Property Problems

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Property Problems” Luke 12:13-21

Rising inflation has us doing a double-take at the cost of groceries.  The war in Ukraine has sent gas prices soaring and made it painful at the pump.  Market volatility has not been kind to our 403-Bs and 401-Ks.  Yet, despite the economic pinch that we are feeling, we live in the world’s most affluent society.  The US has had the world’s largest economy since 1871.  With a GDP of $25.3 trillion, we far outpace our nearest competitor, China, at $19.9 trillion.  The US has the largest population of ultra-high net worth individuals in the world, including 724 billionaires.  Even COVID-19 hasn’t put a dent in the lives of the super-wealthy.  According to Forbes Magazine, the US added 98 new billionaires in 2020 and the net worth of America’s billionaires surged 62% during the pandemic to $4.7 trillion.

All that affluence may not always be good for us.  Several studies have shown that wealth may be at odds with empathy and compassion. Research published in the journal Psychological Science found that people of lower economic status were better at reading others’ facial expressions—an important marker of empathy—than wealthier people. Having more resources can also cause bad behavior. In fact, UC Berkeley researchers found that even fake money could make people’s behavior rude and inappropriate. When two students played Monopoly, one having been given a great deal more Monopoly money than the other, the wealthier player expressed initial discomfort, but then went on to act aggressively, taking up more space and moving his pieces more loudly, and even taunting the player with less money.  Wealth may also cause a sense of moral entitlement. Another UC Berkeley study found that in San Francisco—where the law requires cars to stop at crosswalks for pedestrians to pass—drivers of luxury cars were four times less likely than those in less expensive vehicles to stop and allow pedestrians the right of way. They were also more likely to cut off other drivers.  Most troubling of all, children from affluent households are at significantly greater risk for depression, anxiety, and addiction, perhaps due to greater pressure to excel, succeed, and step into the big affluent shoes of their parents.

Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel presents us with one of Jesus’s toughest teachings about the dangers of affluence.  Someone in the crowd asked Jesus to arbitrate a family dispute about wealth.  The fact that the questioner asked Jesus to rule in his favor, “Tell my brother to share the inheritance with me,” tells us that something isn’t quite right here.  Jesus’ warning, “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” suggests that someone’s attitude toward the inheritance was dangerously close to idolatry.  The Greek word here for greed, pleonexia, means an insatiable desire for more that spawns avarice.

Jesus next told the Parable of the Rich Fool, an exaggerated, cautionary tale about the danger that may accompany wealth.  The rich man in the story had property problems. First, he had an inordinate love of stuff.  When a windfall crop presented him with a surplus, he hatched a plan to build bigger barns rather than part with any of his abundance.  It also seems that he loved his stuff more than he loved his neighbor.  Tony Campolo, who taught for many years at Eastern College and Seminary, says that there are about 900 teachings in scripture about the importance of sharing our abundance.  But the rich man didn’t see his bumper crop as a blessing for anyone but himself. What’s more, the man didn’t see God as the source of his windfall.  His abundance was the blessed outcome of productive seed, fertile soil, ample rainfall, long days of sunshine, and shelter from pests and disease, all things beyond his power and control.  Yet the man’s greatest mistake was his attitude about the future.  He thought he had safeguarded his future by laying up his harvest.  But the future belongs to God—all life comes from God and all life returns to God in God’s time.  It’s no wonder that Jesus concluded his harsh and uncomfortable story with God calling the man a fool.

It’s hard to know what to do with Jesus’s tough teachings about the dangers of wealth.  I don’t believe that Jesus thought that wealth is evil.  Some of the people who surrounded and supported Jesus in his ministry were wealthy.  Joanna the Myrrh-bearer, who waited at the foot of the cross and came to the empty tomb, was the wife of one of the most affluent and powerful men in Israel, Chuzza the steward of King Herod.  Nicodemus was also wealthy and influential.  In John’s gospel, Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’s body for the grave.  A one-pound jar of myrrh cost a year’s wages.  Imagine the wealth that Nicodemus had to be able to purchase 100 pounds of the precious stuff. So, Jesus didn’t have it in for rich people. When we look at Joanna and Nicodemus, we see people who used their abundance in service to Jesus and in pursuit of the Kingdom of God.  So perhaps this uncomfortable Parable of the Rich Fool isn’t a condemnation of wealth so much as it is fresh perspective for discipleship in a world that prizes affluence above all else.

The challenge for us is to redefine how we relate to our possessions.  Jesus would first invite us to question how our society prizes possessions.  We live in a culture that tells us that stuff can meet our deepest needs.  Over the course of a lifetime, the average television viewer will spend a year watching commercials – that’s right, a year of our lives wasted on advertisements, designed to tempt us to go buy stuff.  It’s no wonder that we can get caught up in a vicious cycle of consumption, buying to meet the needs that advertisers tell us we must fill.  Social theorists call this relentless drive to consume affluenza, as if it’s a disease, “the bloated, sluggish, unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses.”

In a world dominated by affluenza, Jesus would stress that our deepest needs for meaning and purpose are never met by things.  Those needs are only met by God.  What really matters in life: love, acceptance, forgiveness, grace, salvation, relationship, and dignity, all are found in God—all free of charge.  When we grasp this fact, life finds true meaning, and we are liberated from that vicious cycle of consumption.  We begin to relate to our relative affluence in ways that allow us to make different choices.

Jesus would also have us consider how our relative affluence shapes how we relate to others.  Augustine taught that God gives us possessions to use and people to love.  Sin is when we get that the wrong way around.  We use people and we love possessions.  After all, Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor, not God and stuff.  Our affluence, then, is meant to be a resource in expressing our love for God and neighbor.  That’s where Tony Campolo’s 900 scripture references come in handy, inspiring us to share a tithe of our income, provide for the widow, care for the orphan, and shelter the refugee.  Could we think about our relative affluence as a whole lot of love, ready to make a difference in the world?  Now, that’s a paradigm shift. It’s the antithesis of affluenza and the heart of Christian discipleship. Here is more good news: one of the best ways to cut the risk of depression, anxiety, and addiction in affluent kids is to model for them this sort of compassionate neighborliness and to get them involved in serving others and connecting with all kinds of people.

Finally, Jesus would have us remember the true source of our affluence and blessing. The rich man thought he was the architect of his fortune and the guarantor of his future.  But Jesus reminds us that God is the source of our blessing, and the future is held in God’s hands.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t work hard for what we have, but ultimately all we have and all we are—the heart that beats, the air we breathe, the abilities that we parlay into achievement—all these are God-given gifts. 

Imagine if we took a break from the commercials that cultivate our appetite for stuff and instead spent a few moments each day counting our blessings and acknowledging them as a gift from God.  It would be a profoundly reorienting and life changing discipline.  We would find fulfillment and delight in the everyday miracles of watching a child sleep, harvesting lettuce from the garden, or glimpsing a bass jump out of the water in pursuit of its dinner.  If God graces our daily experience with such profound gifts, then we can trust that the future, which is beyond our grasp, will also contain good gifts, whether we are talking about this life or the next.  We can be freed to live in gratitude and grace.

Two words that I hope to never hear coming out of the Lord’s mouth are, “You fool!”  How about you? In the coming weeks, may Jesus and his parable of the rich fool inspire us to make some different choices when it comes to our affluence.  May we find the cure for affluenza in the freely given gifts of God.  May we dare to share our abundant blessings in love of God and neighbor.  And may we trust that God’s future will abound with daily blessings. 

Resources:

Richard Denniss. Curing Affluenza: How to Buy Less Stuff and Save the World. New York: Black Publishing, 2017.

Tony Campolo. Curing Affluenza. Video curriculum.

Scott Simon. Affluenza. KCTS Seattle: Oregon Public Broadcasting, 2014.

David Lose, “What Money Can and Can’t Do,” in Dear Working Preacher,  July 29, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2668

Chase Peterson-Withorn. “Nearly 500 People Became Billionaires During the Pandemic Year” in Forbes Magazine, Apr 6, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/chasewithorn/2021/04/06/nearly-500-people-have-become-billionaires-during-the-pandemic-year/?sh=73cc448925c0

Sarah Ruiz-Grossman. “A New Billionaire Was Created Every 30 Hours During the Pandemic” in Huffpost, May 22, 2022. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/billionaire-wealth-covid-pandemic-oxfam_n_6283e951e4b04353eb0a526d

Marcus Lu. “What Does It Take to Be Wealthy in America?” in Visual Capitalist, July 5, 2022. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/net-worth-to-be-wealthy-in-america-2022/

Anshool Deshmukh. “This Simple Chart Reveals the Distribution of Global Wealth” in Visual Capitalist, September 20, 2021. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/distribution-of-global-wealth-chart/

Carolyn Gregoire. “How Money Changes the Way You Think and Feel” in Greater Good Magazine, February 8, 2018. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_money_changes_the_way_you_think_and_feel#:~:text=More%20money%2C%20less%20empathy%3F%20Several%20studies%20have%20shown,expressions%20%E2%80%94an%20important%20marker%20of%20empathy%E2%80%94than%20wealthier%20people. Suniya Luthar. The Mental Price of Affluence in Speaking of Psychology (interview). American Psychological Association, 2014. https://www.apa.org


Luke 12:13-21

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 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. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”


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Possessed

Sabbath Day Thoughts: “Possessed” Mark 10:17-31

Americans don’t like to talk about money.  In May, Business Insider Magazine conducted a poll of 2,130 people to determine the topics they were most likely to discuss with friends.  Last on the list was money, outranked by current events, family, health, sex, relationships, and politics.

Rachel Sherman, a sociologist with the New School, reports that how we feel about discussing money may be determined by how much we have.  Affluent Americans say they are circumspect about money because they don’t want their lower-wage-earning friends to feel bad.  Middle income Americans tend to shy away from the topic of money because they may be economically fragile—the cost of their kid’s college education, a surge in healthcare expenses, or an unexpected big-ticket home repair can leave them reeling with more month than money.  Working class Americans are much more transparent about money.  They freely discuss the challenges or even impossibilities of supporting a family on minimum wage work.  They swap ideas about how they stretch their dollars and cut corners.

Kimberly Chong, an anthropology lecturer at University College, London, teaches that at the heart of the taboo on money talk is a cultural belief that money is associated with personal worth.  Social status, power, and respect are tied to our paychecks and our bank accounts.  It’s like that bumper sticker, “The boy, who dies with the most toys, wins.”  That sort of thinking is uncomfortable in a democracy where we affirm the equality of all citizens, even as we acknowledge the reality of income inequality and the concentration of wealth.

We don’t like to talk about money, if we can help it.  We really don’t like talking about it in church.  Perhaps my calling our attention to the topic has got you feeling uncomfortable—or wishing that I would change the subject.

Jesus didn’t have any trouble talking about money.  He talked about it a lot.  Indeed, the only topic that Jesus talked about more than money was the Kingdom of God.  If you counted, you would see that eleven of Jesus’ thirty-nine parables are about money.  Today’s reading from Mark’s gospel speaks frankly about the tension that can exist between our understanding of earthly riches and Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God.

As Jesus and his friends were departing on a missionary journey, a rich man stopped them and asked the Lord an urgent question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In Jesus’ day, eternal life was just another way of saying the Kingdom of God.  Jesus sounded impatient as he counted off the requirements of the Torah: no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no lying, no fraud, be sure to honor your parents.  Perhaps feeling relieved, the man was quick to share that he was all about that sort of righteous living.

Mark gives us a window into Jesus’ feelings.  The Lord, seeing the rich man and hearing of his obedience, loved the man.  Jesus saw that it was this man’s heartfelt desire to love God and love his neighbor as himself.  This man had disciple written all over him.  And so, Jesus extended to him the same invitation he had made to Levi the tax collector and Peter, Andrew, James, and John, the fishermen: “Follow me.”

When the rich man heard the cost of discipleship, he balked.  The thought of selling his property, and parting with the proceeds made his heart skip a beat, tied his stomach in knots, and sent his mind scampering down rabbit trails of worry and fear.  The rich man went away grieving.  The Greek word that describes how the man felt is stugnasas.  It means shocked, surprised, and in sorrow.  The man had a crisis of character.  He turned away from Jesus, unable to accept what the Lord asked of him.

It’s a story that is hard to hear and perhaps harder to understand.  Even the disciples struggled with what Jesus had to say about the rich man and camels passing through needles’ eyes.  In the ancient near east, wealth was seen as a blessing from God.  From the point of view of the disciples, this rich man was one of God’s beloved ones.  How else could he have amassed that land, those homes, those belongings, those slaves?  It didn’t make sense to the twelve.  If the rich man wasn’t first in line at the pearly gates, then who could be saved?

Over the centuries, Bible scholars and preachers have grappled with how best to interpret this tough story, a story that questions our relationship with God and money.  The monastic tradition has long looked to this passage as a proof text for vows of voluntary poverty.  Postulants of the Franciscan, Claretians, and other religious orders take vows of poverty upon entrance, renouncing their worldly possessions.  What they own becomes the community’s and is used or disposed of for the benefit of all.

In the Reformation of the sixteenth century, our spiritual ancestor John Calvin taught that the rich man’s problem was more than money.  The rich man wanted to know what he must “do” to inherit eternal life.  For Calvin, that smacked of works’ righteousness, as if we earn our way into God’s Kingdom by accruing God’s particular favor with good deeds.  Eternal life, Calvin taught, is God’s freely given gift for all who place their trust in Jesus.  We cannot earn our way into heaven, but God’s grace makes the impossible possible for us.

During stewardship season, generations of preachers have used this story to invite us to be generous givers.  The rich man makes us question what we truly value.  Is it Jesus and a life spent in his company, or is it our money and the things that we possess?  In our love for Jesus, we are inspired, maybe not to sell all that we have, but to hold our possessions loosely.  We prayerfully consider how our abundance may be used in Jesus’ purpose.  We live generously as a blessing to church and community.

I think those are all valid and responsible ways of preaching about the rich man.  Some are called to a life of voluntary poverty and radical sharing.  Heaven is ours only by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We are, indeed, blessed to be a blessing to our church and others.  Ultimately, all we have and all we are belongs to God, whether we are rich men and women, or middle-class families, or the working poor who live so creatively on so little.

But the story of the rich man goes deeper than all that.  Jesus calls us to question the core assumptions and the cultural beliefs about money that possess our society.  Jesus contradicts the premise that our personal worth is tied to our net worth.  That assumption prompts us to value some people over others.  It’s a short leap from there to what the disciples presumed: that the rich man’s wealth was a sign of God’s special favor.

But that wasn’t how Jesus saw the world.  Jesus loved the rich man.  Yet, Jesus also loved those low-status, vulnerable children whom he hugged and blessed.  Jesus loved those disciples, who struggled to understand his teaching.  That abundant and overflowing love of Jesus was a reflection of God’s love.  After all, God so loved the world that God sent the beloved son to die for us.

At the close of today’s reading, Jesus told his friends that those core cultural beliefs that we hold about personal worth and net worth don’t apply in the Kingdom of God.  There, many who are first will be last and the last will be first.  Jesus invited his friends—Jesus invites us—to let go of our false assumptions.  We are called to envision a world where the penniless Haitian migrant at the southern border is as loved by God as the billionaire businessman.  It’s a world where the illiterate day laborer is of equal value to the university professor.  It’s a world where the residents of Edgewood House, and others who are reliant upon the social safety net, are every bit as valued and beloved as those who are enjoying a leaf-peeping getaway at The Point this weekend.  That’s some radical stuff, Jesus.

If we accept what Jesus has to say, it will change how we see not only our neighbors but also our possessions.  If our personal worth isn’t incumbent upon the size of our paychecks or our 401Ks or our brokerage accounts, then it gets easier to live generously and share freely.  Our abundance becomes a way to shape a world where all may know that they are the beloved by our limitlessly loving God.  That’s an invitation to discipleship that can make us feel stugnasas—shocked, surprised, or in sorrow.  Or, Jesus’s invitation just might grant us a foretaste of the Kingdom to come and the life eternal.  Jesus says, “Follow me.” How will we respond?


Resources

Black, C. Clifton.  “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 10:17-31” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Loudenback, Tanza. “A Survey of 2,000 Americans Found . . .” in Insider: Business Magazine.  Accessed online at businessinsider.com.

Menendez-Atun͂a,Luis. “Commentary on Mark 10:17-31” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 10, 2021.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Pinsker, Joe. “Why So Many Americans Don’t Talk about Money” in The Atlantic, March 2, 2020.  Accessed online at theatlantic.com.

Thompson, James J. “Theological Perspective on Mark 10:17-31” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.


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