want to form a small group or just find a trusted friend, this is the important work Jesus invites us into today. My guess is that building up a community of support that is rich toward God will create much more opportunities to eat, drink, and be merry, than any bigger barn could ever give us. Amen.
[i] Audrey West, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 312.
[ii] Richard P. Carlson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 315.
[iii] David Lose, “What Money Can and Can’t Do,” July 29, 2013, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2668 on July 27, 2016.