Making an idol of wealth

In our Gospel reading today, a brother feeling aggrieved, and perhaps with a sense of entitlement asks Jesus to instruct his brother to divide their inheritance with him.  To put this into perspective we must bear in mind that it was common practice in Judaism for the oldest son to receive a double portion of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17) and the oldest son was responsible for dividing up the rest after his father’s death. The passage seems to suggest that the younger brother wanted more than his share of the estate.

I may not be that old, but I’ve certainly lived long enough to have witnessed a number of relatives and closer family members passing away.  There have been distant aunts and uncles, grandparents and more recently my father.  When I think about these experiences, I think it’s probably fair to say that without exception when it came to dealing with the inheritance it brought out the worst in some people, and in some cases caused tremendous upset in the family.  I came face to face with avarice and greed, and I saw the destructive effect that had on people. It actually really upset me, and in all honesty I found it profoundly disrespectful to the person who had passed away.  People’s pursuit of wealth can become all consuming and all defining, causing people to lose sight of the things that really matter in life. When a loved one passes away, what is actually the most important thing?

At the end of the day, pursuit of money is chasing after the wind and it’s often all about self – self gain.  Yet there are numerous studies which have been carried out in which researchers have plotted the relationship between wealth and happiness.  All of the research reaches the same conclusion, with the plot featuring 3 distinct sections:

  • In the first section, which begins with zero wealth and zero happiness not surprisingly, happiness rises quite sharply as our wealth increases.  This section of the graph is where our primary or basic human needs, like shelter, food, safety etc. are met.  Our primary human needs are fundamental to our existence.
  • But then in the second section, the gradient is less steep as happiness rises less sharply as wealth continues to increase.  This section of the graph is where our secondary needs like televisions, refrigerators, furniture, books etc. are met.  Our secondary human needs might bring us some measure of fulfilment and pleasure, but at the end of the day we can get by without them.
  • In the final section, happiness does not change even as wealth continues to increase.  There is a plateau or point of saturation.

If our primary and secondary needs are met, accumulating more money beyond that makes little if any difference to our quality of life and happiness. Apparently, John Wesley’s rule of life was to save all he could and give all he could. When he was at Oxford he had an income of £30 a year. He lived on £28 and gave £2 away. When his income increased to £60, £90 and £120 a year, he still lived on £28 and gave the balance away. The Accountant-General for Household Plate demanded a return from him. His reply was, “I have two silver teaspoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the plate which I have at present; and I shall not buy any more, while so many around me want bread.”

Perhaps being mindful of this, Jesus shares a parable which speaks into the use and abuse of wealth.  Luke, like his Lord, was keenly aware of the dangers of selfishness, avarice and greed. He presented this story from the teaching of Jesus to indicate the utter folly of the rich man’s course of action. The moral that Jesus pointed to is quite plain, a moral that is as relevant in the twenty-first century as it was in the first: “A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God” (12:21).

The rich man in the parable that Jesus shared was doubly blind, and I don’t mean physically.  He was doubly blind in 2 ways.  Firstly he never saw beyond himself and secondly he never saw beyond this world.

The rich man’s pursuit of wealth in the parable Jesus shared was such that he never saw beyond himself. No other parable is so full of the words, I, me, my and mine.  Just take a moment to look at the passage again to see for yourself.

When this man had an excess of goods the one thing that never entered his head was to give any away. His whole attitude was contrary to Christian teaching about stewardship. Instead of denying himself he aggressively affirmed himself; instead of finding his happiness in giving, he tried to conserve it by keeping and amassing more.

The second way in which he was blind is that he never saw beyond this world.  All his plans were made on the basis of life here. There is a story of a conversation between a fiercely ambitious youth and an older man who had considerable life experience. The young man said, ‘I will learn my trade.’ ‘And then?’ said the older man. ‘I will set up in business.’ ‘And then?’ ‘I will make my fortune.’ ‘And then?’ ‘I suppose that I shall grow old and retire and live on my money.’ ‘And then?’ ‘Well, I suppose that someday I will die.’ ‘And then?’ came the last stabbing question.  We cannot take our accumulated wealth and possessions with us when we die.

It is important to say that the Bible does not condemn money in its own right, but it does condemn the love of money, the point at which money and wealth become an idol in our life, much as it had for the rich man in the parable. We are called to be stewards of what we have.  We need to learn how to shift focus from the “I want more” to the “I’m satisfied with what I have”.  At the end of our earthly time, how would we like to be remembered?  What legacy would we like to leave behind?

The rich man in Jesus’ story died before he could begin to use what was stored in his big barns. Planning for retirement —preparing for life before death—is wise, but neglecting life after death is disastrous. We cannot take wealth and possessions with us; but we can make a difference with what we have, no matter how little, in the here and now. Jesus challenges his people to think beyond earthbound goals and to use what we have been given for God’s kingdom. Faith, service, and obedience are the way to become rich toward God and allow us to store up treasure in heaven.

It’s no wonder that Paul instructs us to set our hearts and minds on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God and not on earthly things.  In this earthly life, we are to seek to put to death all those things that belong to our earthly nature which can so easily become our idols and diminish us and distract us from God.  In Christ, we have taken off our old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Amen

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