In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Let me just begin by saying, I didn’t write this. I’m just called to preach on it! Jesus has the uncanny ability in his parables to touch us where we live or to hit us where we hurt.
Such sharp insight is in our parable this morning. Jesus is teaching the multitudes and suddenly he is interrupted by a man who is obviously quite upset. “Teacher, make my brother divide our inheritance with me.” Disputes about inheritances were very common in that time because the oldest son assumed control the moment his father died, and he was responsible for settling the estate with all the other siblings. But let’s not kid ourselves, disputes about inheritances are just as common today.
I heard a story about the president of a bank who had two sons. The older son was fun-loving and irresponsible and the younger son was a straight arrow who always played by the rules. When their father died, the two brothers found themselves alone in the funeral parlor with their father’s corpse. “You and I both know that money meant more to our father than anything else,” said the older son. “I think the most appropriate thing for us to do at this moment would be for each of us to put a thousand dollars in his hands and let it be buried with him. What more apt tribute could we pay to him?”
“Of course, that would be appropriate,” responded the straight arrow brother.
The story has it that he then went to the bank, got ten crisp one-hundred –dollar bills, and put them carefully into his dead father’s hand. Later that night, when nobody else was around, the older brother came, took the thousand dollars, put it in his pocket, and left 2000 dollars- a check for 2000 dollars.
The point is, if you had that kind of older brother in the first century, you too would be looking for somebody like Jesus to intervene and give you some help! Today people pay attorneys and often estates are settled in the courts many years after someone has died. It’s tragic. But in the first century there was no court system to handle such family conflicts.
GREED- it’s the age old problem. Jesus knew it- (in fact He speaks more about the evils of money than any other topic) and He chooses not to get involved in this family fracas. Instead He says: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And then He tells the story of a very successful farmer who never had enough- who built larger and larger barns to hold more and more grain. Jesus named that man a “fool”.
We all know families that have had disputes over wills. Some siblings never speak again. How sad, how ironic that the goods that the parents accumulated over their lifetime have become, after their deaths, the reason for the disintegration of their family. I’ve seen siblings hire lawyers, hunker down, and squabble for years over the terms of their parent’s will, in the end having not much left that didn’t go to pay legal bills. (Willimon) And hold onto your hats. I even know people who lament over their parents buying into a retirement community- because you don’t get that money back- and that’s their future inheritance. Pure Greed.
The man at the beginning of our story, who asks Jesus for help, is nameless. All we know is his father has died and he wants Jesus’ help with the division of the inheritance. Call me crazy, but wouldn’t you think a more appropriate question to pose to Jesus- since he had the opportunity- might be: “Master, how can I get over my grief at the death of my dear father?” (Willimon)
Instead, all this man wanted, at the death of his father, was his dad’s stuff. And apparently, all this man left his son, was the prospect of more stuff.
I don’t know about you, but I hope my “stuff” is not my only legacy to my children. The greater legacy I hope to leave my children is the knowledge that there is a loving, forgiving and redeeming God. I want them to rest secure with the knowledge that just as my love for them was unconditional, so too is God’s love for them. I want them to know my love of the Lord in the hope that it might provide them the same comfort it does me. I want them to know how important good character is, that being honest at all cost is important. I want them to know that giving and sharing is greater than receiving and accumulating. I want them to know that their life is a gift, a gift from God to be lived fully- not squandered or wasted. Those are the legacies I want to leave my children.
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” If I were asked what the biggest problem in America right now is, I wouldn’t cite sex and violence in the movies, I wouldn’t name the gay rights issue, I wouldn’t even name the war in Iraq (although these are all important), I would say materialism. From where I sit and the people I know, I see lots of people literally working themselves out of a marriage, out of a family. And for what? One of our nations’ favorite shows is “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” (Willimon) What does that tell you? I’m afraid our prayers start to sound something like this: “Jesus, cure our illnesses brought on by stress. Make up for all the time we’ve been away from our children because of our jobs.” Something is out of whack.
A typical market in the United States in 1976 stocked 9000 items; today that same market carries 30,000 different items. And why is that? One reason is because we have an obsessive compulsion to possess more and more things, thinking they will bring satisfaction in our lives. We are so susceptible to a lack of contentment because our self-esteem is so closely tied to the accumulation of possessions. We determine a person’s worth by what they own. If someone says, “How much is he worth?” we immediately reduce the answer to dollars and cents. It’s sad. What a surprise it would be if we answered that question one day with: Let’s see, he’s worth three healthy, whole children, a good, strong marriage and thousands of hours of voluntary service; he is a man who uses all of his God-given gifts wisely and works to the best of his abilities. Now that’s a portfolio.
Marty Seligman is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and he conducted a study of depression. He found that there has been a sharp increase since World War II. People born after 1945 are 10 times more likely to suffer from depression than people born earlier.
That seems strange to me since we have so many more items that make our lives more comfortable, more convenient. Seligman said that on the whole you do not find much depression as we know it in non-Westernized cultures before they were modernized. Most primitive cultures do not show many cases of depression.
In this study Seligman found that the Amish of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, showed depression occurring at roughly one fifth the rate it occurred among the people of Baltimore , Maryland . Think about it. There probably aren’t very many bushmen in Africa on Paxil. (E. Degeneres) And yet, they have EVERY reason to be depressed. On any given day they could wake up to be consumed by a wild animal.
In an attempt to explain why depression is so much more common today, (and I am not necessarily endorsing his conclusion, I just find it very interesting.) Seligman says that people today are caught up in self-centeredness. They are so focused on getting what they want, on accumulating, because they are what they own- at least that is what our culture in America says- but it only leads to unhappiness and unfulfillment. So, they are more depressed.
The bottom line: It is literally the bottom line in today’s gospel reading: “Be rich in God, not in things.”
The good news: We are gathered here this morning to hear what Jesus has to say. We could be at the River or on the golf course but we aren’t. We are here this morning to hear what Jesus has to say even when the words are tough, even when they sting a bit. We are here to listen to Him and to try to change our lives to do His will. And the good news is: He knows it. And His promise in return is that He will save all the “fools” like us. (Willimon)
Let us pray: “Lord, all that we have has come as a gift from you – our lives, our families, our futures. Yet we tend to treat your gifts as our possessions. We grab and grasp, hold and hoard. Give us yet one more gift, gracious God. Give us a sense of proportion, an awareness of what is important in life. Help us to put things in their proper perspective, to see our lives as your gifts, to cling to the things that last, rather than the things that pass away. All this, and whatsoever you see fit to give us, we ask in the name of Jesus.” Amen. (Willimon)