Jesus and Wealth Management

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, August 4, 2019.

August is a perfect time for family vacations and for spending time in Greenwich, where you can actually find a parking place on the Avenue and make a reservation at any restaurant or paddle around the pool, play tennis or golf, walk the beach at Tod’s Point or sit on your terrace and enjoy the company of good friends. Instead, this morning we are given a gospel lesson that sizzles and spits like a steak being cooked on the backyard grill.

The story is told of a family feud over money that is set before Jesus. It is part of a long string of stories about money and wealthy persons in Luke’s Gospel. Indeed, Jesus spoke more about wealth management than any other topic except the kingdom of God. Why? Because he knew that money and possessions were his chief competition.

Studies indicate that the richer we become, the smaller the percentage of wealth we share. The poor out-give the rich in terms of percentage of giving. As we become wealthier, our fist tightens, and we are tempted to believe that we really don’t need God. We also risk the sin of greed, where “enough” is never enough. When John D. Rockefeller was the richest man in America, someone asked him, “How much money is enough.” He replied, “Just a little more than I already have.”

Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus worries about people who exploit the poor or are so self-consumed that those in need become invisible. Jesus’ mother Mary shaped his viewpoint. Recall her words about the rich and lofty in the Magnificat.

In this morning’s gospel, an unnamed individual interrupts Jesus as he is teaching and asks him to settle a dispute with his brother over an inheritance. He asks Jesus to ensure that his brother divides the inheritance fairly with him. According to Judaic law, the older brother would receive two-thirds of an estate while the younger brother would receive one-third. Presumably, it is the younger brother appealing to Jesus for help.

Instead of arbitrating, Jesus issues and emphatic warning to the crowd to be on the guard against insatiable greed, because the meaning and value of life is more than the abundant accumulation of possessions. To illustrate his point, Jesus tells a story about a large landholder who has a bumper crop. In the prevailing theological perspective of the day, the great harvest would have been regarded as a generous blessing from God.

The man’s barns are bursting to overflowing. So, he plans to tear down his old barns and build new ones. Then he will store his crops, sit back and enjoy the good life. It is a clear example of how not to follow Jesus, not because the man is rich, but because he keeps all the excess and thinks only of himself.

Throughout this story, we hear the word, “I,” “me,” and “my.” The man is so self-centered that he cannot see beyond what he considers to be “his” harvest, “his” barns, and “his own” life. It is a problem that can afflict each of us. Jesus says, “You fool!” It’s as if he is saying, “Your soul has been bankrupted by your balance sheet: foreclosure is immanent. You’re dead!”

The issue is not so much his investments and dividends as it is his distractions. He is like the purple-clad rich man who is so distracted by his banquets that he cannot see poor Lazarus begging for crumbs outside his house while the dogs lick his sores.

Now, frugal-minded folks are fine. For centuries, people have stashed supplies in silos, pantries and basement shelves. They have saved for rainy days and squirreled away funds for retirement. Even Joseph advised Pharaoh to be frugal after interpreting a dream to mean that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine (Gen. 41:17-36) where Egypt would be decimated.

Planning for the future is smart, but there is an injunction throughout the Bible to care for one’s neighbor, to provide for the poor and the marginalized, for those without access to wealth and lacking the basic needs for survival.

The rich man in this story has forgotten who gives the bounty of the earth, and he has forgotten the neighbor who lacks access to that bounty. He does not think about those who have no land to produce their own crops, nor the alien, nor the widow, nor for the orphan on the margins of society (e.g., Exod. 22:21-22). He plans to keep his entire windfall for himself. The rich farmer does not think of sharing his crop with those who have helped to produce it. He merely decides to build bigger barns.

He tells himself, “Eat, drink, and be merry,” a line from the prophet Isaiah (Is. 22:13), but one which ironically ends with the words, “for tomorrow we die.” That very night God judges the rich man as a fool and takes his life.

The rich man thinks that he has it made in the shade, but God has other plans, which are grave. The parable seems to embody Jesus’ words spoken earlier in Luke’s Gospel, “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:25). The parable ends with Jesus saying, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.” (Luke 12:21). “What does it mean to be rich towards God?”

To be rich towards God, according to Luke’s Gospel, is to use one’s resources for the benefit of those in need. To be rich towards God is to be like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). To be rich towards God involves selling possessions and giving alms to establish a lasting treasure in heaven, says Jesus (Luke 11:1-13; 12:22-31).

In his book American Mojo Lost and Found: Restoring Our Middle Class Before the World Blows By, Greenwich author and former Wall Street financier Peter Kiernan whose wife attends Christ Church, notes, that “the richest 85 individuals are worth more than the bottom 3.5 billion who inhabit the planet: the top 85 versus half of everybody else. I have to believe that this inequality would make Jesus cringe.

Are we supposed to live like Franciscan monks? No. Jesus is not trying to make us choose poverty, but he is inviting us to a renewed relationship with God and to participate in the eternal economy of mercy and grace for he knows that we receive our deepest joy from sharing what he has given to us.

The rich man is a fool for he has been leading an isolated, self-absorbed life and no matter how much he accumulates it will all end in death. A shroud has no pockets. Most of all, he denies himself the joy of using his wealth to transform the world and bless others. Jesus calls us to use our life and our wealth to advance God’s agenda and to care for those in need.

The Bible’s teaching on money can be summed up like this – everything that we have comes from God. All of it came from applying the gifts and talents, time, health and energy that God has given us. We are asked to tithe to further God’s work. The Bible also tells us that we cannot out-give God. The more we give, the more God entrusts to us so that we can bless others. The problem with poor wealth management is that it sabotages our spiritual life and our ability to love God and others.

I close with a story that an old mentor, John Claypool, told about a merchant in the Midwest who had identical twin sons. The boys were inseparable. From childhood, they dressed alike, attended the same schools and did the same things. In fact, they were so close that they never married, but after finishing school they came back and took over the family business after their father had died. Everyone looked to them as a model of collaboration.

One morning, a customer entered the store and made a small purchase. The brother who waited on him, put a dollar on the cash register and walked to the front of the store with the man. Sometime later, he remembered what he had done, walked back to the cash register and found that the dollar bill was gone. He asked his brother if he had seen the bill and had put it in the cash register, but his brother said that he had no recollection of seeing it.

“That’s funny,” said the other, “I distinctly remember placing it on the register, and no one else has been in the store since then.” Had the matter dropped at that point – a mystery of tiny import – nothing would have come of it. However, an hour later with a noticeable amount of suspicion in his voice, the brother asked again, “Are you sure that you didn’t see that dollar bill and put it in the register?” The other brother quickly recognized the note of accusation and flared up in anger.

This was the first breach of trust that had ever arisen between the two brothers, and the breach soon grew wider and wider. Every time they tried to discuss the issue, new charges crept in and countercharges were made, until things got so bad that they were forced to dissolve their partnership.

They ran a partition down the middle of their father’s store and turned what had once been a harmonious partnership into an angry competition. In fact, their business became a source of contention throughout the community, each of the twins trying to enlist allies for himself against his brother. This open warfare went on for twenty years.

Then one day, a car with an out-of-state license plate pulled up in front of the store. A well-dressed man got out and went into one of the sides and inquired how long the merchant had been in business in that location. When he found that it was over twenty years, the stranger said, “Then you are the one with whom I must settle and old score.”

“Some twenty years ago,” he said, “I was out of work, drifting from place to place, and I happened to get off a box car in your town. I had absolutely no money and had not eaten for three or four days. As I was walking down the alley behind your store, I looked in and saw a dollar bill on the top of the cash register.”

“Everyone else was in the front of the store. I had been raised in a Christian home and I had never stolen anything before in my life, but that morning I was so hungry that I gave into temptation, slipped through the door and took that dollar bill. That act has weighed on my conscience ever since, and I finally decided that I would never be at peace until I came back and faced up to that old sin and made amends. Would you let me know replace that money and pay you whatever is appropriate in damages?”

At that point, the stranger was surprised to see the old man standing in front of him shaking his head in dismay and beginning to weep. When he had gotten control of himself, he took the stranger by the arm and said, “I want you to go next door and repeat the same story you have just told me.” The stranger did it, only this time there were two old men who looked remarkably alike, both weeping uncontrollably.

Truth be told, money and possessions can distract us, divide us and diminish our love for God and others or they can be tools for carrying out God’s agenda on earth. What does it mean to be “rich toward God?” That, my friends, is a question still worth asking. Amen.