Wolves and Money
August 5, 2007
A research company was anxious to do an extensive study of wolves in one of our national parks. Wolves, however, are rather clever, and have no desire to cooperate with scientific studies. So, with the backing of a major donor, the company placed a bounty of $5000 on any wolf that could be safely captured for research. Two young college students, Tom and Dave, decided this would be a way to make their fortunes. They were familiar with the park because they had camped there frequently. For two weeks they scoured the park without much success. Then one night, exhausted, they retired to their sleeping bags under the stars, and fell asleep thinking of their potential wealth. In the middle of the night, Tom woke up and realized that he and Dave were surrounded by at least 50 wild wolves with glaring eyes and bared teeth. He nudged his companion. “Dave,” he said, “Wake up! We’re rich!”
Rich? Maybe. Doomed? For sure. Today’s parable also relates riches and death. In the parable, a rich man is busy making plans to store his wealth for the future. He decides to build bigger barns to hold what he owns. But all of his industrious planning is cut short by his sudden death. The parable does not deny the need to plan for the future, but it asks us to look at wealth from the ultimate perspective. The man in the parable is called a fool, not because he is stupid, but because he does not appreciate the true purpose of his wealth. All his crops, all that he has is a gift from God. That gift, of course, is meant to be used for his benefit, but not in an unlimited way. Once his own needs are met, his excess wealth should not be hoarded away for the future, but used. According to the gospel, it is to be used for the benefit of others.
This truth is not new to you. I think all of us are aware that God entrusts things to us to be used for the benefit of others. Yet many of us, like the man in the parable, go about from day to day without reflecting on what the purpose is for the gifts we have received. When God places money, or time, or ability into our hand, we are delighted. We begin planning how we can use these things for our own benefit. But how often do we think of the responsibility we have to use our gifts for the sake of others? Now this blindness might result in part from our culture which is always pushing us to accumulate excess wealth: more money, more friends, more possessions. Our culture persuades us that bigger is better, that growth is always desirable. How often do we ask ourselves, “Do I really need this? Shouldn’t some of this be given to someone else? What part of my excess wealth or talent or time should I give to someone who needs it?”
Clearly today’s parable might not be intended for everyone. There could be people here this morning who have no excess wealth, no excess time, no excess talent. But the people with no excess of gifts are few. Most of us need to listen to this parable as it reminds us that the excess gifts that we keep for ourselves are not an advantage, but a liability. The scriptures even use the image of a storehouse in heaven, a storehouse in which we can invest. We can place things in our heavenly storehouse each time we give away some of our resources here on earth. The image of the heavenly storehouse should be taken seriously, because at any time, just like in the parable, God could choose to call us home. When John D. Rockefeller died at the age of 98 at the beginning of the twentieth century, he was the wealthiest man in the world. A reporter who was assembling his obituary asked his chief aide, “Just how much did your boss leave behind?” The aide answered, “All of it.”
The same is true for us. We will leave behind whatever we do not invest above. And how sad would it be, at the time of our death, if our bank account and coffers here on earth were bulging full and our storehouse in heaven was empty and bare?
Live Today with Thanksgiving
July 31, 2016
God calls the rich man in today’s parable a fool, but why is he foolish? Certainly part of it is that he has no intent of sharing what he owns with those who are in need. But I think it goes much deeper. This man is foolish in regard to his future and foolish in regard to his success.
As to his future, he has big plans. He is going to build larger barns in which he will store all of his possessions. Then he is confident that he will be happy and secure for many years to come. What is foolish about this strategy is that this man’s future is but one day. Wise people understand that you never know what tomorrow may bring. Our health, our families, our jobs can change dramatically. We do of course have to keep an eye on the future, eating healthy, investing in our 401ks. But the only life we really have is the life we have today. That is why wise people refuse to postpone living it. It makes no sense to say that I will be happy once I graduate, once I find someone to love me, once I find a new job, once I retire. The future is largely out of our control. That is why wise people live today.
But the man in the gospel is foolish in another sense. He does not know the source of his success. He presumes that his bountiful harvest is merely the result of his own effort and ability, and he fails to give thanks to God for the good things that he has. You can see his self-centered attitude by the way he talks. He does not talk to God. He does not talk to other people. He talks to himself. He says, “This is what I will do.” And then he says to himself, “Eat, drink and be merry.” Centered on his own success, he is unable to give thanks. And that is a serious failure.
For in my life and ministry I have seen over and over again that the happiest people are the most thankful people. People who not only use their talents to do good for others, but people who understand that the talents they possess are gifts from a God who loves them. People who not only love their spouse, their children, and their friends but who understand that their relationships flow from the hand of God who blesses them. Thankfulness deepens life. It enriches life, because it places all that we have in the context of God’s love, a love that will not abandon us no matter what comes.
So let us live wisely, not in the future, but today. Let us celebrate today our health, our friends, and our abilities. Let us deepen that celebration by realizing that all these good gifts come from God’s love. The gospel calls us to live today with thankfulness. This is the secret of happiness. This is the way to live. To live any other way would be the choice of a fool.
A Letter of Reference
August 4, 2019
“No one can get into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” This is a quote from James Forbes, pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. And he’s right. You can’t read the Old Testament without hearing time and again how God demands of Israel that they feed the hungry and protect the most vulnerable members of society. You can’t follow the ministry of Jesus without seeing how he aims his message directly to the poor and the lowly. The witness of the scriptures is undeniable: Care for the poor, for those who are struggling to survive, is what matters to God.
This connects to today’s gospel, because in the gospel people are criticized when they store up riches for themselves and are not rich in what matters to God. What matters to God is care for the poor. It is in this light that we need to understand the rich man in today’s parable. What is this man’s fault? What is his sin? I would suggest to you that it was not that he was greedy or selfish. He was blind. He went about his life, earning his money, planning for the future, and never seeing the people around him who were struggling to just to live. This gospel does not see wealth as a bad thing. It does not dismiss the value of the rich man’s harvest. It does not criticize the rich man for building bigger barns to store it in. But it criticizes him because he does all of these things without seeing the need of the people around him. He does not see the poor, and the poor are what matter to God.
You and I have a difficult time seeing the poor. The poor are not particularly visible here in Bainbridge. We and the people around us live comfortable lives, largely free from material want. And there is nothing wrong with that. Our lives are a blessing from God. But our danger is the danger of the rich man in the gospel. We can go about celebrating and enjoying the blessings we have received and fail to see those around us struggling to survive.
And they are with us. We live in the richest country in the world, and yet 1/6 of American children live under the poverty line, which means they struggle to find adequate nourishment and education. In our world one billion people are forced to live on less than a dollar a day. And every day 10,000 people die because of diseases that could have been avoided if they had access to clean drinking water. These are startling statistics, but they are statistics we should see, because Jesus is betting that when we do see them it will move us to action. So, this week I would suggest that we spend a little time on the internet and search for “poverty” or “malnutrition” or “clean drinking water,” and allow the stark statistics we find to move our hearts. There are many opportunities right here in northern Ohio, many organizations that target feeding the hungry, resettling refugees, and helping those who do not have adequate access to health care. We should know those groups and select one to support.
The gospel calls us to see the need around us not to embarrass us or to make us feel guilty. The comfortable lives we live are blessings from God, and we should always be thankful for them. But we are called to see those who are in need because that is what matters to God. And this not a small thing, because no one gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.