The story of the rich fool reminds us of the temptation to store up treasures on earth through accumulating more and more wealth and possessions. Jesus invites us to be “rich toward God”, seeing all that we have as ultimately belonging to God, and not holding on too tightly to it so we can be generous with others. What we do with our money is hard to talk about, but it has so much to do with what it means to be faithful as a Christian.
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Luke 12:13-21, 31-34
This past week two people died who were big influences in my life—one was Vin Scully and the other, Ron Sider.
Vin Scully was the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team for 67 years before he retired about 5 years ago. I, along with many other sports fans, consider Scully to be the greatest baseball announcer of all time, maybe even the best in all of sports.
Listening to “Vinny” call Dodger games was one of the most important and constant voices of my childhood growing up in Los Angeles. He helped me fall in love with the Dodgers and with baseball in general.
As a friend of mine said, Vinny’s voice was like “comfort food” to us, as we listened to game after game, night after night on our transistor radios.
The other big influence on my life who died this past week is the Christian author Ron Sider. Sider’s impact on me is even more profound than Vin Scully’s because while following baseball is a big part of my life, following Jesus is much more important in the grand scheme of things.
Ron Sider wrote a book that I read during my senior year in college called Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. This book changed my life. It challenged me to see my responsibility as a Christian in light of the hunger and poverty that existed in the world around me.
The book gave lots of statistics about global poverty, and the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in the world.
Sider lays out a biblical vision of God’s concern for the poor, and also talks about Jesus warnings that coveting wealth and possessions can become an idol that can be a roadblock in living according to the values of God’s Kingdom.
Sider doesn’t just identify the problems and realities of wealth and poverty, but he boldly addresses social and structural injustices in the world, and offers a vision for how governments can address these injustices by implementing policies that promote a more just distribution of the world’s resources, and that care for the most vulnerable in society.
He also calls Christians to adopt a simpler lifestyle, and to live more generously, and he offers practical suggestions for how to live more simply, so others may simply live. He mentions ideas from Living More with Less by Doris Longacre, author of More with Less Cookbook that many of us Mennonites are familiar with.
There have been several different editions of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, updating the data and adding new suggestions over the years. Recently the book was named by Christianity Today magazine as the most influential book for evangelical Christians in the last 50 years.
At the same time, it got a lot of pushback from Christians who felt threatened by the ideas and proposals in the book. Many labeled Sider as a “liberal” or a “socialist”. One author was so upset with the book that he wrote a book as a rebuttal to Sider called Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators.
Personally, I’m grateful to Ron Sider for his book, and for his life’s witness overall. He was a prophetic voice for social justice in the Church, which is much needed in our American society today where many Christians have come to believe that “social justice” is a secular concept that has no place in the Church. That boggles my mind, but here we are.
And on a personal level, Sider has challenged me as a Rich Christian–who has so much more than the vast majority of people in the world—to take Jesus’ teachings seriously about wealth and possessions, and to put my money where my mouth is and do something to address the poverty in our world.
It’s not a stretch for me to say that this book had something to do with me deciding to join Mennonite Voluntary Service after I graduated from college, and then cast my lot with the Mennonite Church, which takes seriously the calls to live more simply and serve the poor, both locally and globally.
It comes as no surprise that Sider’s book has a section on our scripture passage today. After all, here Jesus is talking about the greed and covetousness that can happen when we accumulate more possessions.
A guy in the crowd asks Jesus to be the arbitrator of his family’s inheritance between himself and his brother. And this leads Jesus to tell a story about a farmer who has acquired more land which has produced more crops, and he’s accumulated so many things that he wants to build bigger barns to hold all of his crops and his “stuff”.
This guy was a rural farmer. But for an urban person today, like most of us here, instead of barns it might mean getting a bigger house with a big basement to store stuff in, and might involve renting a couple of storage units to hold stuff that doesn’t fit in the house. It might also mean that the cars get parked on the driveway or street because the garage is filled to the brim with stuff.
When we moved from Ohio to Virginia two years ago, we downsized quite a bit because we were moving from a good-sized house into a basement apartment. We thought that renting one big UHaul truck would be all we would need.
But low and behold, we filled that truck and still had a bunch of stuff left to pack, so we ended up needing to rent a trailer to pull behind the truck. It seems like we often have more “stuff” than we think that we have.
Here is a portion of what Sider says about the farmer in the biblical story, who’s known as the rich fool:
The rich fool is the epitome of the covetous person. He has a greedy compulsion to acquire more and more possessions, even though he does not need them. And his phenomenal success at piling up more and more property and wealth leads to the blasphemous conclusion that material possessions can satisfy all his needs. From the divine perspective, this attitude is sheer madness. He is a raving fool.
In our own society today, we madly multiply sophisticated gadgets, bigger houses, fancier cars, and fashionable clothes—not because such things truly enrich our lives but because we are driven by an obsession for more and more. Covetousness, a striving for more and more material possessions, has become a cardinal vice of modern civilization… (p. 98)
And then Sider makes a qualification. He says, ‘Possessions are dangerous. But they are not innately evil. Biblical revelation begins with creation. And created things, God said, are good. (Genesis 1) p. 99 It is not because food, clothes, wealth and property are inherently evil that Christians today must lower their standard of living. It is because others are starving. Creation is good. But the one who gave us this gorgeous token of affection has asked us to share it with our sisters and brothers. (p. 101)
This last part is key, folks. God has asked us to share what we have with others, in a world where children go hungry and where so many people lack basic necessities.
The problem with the rich fool, or “Mr. Bigger Barns” is that he only thought about himself and nobody else. Look at the pronouns he uses, they’re all in the first person:
What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’
To Jesus, people are “fools” when they only think about themselves and their own needs and wants. They only lay up earthly treasures for themselves, which Jesus says is the opposite of being ‘rich toward God’.
I think what Jesus means by being ‘rich toward God’ is to remember that the true treasures in life are not the things that money can buy, but rather virtues like compassion and servanthood and generosity that inspire us to live with open hearts and open hands regarding our possessions, not holding on to them so tightly.
To be rich toward God is to live with the awareness that everything we have is God’s, and we are simply stewards or managers of what God has so graciously entrusted to us.
To me, this has a lot to do with what Jesus says about “seeking first the Kingdom of God”, and laying up treasures that thieves and moths cannot destroy.
The importance of being generous and sharing with others is a message that we instill in our children from an early age. We read them books like The Giving Tree (one of my favorites!),
We tells stories like the parable of Good Samaritan, or the story of the six foot chopsticks that are used by two different groups of people. In the first group, each person tries to feed themself—and as a result they all starve. But in the other group, each person feeds their neighbor, and everyone can eat because they choose to serve one another.
We were just with our whole family in Sweden, and it was great watching our grandkids get to know each other better and play with each other.
They had a lot of fun playing together. But of course there were times when they had some scuffles because they all wanted the same toy or ball or swing at the same time, and we had to keep reminding them to share and take turns.
You see, as much as our children hear all those stories of sharing, there is that self-centered gene that’s a part of human nature that creates this conflict with the desire to share with others that we are given as people created in God’s image.
And this same battle we see happening in children between covetousness and generosity continues to manifest itself in different ways as we become adults and throughout our lives.
We are bombarded with messages that reinforce a narrative in our society that tells us that “what is mine is mine” and we don’t have a responsibility to share it with others, just like Mr. Bigger Barns.
We say to ourselves, “This is my hard-earned money, so I can use it for what I want. If I want to buy my dream car or my dream house, I’m entitled to it and no one can tell me I shouldn’t.”
And even if we don’t buy into this entitlement mentality, we sometimes find it hard to share because we worry that we may not have enough to take care of our needs and our family’s needs.
We ask ourselves, “What if I lose my job, or have some unexpected medical expenses, or my car breaks down, or the cost of housing and groceries keeps going up?” I want to make sure I can provide for myself and my family.”
And as our children get older, we are concerned about helping them get through college, and those costs can be significant.
And as we approach retirement age, we are told that we need to have enough in our bank accounts and 401Ks to last until we leave this earth, and also have something to leave our children as an inheritance.
These are all real life concerns, and just as we have a responsibility to help others in need, and give generously to the Church and to God’s work in the world, I believe that we also need to be responsible toward our own needs and our family’s needs as well.
These are both part of what it means to be good stewards of the possessions, the money, and the resources that God has given us. Every person, every family, has to wrestle with these matters and make decisions based on their own situation.
And I think it’s good to talk about money and possessions in the church community, honestly sharing our struggles and our ideas with each other in a nonjudgmental way.
Money and possessions are hard subjects to talk about, but so much of faithfulness as a Christian has to do with how we view it and what we do with it.
One of the best models of good stewardship that I know is my wife Karen’s father, Roger Flueckiger. My father-in-law was a banker for a large part of his career, so he dealt with finances a lot.
And I have always known him to be responsible, wise, and generous both in his role as a loan officer at the bank as well as personally with his family. He lives simply and doesn’t try to impress other people by the things that he has; who he is is much more important to him.
Roger is generous with his family and also in giving to the local Church as well as to a variety of mission agencies and church colleges.
He models so well balancing providing for his family on one hand with giving to causes outside of his family that serve people in need and and doing God’s work in the world.
At a family reunion a couple of years ago, Roger gathered the family around him and he encouraged us all to be generous with all that God has given us, as he has tried to do in his life. I will always remember those words that he shared with us.
He walks the walk and talks the talk, and his generosity and overall attitude toward money and possessions will be part of a wonderful legacy that he will leave for his family and for all who know him.
His example is a treasure that will last long after he’s gone. To use the words of Jesus in our scripture today, it’s a treasure in the heavens that will not fail, where thieves and moths cannot destroy.
So friends, instead of holding on tightly to what we have and building bigger barns with things that will not last, and things that will not ultimately satisfy us, let us rather find our treasure in God’s Kingdom that is everlasting, which is the source of true joy and freedom.
Let us be rich toward God, opening our hearts and our hands to freely share with others what God has entrusted to us. Let us share joyfully, generously, and compassionately, with grateful hearts.
Let us seek to live simply, so others may simply live, and let’s remember the words of the song, that there will be enough for all, if we learn to share it.
And may we live with trust, knowing that we serve a good God, a faithful God, a God who provides for us what we truly need in life. AMEN.
Song of response: we’ll sing an old Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts” or Tis the gift to be Simple.” The Shakers were an intentional community who were related to the Quakers. They were pacifists and shared their property and possessions in common.