The great pyramids were elaborately furnished by the Pharaohs for their trip beyond the grave. There is no record that those preparations had any value for the deceased. So I continue to appreciate Dr. Billy Graham’s remark that he has never seen a hearse towing a U-haul trailer!
When brothers complained to Jesus about the division of an estate, he made it plain that God’s view of a person is not influenced by earthly wealth. God called the man a fool for paying so much attention to worldly treasures and so little to God.
People who help raise money — as I did on the staff of Roanoke College some years ago — have a rather dry approach to wills and inheritances and bequests. Whenever a rich alumnus of the college died, whom we cultivated and hoped had left part of his estate to the College, some of us would hem and haw until the newest member of the staff would ask, “How much did he leave?” The same answer was always true. “He left it all.” But not necessarily to the College.
If we think God’s concern is with the size of an estate, perhaps the story Jesus told is meant, we think, for someone else. But no, we also will leave all of it. Frankly, we’d all feel better if the parable had somebody else in mind. Not to be. As Luke’s story unfolds, he makes it easy at first for us to agree with Jesus.
We agreed when Jesus said we should love the Lord with heart, soul and mind, and our neighbors as well. The story of the Good Samaritan went down passably well. With Mary and Martha, we saw that the kingdom must be put ahead of everything else. Now Luke tells the parable that asks whether material goods are related to eternal life. Here we would like to say that Jesus has quit preaching and gone to meddling.
That’s what we say when we discover that a parable clearly intended for other people, may, perhaps, after all, have just a little message for us, as it were, you see. But we can’t play games with God. We are accountable regardless of the size of our wealth.
Do we think life consists in the abundance of our possessions? No, not if you ask us exactly that question. But what if we look deeper? Several years ago a tornado almost destroyed an entire town in Ohio. No one died, but families were left without homes and possessions. Very shortly the suicide rate and the divorce rate took a dramatic upswing.
A sociologist who studied the matter surmised that the loss of their possessions influenced their self-esteem and therefore their family life. And I’m unwilling to condemn them, for fear that I might be equally vulnerable. Maybe the culture of ancient Egypt is still with us, insofar as thinking that possessions are indeed related to the good life and maybe life eternal as well.
There are people who try to bargain with God by putting religion into a cause-and-effect straight jacket. They go to church, some Sundays anyway, and then are disappointed unless God makes them prosperous and happy. Does God owe us something because we give up a bad habit, or come to church three consecutive Sundays and put 5 percent or even 15 percent of our before-taxes income into the offering?Perhaps our vocabulary betrays us. If we think that the plate passed around is the collection plate, we may also think that what we put in is a collection.
We all know about taxes being collected. We are required to pay the bill. Or if there’s a problem that money will solve, neighbors may take up a collection. We feel like we have to put something into that collection. But an offering is something else. An offering is a gift. In church, money we give is called an offering. No set amount is required. This is an action of worship, something we voluntarily offer to God, something we freely give. Our books of worship carefully make the distinction that gifts are being given.
The red print does not say a collection is being taken as though we are paying our taxes or our dues, but that our Offering is received. Do we joyfully bring to God some of what he first gave us? This is not a transaction with God.
Can we win God’s favor and then become well off as a result? Or is life easier for believers? There are times in every life when tragedies beset the best-intentioned person with unspeakable pain and regret and remorse — Which brings us to the question of the parable. Can we use our possessions to win God’s favor?
For instance, suppose you saw two men on a train or a bus, and you wonder which of these men were going to heaven because they react so differently toward a young mother with children. One man frowns at her when she trys to squeeze a child down beside him. He smokes in spite of the sign that says “no smoking” – and blows smoke in the baby’s face, and makes rude, crude and uncalled for remarks about women who leave home with small children.
The other man immediately asks her to take his seat, so she and her children can sit together. He puts her baggage beside her, asks if there was anything she needed. Now, which of these two men would be going to heaven? Some of us may think that because we go out of our way to please God, he should come through with peace, love, prosperity, good health and successful children and well-mannered grandchildren. Well, good luck!
If we live right, pay our bills, plan for the future, go to church, say our prayers, and still come down with tragedy, disease, catastrophe, even total loss of property like Job – why should we be concerned with God? Oh, the two men? Neither one is going to heaven. They got on the wrong bus. One man, the crude one, didn’t care about God. The good guy thought he could make a bargain with God.
God doesn’t make bargains, or deals, or let himself get set up. We do not transact with God. The man in the parable thought he had it made with his crops, his barns, his goods. After he looked over his financial spreadsheett, he jumped to a conclusion about his spiritual welfare. He said to himself, “Soul, take your ease. You’ve got it made.” The problem is that the soul, the inner person, is not nourished by material food or property.
God called him a fool because he was about to meet his maker face-to-face. The man had made no provision for that encounter. He had been so busy making money that he had neglected God. The world in which we live has a fast rate of decay. Our future is not guaranteed by our bank account. Last month’s hot stock was dumped Friday and our income is threatened.
God’s unchanging, unceasing plan is that Jesus Christ accepts upon himself the iniquity of us all. He has borne our grief and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions, and with his stripes we are healed. That is the gospel of the love of God. Before Christ came along, we were locked up in the pawnshop, imprisoned because we sold ourselves for a mess of pottage. When God saw our imprisonment to sin and death, he said to himself, “these are all my children. They need to be redeemed.” He took our pawn ticket, paid our indebtedness to himself because of our sin, and claimed us for himself. Now all that we are, everything we own, every dream or hope or even disaster that we have, also belongs to him. We owe God not 5% or 10% but everything we have and hope to have. The man in the parable learned the hard way that he was accountable for all his possessions, that he didn’t really own anything without reference to God.
Oh, I wish we could fulfill our obligation to God by giving part of our wealth back to the church’s expenses and benevolent projects. Sometimes we even argue with God as to whether his portion is meant to be figured before taxes or after taxes, and what about my pension plan? Does that have to be counted or is this exempt? We can’t play holy arithmetic with God.
Each of us has to make our own judgment about what is right for us to give to God’s work in the church and elsewhere. We are accountable to God not only for what we give to the work of the kingdom through a congregation or to any organization that helps our fellowmen. Giving ten percent or 40 percent to the church does not entitle us to use the remainder of our wealth without reference to God.
Whose will these things be? The same answer is always true: These things already belong to God and we are only stewards, that is, managers, of his possessions.
The world is filled with treasures from God’s creating hand. But they are not ours.
The right feeling is outlined for us in the short and simple letter we call first John.
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the father, but is of the world.
“And the world passes away, and the lust of it, but he who does the will of God abides forever.”
Thanks be to God.