Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Rich Fool


Luke 12:13-21

I want to be rich. If I were rich I could help talented but financially disadvantaged students receive a college education; advance the work of needy mission fields by building churches, hospitals, and schools; and support Seventh-day Adventist colleges in the United States with funds that could be used to attract outstanding teachers and provide them with the finest equipment available.

There is nothing wrong with being wealthy. The Bible mentions several wealthy saints. Abraham was one of them. So were Job and Joseph of Arimathea. Being rich however, does not denote a virtuous life; neither does poverty. What is important is how one becomes rich and how one spends those riches.

A certain man asked Jesus about his financial responsibility to his brother. Jesus responded with the parable found in Luke 12:13-21. Jesus' answer overlooked the apparent problem and dealt with the real problem--materialism. Covetousness was destroying the plaintiff's spirituality. "A man's life," Jesus said, "does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

Jesus' message is relevant to our affluent society. In 1948, there was one American billionaire, Henry Ford. It took until the 1970's before there were more than ten billionaires in this country. By 1980, however, there were 94, and now there are close to 200. Whereas a million dollars was once the prize that was out of reach of all but a few, millionaires are now a dime a dozen. Currently, there are 3,500,000 in America.

At the height of the era of excess at the end of the year 1999, there was a giddiness regarding the ease of making money. One headline read, "The Good News Is, You'll Be A Millionaire Soon; The Bad News Is, So Will Everybody Else". In those days, 8,000,000 Americans were millionaires. It was estimated that there were 250.000 millionaires in Silicon Valley alone, and that one third of Microsoft's 30,000 employees were millionaires. People were forecasting that the Dow would reach 100,000.

This feeling of wealth led to lavish consumption. $4,000-a-night suites were booked-up months in advance as were all eighty-four spots on Tavoca World Tours' $38,000-a-head round the world excursions. Luxury cars accounted for twelve percent of all vehicles sold.

Buttrick comments, "When a man who is accustomed to live from hand to mouth finally achieves property, he has reached a critical fork in the road; thereafter he will work either in sturdier manhood or in the folly of an acquisitive life. Possessions may fulfill their perfect work, or they may smother him." 1 Which turn have we Christians taken when faced with this "critical fork"?

In Jesus' story a rich farmer gained his wealth legitimately. He worked hard, and harvested much. His offense lay not in how he obtained his wealth but in what he did with it. He failed to acknowledge that he was God's steward. To recognize this fact is to admit that whatever we possess is entrusted to us by God to be used for his purposes. Consequently, in God's eyes, a poor man can be just as much God's steward as a rich man.

One night, a poor, tired, and hungry Vachel Lindsay asked to stay at a farmhouse. He had no money to pay for his lodging. Instead, he offered to recite some of his own poems. The lady of that house was not interested and pointed him to another house down the road, where he was cordially welcomed. "You may stay if you are willing to put up with what I have," was the offer. The house was very bare--two small rooms, no rugs, and no window shades. The only furniture was a bed, a table, an old stove, and rickety chairs. The famous African-American poet later said of that experience, "That man had nothing and gave me half of it, and we both had abundance." He had met a poor man who was God's steward.

C. L. Paddock, Senior, tells the story of two young, ambitious men who were working their way through Stanford University. Because they needed funds to continue their education, they invited the great Paderewski to give a recital; their profit would provide the money they required. They agreed to pay Paderewski two thousand dollars for his performance and set about promoting the program and selling tickets. Unfortunately, the ticket sales did not live up to their expectations, and when they counted the receipts after the program, they found that they had only sixteen hundred dollars. Disappointed and somewhat ashamed, they went to the great pianist, paid him the sixteen hundred, and gave him a note for four hundred dollars. To their surprise, Paderewski said, "Boys, that will not do." Then he took the four-hundred-dollar note, tore it up, and returned the sixteen hundred dollars to the boys. He then said, "Take out of this amount all your school expenses, and for each of you 10 percent of the balance. Then give me what remains." This was the act of a wealthy man who was God's steward.

But the rich man in Christ's story "thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have nowhere to place my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'"

We can become God's stewards is by using our wealth to extend the kingdom of God in the world. We can expend our wealth to bring people to a knowledge of Christ, to fund educational scholarships, to assist in the building of institutions that alleviate suffering, to support agencies that help the poor and unfortunate.

While Philip Guedella was writing the biography of the Duke of Wellington, he looked at the Duke's old checkbooks to obtain evidence of his true character. In perusing the stubs and cancelled checks, he discovered what things mattered most to the Duke. "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Mathew 6:21). We may not openly say what the rich farmer said about his selfish objectives, but the way we spend our money reveals whose stewards we are.

We can demonstrate heavenly stewardship is to use our funds to develop character in ourselves and in others. We do the former by striving to live in harmony with the life and teaching of Christ. An important aspect of this "striving" is to live lives that attract others to a Christ-like way of living. How we spend what money we have is an important Christian witness, not just to "outsiders" and fellow church members, but members of our families. This is why the poorest of us can be God's stewards and create "treasure in heaven".

Because the rich farmer was concerned with creating treasure on earth, he planned to build bigger barns, thereby creating a retirement "nest egg". But in Christ's parable, 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's problem was not wickedness but foolishness. He had not previously made preparation for sudden death. Death often comes suddenly, unexpectedly, at the most inconvenient times, and the man who does not prepare for his death is a fool, for death is not something alien or unexpected. In addition to bringing an end to our plans and activities, it requires a reckoning of the stewardship of our god-given material possessions.

According to this parable, the wise man prepares for death and lives in such a way that death cannot bankrupt him. He will be able to say with Paul, "As for me I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

Pakhom, a Russian peasant, obsessed with the idea of obtaining more land, discovered that the Bashkirs, a neighboring tribe, was willing to sell for one thousand rubles as much of their territory as he could encircle from sunrise to sunset. However, he had to return to his starting point before sunset or he would lose both the land and his one thousand rubles. At sunrise Pakhom began to run. At midday he decided to return to the starting point in a wide arc in an attempt to enclose as much ground as possible. The thought of the land he would gain inspired a superhuman effort. He fell headlong into a crowd of cheering Bashkirs just as the sun dipped below the horizon.

The Bashkir chief praised Pakhom as a fine fellow who had gained a great deal of land. But Pakhom lay silent on the ground. When the Bashkirs turned him over, they discovered that he was dead. Leo Tolstoy concludes the story. "The Bashkirs clicked their tongues to show their pity. They dug a grave long enough for Pakhom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels." That's all the land a man really needs. 2

"For what will it profit them, if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?" (Mathew 16:26) Death cannot take from us what we have laid up in heaven. It cannot take away what we have done to alleviate suffering, to assist the poor and unfortunate. It cannot obliterate a Christ-like character or destroy the influence of Christian stewardship. "For one's life," Jesus said, "does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." We are not what we have but what we are. The rich man lost his "soul," when people thought of him not as a "man" but as a "rich man". Consequently, he became a "nobody" in death.

As long as we function as God's stewards, our "souls" are safe. We are in mortal danger when gaining and maintaining material wealth becomes a preoccupation. "It isn't just what we do with our possessions, it is what our possessions do to us, that may change life for us." 3 That is why Jesus tells us in Mathew 6:19-21,

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

1. Buttrick, p. 127.
2. Leo Tolstoy, "How Much Land a Man Needs," The Complete Works of Count Tolstoy, vol. XVII (New York Press, 1968; reprint of 1902 edition, London: J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd.) pp. 452-469.
3. Forest, p. 50.

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