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Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 31, 2016

When I deposit my paycheck and raise my checkbook total, it feels pretty good. I have money in the bank and I can pay bills. But then the mortgage and the credit card bill come along (I pay one out of each paycheck) the account doesn’t look as good. I know they are just the normal expenses of my life, but I worry about building that balance up again.

Last week I went to a Planning for Tomorrow conference given by the Episcopal Church. There were all kinds of tips offered from planning an investment strategy to making sure you had enough insurance coverage to getting your will and other documents up-to-date. I enjoyed the presentations, but they made me a little nervous. I felt under-prepared and I was a bit overwhelmed.

The topic of money makes us all uncomfortable I think. We wonder if we have enough to pay current expenses and if our money will go far enough to take us to the end of our lives. We wonder about giving money away now and sometimes give less than we want to because we are trying to secure our future. Money is a pervasive topic in the culture: the lotteries offer massive payoffs, ad campaigns try to convince us to buy things we didn’t know we needed but should have, door-to-door solicitors try to sell us products and services by claiming they are only in the area for the day or a few days and we really, really need to have that tree taken down or our pest control done by them or our address numbers put on the curb so emergency vehicles can find us. We sometimes just don’t know what to do.

We all wish we had more money, but we don’t know how to get it.

The rich man had no such problems. He was in good shape. He had a bumper crop and didn’t even know where to put it all. He decided to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to put everything in. Then he would have enough to eat, drink and make merry for a long time. He didn’t have to worry about bills – he knew he could pay them. He didn’t have to worry about an IRA – he had plenty. He didn’t need the lottery or his uncle to die and leave him a windfall. He didn’t need Congress to pass a tax break.

But the rich man had a bigger problem than money and that was greed. Jesus warns against all kinds of greed because it can get in the way of our relationship with God. It violates the commandment against idolatry. The parable of the rich man is one of Jesus’ many comments on money in the gospels, and he is never in favor of amassing resources; he is always in favor of giving them away (Shannell T. Smith).

The rich man does not seem to have been a bad man. The parable doesn’t say he has earned his wealth dishonestly. It does not say he has taken advantage of his workers or bought land that belonged to others at an unfair price. He is just a man who has been blessed with enormous good fortune and he is going to enjoy it – or so he thinks. But it is not to be. God calls him a fool and says he is going to die that night and then where will his goods go. We really don’t know. There is no mention of family or friends. The rich man stands alone in the parable.

God says the problem with greed – storing up treasures for oneself – is that one cannot then be rich toward God, which is the ultimate goal of life. Being rich toward God means have a relationship with God and with neighbor. It means being part of a community. It means understanding that your purpose is to live the kingdom life (David J. Lose).

The greed for material possessions has made the rich man full of goods, but not full of God. The rich man does not have a relationship with God. He is not thankful for the marvelous harvest he has been given. He thinks he has done it all on his own. He doesn’t even mention the weather, something he can’t control, as a factor in his bounty. The rich man also believes that he is in charge of his destiny, that he can state positively that he will have many years to enjoy this bounty, forgetting that his very life, not to mention his good fortune, is a gift from God. God is not even in the picture for the rich man.

The rich man also has no relationship with his neighbors. He has isolated himself to work on acquiring his wealth. All of his talk is about I, me and mine. We do not hear about another single person, not even his workers who have helped him in the fields. He also does not mention any intention of sharing his good fortune with those who have less. He has ample supply and he could help many starving people. But philanthropy is not in his nature, and it must be if we are to be rich toward God.

The rich man seems like a happy soul, but in spite of all his riches and all his feelings of security, he will never truly be satisfied because idolatry brings emptiness. There is a God-shaped hole in all of us that God put there for a reason, so we would long for God and search God out. The rich man’s life has been so much less than it could have been.

Why do we engage in idolatry – and we all do sometimes. Idolatry of something or some quality helps us feel secure and in control. When we have enough of something – money, reputation, power, weight loss – we will be OK and things will be fine. We will be happy and whole. We will be able to have contentment and peace. God doesn’t give that kind of security. To be rich toward God means that we have to trust God with our will and our lives and hope in God for our futures. God is not something we can touch, something we can control, and that is why the Israelites always end up worshipping the gods other cultures have set up – because they are tangible and feel easier to control.

So what are we to do about money? Jesus is not criticizing the man’s wealth or his prudent saving for the future. He is criticizing the man’s total focus on self and his disregard for God and God’s gifts and his ignoring of his neighbors in need. What is Jesus saying to us? He is telling us we must be thankful for God’s gifts and share our bounty with our neighbors. We must work for the kingdom. Two examples of working for the kingdom are the TOM non-profit based in Tel Aviv, which uses technology to address unmet challenges for people with disabilities. The T and the O stand for Tikkun Olam, which is Hebrew for “fixing the world”.  A Montgomery County program addresses poor students who have less opportunity for enriching summer experiences by offering classes in math, literacy, theater, dance, art, Legos, poetry and many other activities. The program is funded by the county and the school system, but also by the Norman and Ruth Rales Foundation and the non-profit BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life).

We may not be able to fund a foundation, but we can be rich toward God through our giving of money, time and talent to those in need. We can be rich toward God by thanking God for all our blessings. Being rich toward God gives us the wonderful benefits of relationship with God and our neighbor and a place in a community of support, encouragement and love. If we try to stand on our own and acquire security, we will never be satisfied because the security we are seeking is not God. Through good times and bad times, life and death, God is there for us and we can count on that. We are loved and cared for and blessed by God and by others. That is what we really want in our hearts because God put the longing there and nothing else will do.

AMEN

     -- Rev. Ann Barker

Works Cited:
Shannell T. Smith, Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 9
David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, Blog Post, July 29, 2013