When Wealth Takes Control

First published August 2019, a sermon preached by the Reverend Ray Gibbs
Bible text: Luke 12: 13 - 21

There's an old story about a hermit who stumbled onto a cave in which was hidden an enormous treasure.  The hermit, being old and wise, realized what he had discovered, and immediately took to his heels and ran from the cave as fast as he could.  But as he was running, he came upon three bandits who stopped him and inquired as to what he was fleeing.  "I'm fleeing the Devil!" he said.  Curious, they said, "Show us."  Protesting all the way, he took them to the cave where he had found the treasure.  "Here," said the hermit, "is the death, which was running after me."

Well, the three thought the old man was crazy and sent him on his way.  Gleefully revelling in their new-found treasure, they determined that one of them should go back to bring back some food, while the other two would prepare the treasure for hauling it away.  One volunteered, thinking to himself, that while in the town he would poison the food and kill his rivals, and then have all the treasure to himself.  But while he was away, the other two were thinking, that they could kill him when he returned with the food and divide the spoils between just the two of them.  This they did, and then they settled down to eat their food and celebrate their successful plan. But their banquet turned out to be a funeral feast, because when the poison hit their stomachs, they too died, leaving the treasure as they had found it.

That is a story about greed, and Jesus says, "Beware of greed!" in our Gospel today.  Now for another story.  The year was 1347.  The Black Plague was raging across Europe and people by the 100’s and by the 1000’s were dying in fields and cities.  Some began to suspect the deaths were brought about because of the wrath of God, and in one German city, ‘Lubeck’, they determined that they needed to do something to appeal to God for forgiveness.  So they began to bring enormous amounts of money, jewels and other riches to churches and monasteries in the area.  But there was one monastery that didn’t want their offerings.

The monks and priests of that monastery were convinced that the money was contaminated with whatever had spread the plague, and so they barred their gates and refused to allow the citizens to enter.  But the people were frantic, and so they picked up their valuables: coins, gold, and jewels, and threw them over the walls.  But the monks didn’t want this wealth, so they threw it back.  Then the citizens threw it back inside, and monks threw it back outside, and so the stand-off continued for hours: riches were tossed back and forth until the clerics finally gave up and allowed the riches to remain.  Within hours, piles 3 to 4 feet high filled the monastery courtyard, and for months following the incident, some claim for years, but this is a story of human beings, so I doubt it very much, the money remained untouched.

The monks and priests at that monastery believed this wealth would harm them. They believed these great riches would destroy them, and that was pretty much what Jesus warned His disciples about: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).  This is a repeated theme in Scripture.  Paul wrote to Timothy: “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (1Timothy 6:9)

And Job said: “If I have made gold my trust, or called fine gold my confidence, if I have rejoiced because my wealth was abundant, or because my hand had found much, I would have been false to God above.”  (Job 31:24-25 & 28)  Now, that’s not to say that being rich is a bad thing.  Throughout the Old Testament, God blessed many who loved Him with wealth: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, David, Solomon and others, they were all wealthy men.

In fact, God implied that if Israel obeyed Him, they would be a wealthy nation: “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  (Deuteronomy 8:11-14)

So you see, the problem is not wealth itself, we will always have the rich and the poor. The problem is when wealth takes control of people and causes them to forget God.  And that brings us to our text this morning.  There’s a man who wants Jesus to settle a family dispute: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Now, that was quite normal back then, it was like going to a solicitor today, it was not uncommon for people in Palestine to take their unsettled disputes to respected Rabbis; but Jesus refused to be mixed up in anyone’s disputes about money.”  But now, why wouldn’t Jesus do that?  Why wouldn’t he get mixed in this argument between these two brothers?  Well because the problem (as with many disputes over inheritance) had to do with greed or in old English: covetousness.

I’ve heard of brothers and sisters who hate each other and have never talked to each other because they didn’t get what they wanted when the parents died.  I’ve even read of families where brothers cheated their sisters, and vice-versa out of their inheritance, and it created a conflict they never resolved.  And they were all happy to call themselves: “Christians.”

You see, an inheritance often brings out the worst in people, because there are people who love their riches more than they love their relatives.  So Jesus rightly turns down this greedy family member, and launches into a lesson about greed: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness.”  To illustrate His point, Jesus tells them a parable about a wealthy man who had been blessed with a bumper crop.  So he decided to tear down his old barns, and build new barns to hold all the excess.  Now, is there anything wrong with a farmer having a good harvest? (No!)   And was there anything wrong with building bigger barns?  (Not really!)  So, what was wrong with what this farmer was doing?

Well, Jesus said the wealthy man said: “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’  But God said to him, ‘Fool!  This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  So is the one who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Luke 12:19-21

What was wrong?  Well, the man’s first thoughts, were about himself:  “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’  It was all about him!  In fact, if you went through this parable you would find of the 54 words in the parable in the original Greek, fully 18 of them are first-person words like “I,” “me,” and “my.”  God, and what God wanted of him, wasn’t even on this farmer’s radar.  Do you remember the time when we once had a National Lottery, well we now have ‘Euro millions, and power ball lotteries as well as all sorts of cards.

Now on the dreaded ‘Facebook’, someone asked, (leaving out any reference to lotteries): “What would you do if someone suddenly gave you £50 million?”  I was intrigued by the answers people gave.  They wrote about how they’d pay off their debts, or go on a cruise or a special holiday, a trip around the world featured highly. How they would buy a better house or a better car, or maybe even to take care of their parents, or set aside a trust fund for their children, and that was all good stuff.

But what I found interesting was that nobody seemed to mention: God.  Nobody would think to say “thank you”, or talked about how they’d spend any part, even just 1%, let alone the Biblical 10% of this vast amount of money for helping the poor, the needy, or giving to the church or a charity to do the work on their behalf.  None of that came up. God, and what He would want from them, wasn’t even on their radar, it was all: ‘Me, me, me!’

Now… it didn’t really matter.  The money wasn’t real!  None of those people had ever received £50 million, nor were they likely to.  It was all a game!  But in that game, they had revealed their priorities.  When they let their imaginations run wild, God didn’t even show up in their thoughts.  I mean, it is not like they had any of this money anyway.  They could have given it all of £50 million to God, and they would not have been out of pocket one penny, because there was no money!  It was all imaginary.  But their first thoughts were all about themselves: I – ME – MINE – MYSELF, just like a certain rich fool.

Even without the presence of millions of pounds in their bank accounts, God doesn’t show up in a lot of people’s financial thinking.  I ran across a cute little poem a few years back: “It's not what you'd do with a million, if a million were your lot.  It's what you are doing at present with the pound and a penny you've got.”  The Bible repeatedly teaches about this: Proverbs 3:9-10 says “Honour the Lord with your wealth and with the first-fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.”

The rich fool forgot that.  He didn’t honour God with the first fruits of his harvest, because all he could think about was himself.  But why?  Why would the Rich Fool forget God?  Well, the rest of Jesus’ teaching tells us why:  “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.  Consider the birds: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you, than the birds!”  (Luke 12:22-24)

You see, the Rich Fool wasn’t rich toward God because… He was afraid!

And that’s the reason a lot of Christians don’t honour God with finances. They are afraid. They are afraid that God isn’t going to take care of them. And so, they get anxious. They worry about what they’re going to eat. They worry about how they’re going to have clothing. Where they’re going to live.

Money is the one place where many of us Christians struggle with our faith. We’re not sure we can trust God enough to really take care of our needs. Money is the barometer of our faith and it is often reflected by how much we put in the offering plate, or how much we help the poor, or give to missions.  Now, oddly enough, the one group that struggles the most on this, are the rich.  Now, I have a friend who is a vicar of a Chelsea Church in London, and he told a story of one of his own relatives who attends the church where he serves.  This relative is fairly wealthy, and often rubs the nose of his poorer cleric relative in it, and often brags about the fact that he gives a great deal to the church.  But my friend tells me he’s watched this relative put money in the plate, and he knows that this wealthy older man usually only puts in £10 or £20, now you may think that a lot, but this really is peanuts to him, it is the sort of tip, he would give to the person who parked his car.

The rich tend to trust their money, their possessions, their savings and pension funds, and too often they’re the ones who put £5 or £10 or even £20 in the bag, (that’s if they feel generous).  They have lots of money, but they just don’t give it to God.  That’s not every rich person of course, some are extremely generous and we must be thankful for that.  But don’t the rich have more money than the poor?  Of course they do.  That’s part of the definition of being rich!  But they also have different priorities about how they spend it.  It is not about having riches, and there all sorts of riches in this world as well as money, but what you do with the riches that are a gift from God is the issue, and whether they rule you, or you rule them.

Jesus gives us those priorities when He quotes the Rich Fool’s in Luke 12:19: “I will say to my soul, "Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’  So, what was the goal of the rich fool?  He wanted to relax.  He wanted to enjoy the “good life.”, and that is what often happens to people who cling to money, they’re driven to enjoy the ‘Good Life’, but not the “God” life.   Think of Sir Philip Green and his family and their life style, so they end up trusting in their money, their possessions, and their pension fund.

I think maybe the rich fool went to “church”, I’m sure he attended the Temple and the synagogue.  But he didn’t trust God.  Why?  Well (pulling some notes from my wallet) I can see ‘this!’  I can count this!   I can tally up the amount of money I have in my savings and current and other accounts, but I can’t see God.  I can’t see God, but I can see and touch my money, and so much easier to trust that which I can see.

And that’s what happens with too many church-goers.  They can’t see God, so He’s not quite “real” to them.  I mean, they’ll go through the motions of church: singing, praying, communion, the sermon, but it’s all a matter of doing “church.”  They have done their religious duty, but they don’t think much about God because He’s just “not there.”  And because He’s not quite real in their eyes, they don’t really believe God will be there for them, and they end up worshipping their riches, now that could be anything from good looks, to great skills to wealth, but ultimately they will pay a terrible price.

There’s a story told of a businessman who was granted one wish by an angel.  He said he wanted to see the share prices for one day in the future.  He figured that if he knew what the share prices would be like ahead of time, he could invest accordingly, and thus he could make a killing on the market.  So, the angel gave him a future ‘Financial Times’ , and as the businessman poured over the share prices he began to gloat over his potential riches, but then he leafed through the rest of the paper, and stopped on the obituary page.  Guess whose name he read there?  That’s right: his own.  All his great wealth would do him no good, because he’d be dead.

In Jesus’ parable, God says to wealthy man: ‘Fool!  This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  And so Jesus says: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions”   Don’t let riches become your God!  Let God be God, and trust in Him to supply all your needs.

One of the most famous Christians of all time was the apostle Paul.  He wrote about half of our New Testament, and started a number of churches throughout Asia, Greece and Rome, and this great Christian wrote this to the church at Philippi: “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content whether well-fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:11-13

But then Paul gives us this astounding promise in Philippians 4:19: “my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

Now, here’s the deal, this sermon isn’t meant to shame anyone.  We all struggle with our faith at one time or another, but it is worth noting that we often spend money, time and energy on things that we want.  The more we want something, the more we’re willing to pay a price.  So the question this morning is this: how much is God worth to you?  How rich do you think you should be toward your God?  How much is God worth to you?  How rich do you think you should be toward your God?  Amen.