TITLE: On Being Owned by Our Stuff SCRIPTURE: Luke 12:13-21
Jesus was engaged in serious teaching when a man from the crowd interrupted him. Jesus had been telling his disciples how God would help them when they experienced persecution. The man interrupted, saying, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."
What a disruption! How inappropriate! I am reminded of the preacher who made church announcements and then asked if anyone else had an announcement. A boy in the balcony raised his hand and said, "My dad has apples for sale -- really good apples -- and he don't charge much either!"
It isn't that inheritances aren't important -- or apples either. It is simply that there is a time and place for everything, and neither the man in the crowd nor the boy in the balcony had found the right time and place.
"Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." When Jesus is in the midst of teaching how to survive persecution, you simply don't interrupt with that sort of question.
"Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." That isn't the sort of dirty laundry that you air in front of a crowd either.
But this man did both. He interrupted Jesus' teaching and he aired his dirty laundry in front of this crowd. "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."
His question made it clear that something was wrong. Had he tried to work with his brother to solve the problem? Had he gone to other members of the extended family to get help?
The man's approach to Jesus tells us a lot about him. He didn't try to get Jesus off to the side where he could discuss this private matter privately. Nor did he say, "I have a problem and wonder what you would advise." Instead, he said, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." Not only was he telling Jesus what to do, but also he was telling Jesus to whack his brother.
I would love to have been watching Jesus' disciples when that happened. I can imagine them looking at each other and waiting to see what would happen next. Jesus had lots of patience with people who needed help -- sick people, blind people. But the disciples could see that Jesus was not going to tolerate this fool gladly.
And Jesus didn't! First he warned the man to be on guard against greed. Then he told a story about a rich man -- a man who was already rich when God gave him one of those once-in-a-lifetime harvests that every farmer dreams about. The rich man had barns, but they were ordinary barns -- too small for this super-harvest -- so he decided to tear down his barns and build super-barns. Now listen to what the rich man says next. He says:
"And I will say to my soul, 'Soul,
you have ample goods laid up for many years;
relax -- eat, drink, be merry.' "
But God said,
"You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.
And the things you have prepared,
whose will they be?"
The rich man was planning for the future -- a long future -- a grand future -- but he wasn't going to enjoy such a future. God told him that he would die that very night. Someone else would inherit his barns and crops. Someone else would spend his money.
Jesus concluded with these words -- words to the man who had interrupted him -- words to the crowd -- words to us. He said:
"So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves
but are not rich toward God."
It would be easy to dismiss that as simple preacher-talk. Preachers say, "Money isn't important -- God is important!"
Actually, preachers don't say that money isn't important. Money is very important. Jesus talked a lot about money and possessions. He did so because he knew that money has a way of wrapping itself around our hearts and strangling us. When dealing with the rich young ruler, Jesus told him to give all his money to the poor -- but in most cases Jesus did not require people to give away all of their money.
-- He taught them to put money in proper perspective.
-- He taught them not to make money the god of their lives.
-- He taught them not to care about money to the exclusion of everything else -- not to accumulate money selfishly.
The problem, you see, is not OWNERSHIP OF money -- but BEING OWNED BY money. Money can feed the hungry. Money can house the homeless. Money can provide for our families. Money can build schools. Money can keep the church's doors open.
But money is sticky stuff. It sticks to our hearts. It threatens to choke out everything else. We need to treat money with eternal vigilance. We need to be as careful with money as with computer viruses -- lest it bring everything else in life grinding to a halt -- family -- friends -- health -- purpose -- God. Money isn't bad, but money can be bad for us.
We don't even have to have money to be ensnared by it. MONEY isn't the problem, but LOVE of money (1 Tim. 6:10) -- and we don't have to have money to love it. It is possible to be rich and to think of nothing but money. It is also possible to be poor and to think of nothing but money. It is possible to be rich and stingy. It is also possible to be poor and stingy.
While preparing this sermon, I came across several good stories about money in an unlikely place -- The Wall Street Journal (July 12, 2004, pages R8-R9, R11). It isn't unlikely to find good money stories in The Wall Street Journal, but it is unusual to find stories that I would use in my sermon.
These stories came from a special section on small businesses. One, entitled "A Higher Calling," is the story of Aurelio Barreto, who invented the Dogloo -- a doghouse shaped like an igloo. Barreto went through all the usual difficulties getting his business established -- too little money -- weak marketing -- holding on by his fingernails. But then Dogloos began to catch on. After managing the business for a few years, Baretto sold it for $20 million. He was not yet 30 years old. He had worked hard and had focused his whole life on making money. Now he was prepared to do what the rich man in the parable planned to do -- to eat, drink and be merry.
But instead he found himself miserable -- depressed. He had nothing to live for -- no vision -- no goals -- no purpose. He traveled around the world -- traveled first class -- tried to enjoy his money -- but his depression only worsened.
Finally, the principle of his daughter's school said that he could show Baretto where he could get everything he always wanted -- and pointed to a Bible.
Baretto took the principle seriously, and began to read the Bible. He had been raised as a Christian, but now he really gave his life to Christ. He started looking for a way to use his money in a positive way. He felt called to start a Christian bookstore catering to teens. He now has four bookstores where the clerks have dyed hair and pierced tongues. Loudspeakers blare Christian hip-hop music. T-shirts proclaim, "Godly Chicks Rock." But Baretto's goal is that all of his merchandise somehow witnesses to Christ.
Right now, Baretto is losing money on his bookstores -- but he doesn't care. He is doing what God called him to do. He has a purpose for his life -- and a new spring to his step (Stephanie Kang, "A Higher Calling," p. R8, R11).
Another story is entitled, "Losing Their Souls," and is the story of a Texas shoe store owner who started his shoe store with the idea of meeting people's needs. He stocked wide shoes and narrow shoes -- small shoes and large shoes. He trained his staff to help people find exactly the right shoes. It was a small business dedicated to taking care of people's needs, and it grew.
But then the owner decided to expand. Soon he was more focused on expansion than on taking care of people. Before long, he found himself with a string of money-losing stores -- and a Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Today, he is running a shoe store again -- doing well again. He is a wiser man -- focused on helping people instead of building an empire. His advice to business owners: "Don't ever leave your soul." (Audrey Warren, "Losing Their Souls," p. R8).
And finally, there is an article about Mara Kaplan, whose baby had serious problems. Because of her son's problems, she saw the need for a place where handicapped children could play safely -- and enjoy life -- and learn. She founded Center for Creative Play, which caters to all kids -- but features a tree house with wheelchair-accessible ramps. She says, "We have a double bottom line. One is to measure financial things, like "Did we make payroll this week?' The other is to fulfill our mission of helping kids." (Paulette Thomas, "For the Love of It," p. R9).
So what's my point? Simply this: It is possible to go through life consumed by money and the things that money can buy. If we do that, we will be spiritually bankrupt, regardless of the size of our bank account.
But it is also possible to go through life figuring out how to love God and how to take care of our neighbor. If we do that, God will bless us, regardless of the size of our bank account.
And very often the person who cares about other people ends up with the good job -- the successful business. In any case, that person ends up with the better life.
Jesus ended his parable by warning us not to store up treasures for ourselves while being poor toward God. He doesn't warn against storing up treasures, but against storing up treasures for ourselves -- storing up treasures selfishly -- so that we are poor toward God.
Jesus' parable -- this parable of a rich but selfish man -- calls us to live our lives in such a way that we will become rich toward God. To become rich toward God, we need to love God and love our neighbor. When we do that, we will be truly rich.