The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (C)
“Earthly Treasures and Eternal Treasures”
August 4, 2019
Sermon Text: Luke 12:13-21
From time to time we hear about what’s going on with a guy like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates and their billions of dollars and how they are working to expand their companies and corporations and their wealth. Or we might hear about a baseball player like Bryce Harper and the free agent bidding war that took place for him last winter and about how this team is willing to pay him 250 million dollars but that team over there is willing to pay him 300 million. And we might wonder, why worry about it? How much money is enough? For those of us just trying to get by, trying to make ends meet and trying to save enough for a decent retirement and maybe afford to have a couple of nice things along the way, 20 million or 200 million or 20 billion all seems like the same amount of money. How much money does a person really need? Why kill yourself trying to get more when you already have more money than you could ever really spend in a lifetime?
Of course, it’s not just about the money. Pride and power and prestige comes into play. Bryce Harper wouldn’t be as concerned about his money if Mike Trout didn’t have more. Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t worry about it except for the fact that Jeff Bezos over at Amazon has more. And any of us in the same situation would probably do the same thing. It’s all about more, what I have is not enough, I deserve more, I need more, give me some more. The root of all this is not the money itself. It is the pride and the chasing after the self-sufficiency that all that money promises that is the problem. And that pride and chasing after self-sufficiency is exactly what sin is. Satan, the very first rebel against the Kingdom of God, cried out “I will make myself like the Most High!” That is rebellion, that is refusing to let God be God, that is trying to be your own god, that is what sin is.
Jesus points this out in our Gospel lesson today. He tells a parable about a rich fool who thought that he had it made and no longer needed anything or anyone besides himself and his wealth. The problem was not that he was successful in his business. Nor was the problem that he had stored up wealth for himself. Contrary to current popular thought, there is nothing wrong with being successful and wealthy. But great success and wealth do bring a terrible temptation that few people can endure. Most of us are much better off just getting by month to month. Getting by month to month, paycheck to paycheck, day to day really, is a constant reminder that we need to depend on the Lord daily to supply all our needs.
I was fortunate enough to be a vicar right in the middle of dairy country in Wisconsin. I spent a lot of time with dairy farmers and I found out that, except for the fact that they are Packer fans, Wisconsin dairy farmers are the best people that you are ever going to meet. If anyone really understands life, it is a farmer. They deal with the constant facts of life and death as they care for their livestock. They daily put their fingers into the soil from which all life comes. And they plant their crops knowing that they will spend the whole season praying for just a little rain on a regular basis, not too much at one time, and no long spell without any rain, and no hailstorms or other disasters that will wipe out their crops. They do this all day, every day, all season, and when their crops come in they know Who to thank. Unlike the rest of us who punch a time card and get an automatic payroll deposit every week or two from some faceless corporation, they know exactly where their bounty comes from.
That’s why one of the most timeless, basic, and universal lessons in the Old Testament is the lesson taught by the manna in the wilderness by which the Lord provided for His people’s need for bread. Every single morning, without fail, the bread was there to be harvested and consumed as the Lord gave his people this day their daily bread. Every single day, except for the Sabbath, to remind His people to rest and worship and remember where their daily bread came from. But try to hoard it, try to store up more than one day’s worth, except for the day before the Sabbath when you collected enough for two days, try to hoard it and it would spoil and be worthless the next day. It was not, “Give us this day enough bread to store up for a month so we can relax and forget about you,” it was, “Give us this day our daily bread, just enough for this one day, so that we always remember where our daily bread comes from.”
The Israelites had their manna which required a daily harvest to fulfill their daily needs. We have our day-to-day existence in which mortgage payments, bills, taxes and other expenses drain our bank accounts as fast as our incomes can fill them. Give us this day our daily bread. Grant me this month the income I need to pay my bills this month. Supply my needs today, just for today, and I will let tomorrow worry about itself.
Few of us would be better off if our dreams came true – if somehow we were able to stash away enough money that we would be secure without having to be concerned about continuing to have some funds coming in. Few of us would be faithful in praying “Give us this day our daily bread” if we could find enough manna and enough preservatives for that manna that we wouldn’t have to continue to harvest it every single day. Few of us could withstand the temptation of being cursed with great wealth.
When Perchik in Fiddler on the Roof reminds Tevye that “Money is the world’s great curse,” Tevye responds, “May the Lord smite me with it. And may I never recover.” But that is a thought for fools. Tevye is much better off poor.
The rich fool in our parable would have been better off poor. Here is a man who is successful and rich. He undoubtedly started out the right way – working hard, earning his daily bread, always dreaming of getting just a little more for himself and his family. But at some point “just a little more” took over his heart and soul. He’s a regular Ebenezer Scrooge of the Bible. He probably dropped all of his other interests one by one for his workaholism. He became more and more egocentric as year after year went by. He probably at some point starting cheating on his business deals in the name of getting just a little more. He probably at some point starting mistreating his workers in the name of getting just a little more. And as he got a just a little more and a little more and a little more, there was just a little less and a little less and a little less room in his heart for God. And finally his long decline over the years reaches the point where he bellows the war cry of Satan the rebel: “I’ve got it made, I’ve got enough for many years, it’s time for cruise control, I have no need of anyone or anything. I supply my own needs. I am my own god.”
Ebenezer Scrooge was blessed with Jacob Marley and the three ghosts to show him the way and turn his heart to the right. But alas, this rich fool has no one to rescue him. He is too far gone in his self-sufficiency. No sooner has his war cry of rebellion against the Lord left his lips than the Lord cries out against him, “You fool! This very same night your life will be demanded from you! Then who will get all this that you have devoted your entire life to storing up for yourself?”
The implication is obvious. Every mortal will have his night when the Lord comes to us and says, “Tonight is the night your life is required of you.” And then all that any of us will have as our own is whatever treasure may await us on the other side of the grave.
It reminds me of one of my favorite short stories, Leo Tolstoy’s How Much Land Does a Man Need? In this story a land owner is selling large tracts of land for a very small amount of money, and the deal is that you can have as much land as you can walk around between sunrise and sunset. But there is a catch: if you fail to complete the circle back to your original starting point before the sun goes down, you get nothing at all. One man begins the day walking with a good idea of how much land he wants. As he walks, he begins to get more ambitious in his plans and begins to enlarge the tract of land that he will encircle. His tract gets larger and larger and larger as his greed grows throughout the day. But then suddenly he realizes that he has made a terrible mistake: he has reached too far, and now he has to rush to complete his circle before sunset. He goes faster and faster and faster as the sun begins to drop lower and lower and lower in the sky, and he finally has to make a mad dash to finish before the sun sets. He finishes, but he is so exhausted by his run that he drops dead. He is buried under six feet of earth in a hole about three feet by six feet, and that, Tolstoy reminds us, is how much land a man needs – three feet by six feet by six feet.
How much of our time on this earth is consumed by the quest to acquire earthly riches? And yet, ironically, this problem, which should decrease as we age and near death, actually tends to increase as people age and gradually sell out their youthful innocence one piece of their hearts at a time to greed and self-sufficiency. And yet, what treasures will we have 100 years from now? My parents in their lives bought houses and cars and boats and clothes and watches and furniture and all kinds of things. The only shopping trip that really makes any difference to either of them now is the trip that they took out to the funeral home and cemetery to purchase their coffins and their tombs. What treasures are really important?
The rich man in our parable was not a fool for treasuring earthly things. The good things that we have have been provided by our Lord to support this body and life: clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, fields and cattle, and all our goods. The rich man worked hard for them and he earned them and he should have used them and enjoyed them. But he was a fool because he had forgotten where they really came from. Even the things you need to work and earn, your talents and skills, your muscle and intelligence, your opportunities to use them, your health and even your body that gets you to work each day, have all been created and given to you by the Lord. The rich man was a fool because he had forgotten to say thanks, like the famous Bart Simpson table prayer, “Dear God, since we paid for all this ourselves, thanks for nothing!” And he was a fool because he forgot that the day was coming when all this stuff would be taken away from him and given to others. The car you treasure will rust in a junkyard someday. The house you live in will house other people someday. Every penny in your bank account will someday belong to someone else. What good will any of those things do you then?
Of course, the rich man would not be a fool if the world was right about life. The world says, “Today we live, tomorrow we die and then we are nothing. So go ahead and enjoy this life 100%, because this life is all that you’ve got. You may as well cheat and steal and hoard because the stuff that you can grab now is all that you will ever have. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
But the world is wrong and we know it. We don’t die and go to nothing. There is One who earned for us an inheritance and a treasure beyond this life that can never be taken away from us. Jesus Christ left His rightful throne, He counted His equality with God as nothing, and He became like us and came to serve us so that we could become children of the heavenly Father just like Him. He abandoned treasures far beyond our wildest imaginations to be nailed to a cross under the judgment of the Father until dead so that we could be forgiven of all of our sins of greed and self-sufficiency and rebellion against the One Who joyfully supplies all of our needs. And He rose again on the third day so that we, too, might rise again after our lives have been required of us and that we might inherit all of the eternal treasures that He has earned for us. St. Paul says as much in 1 Corinthians 15 when he says, if Christ is not raised from the dead, then the world is right: eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first of many who will come back from the dead.
The rich man in the parable was a fool because he valued earthly treasures as everything and he gave no thought to what lies beyond the grave. Those who are wise know that what lies beyond the grave is the only thing that is truly important. What lies beyond the grave defines even the earthly treasures that we have now. C.S. Lewis wrote that those in hell will look back at earth as the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and say that everything they had on earth was the beginning of hell. But those in heaven will look back on earth as the Valley of the Shadow of Life, and say that everything they had on earth was the beginning of heaven.
You have worked hard for the treasures you have on this earth. Enjoy them and use them for God’s glory. Share them with others who need help. But never forget that they are passing away, they are just the beginning of the treasures that will never end, the eternal treasures that await us beyond the grave in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Earthly Treasures and Eternal Treasures,” 8/4/19, Rev. Richard J Bellas