The Desire For Money
Jesus' parable of the Rich Fool is another uncompromising criticism of selfishness and wealth gathering for its own sake. It condemns worship of material things to the exclusion of worship of God. It exposes indulgence of wealth as morally inferior to helping others where possible. The parable is the spontaneous response to a request to Jesus to adjudicate in an inheritance dispute. Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me. Rabbis did help to settle family disputes in the way that in previous centuries ministers helped to do the same in Scottish communities and elsewhere. We are not told the background of this dispute and indeed, Jesus was not in the least interested in adjudicating the case and refused to do so. The petition seems to have been urgent. It is almost an order rather than a request and it assumes the rightness of the request. There are always two sides to inheritance claims. Jesus discerned greed and warned that life is not about how much money and possessions you have.
In every society and in every place throughout time there have been rich people and less wealthy, poorer people and those with nothing. There are inequalities of wealth in Britain especially visible since London became the favourite place for Russian oligarchs and middle eastern potentates to invest in property. Apparently it costs more than £1 million for an ordinary studio flat in London these days. The differences in Scotland are not so extreme but our cities have wealthy enclaves and desperately poor council estates side by side.
In the parable there is a very successful farmer. He has just had another bumper crop and he has nowhere to store his grains until he can sell them. He is short of land and so he decides to demolish his barns and build bigger, higher ones on the same ground. So far this seems sensible, reasonable and above reproach. Nearly all business enterprise uses this model of growth. Executives are charged with the responsibility to enlarge businesses. Remember Fred Goodwin! He grew the Royal Bank of Scotland until it became the 5th largest bank in the world. He kept buying up other banks adding to the income of the Royal Bank. He seriously overreached and the Royal Bank became bankrupt in the 2008 crash. It was bailed out by the government at great cost to taxpayers. Consider the example of Arnold Clark. He had trained as a mechanic in the Royal Air Force. When he left in 1954 he used his RAF lump sum to buy a small showroom in the Woodside area of Glasgow near the university. He began selling cars and then moved to larger premises. Over the years by accumulation of other businesses and expansion of premises he has built a multi billion pound business. Recently he bought out Woods of West Calder and his business model depends for growth in such acquisitions. Is he like the man in Jesus' parable? Arnold Clark is an elder of the Church of Scotland. Both he personally and his companies support charities. They gave us a donation in 2000 towards the cost of our new roof. What proportion of his personal wealth Arnold Clark gives away I do not know. How sincerely he worships God I do not know. His business operates on the bigger barns model but there is evidence that he does not ignore requests for help from others.
In another way Arnold Clark is unlike the rich farmer in the parable. He is still working in his eighties. He still visits his garages and showrooms to check up on how they are doing. He is still in charge though his family are regional managers of the various businesses. In the parable the rich farmer retires early and decides to spend his fortune on partying. He acts like a lottery winner. Many people long for that to happen to them. They desire money in order to have an indulgent lifestyle. The first question lottery winners are asked is 'What are young going to spend your money on? David Martin from Hawick who with his wife Carol won £33.3 million answered saying 'A £200 pair of shoes, a Range Rover and a country house in the Borders'. What I found fascinating was that he had wanted these things before he ever won the lottery. He had thought about them and desired them. He also said that they would give to charity and help the Hawick flood victims.
In the parable God calls the rich farmer a fool. It is a strong word. Could it be said with pity? 'You stupid idiot'. 'You numpty'. Could it be said with regret? 'Oh dear – you are so stupid'. Or indeed is it said in anger? Is it God's decision, choice and judgement to end this man's life there and then? Does this man have a sudden heart attack? It happens. People die suddenly at all ages and in all circumstances. God asks the man 'Who will get what you have prepared for yourself?' This echoes Ecclesiastes chapter 4. 'And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is meaningless— a miserable business!'
Andrew Carnegie businessman and philanthropist said, 'There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else'. He said 'Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community'. And he also said 'The man who dies leaving behind many millions of available wealth, which was his to administer during life, will pass away ‘unwept, unhonoured and unsung,’ no matter to what uses he leaves the dross which he cannot take with him. Of such as the public verdict will then be: ‘The man dies thus rich dies disgraced.’”
That is what God was saying to the rich farmer in Jesus' parable. God does not place the man in question in eternal judgement and hell fire. Neither are mentioned. Maybe it is implied. It does not even say that the rich man will answer to God except by the fact of his sudden death. It does not say 'And where will you spend eternity?' It just asks 'What is it all for, your business building, your greed, your spending everything on yourself'. Jesus is saying that if all you want is to be rich and you have no place for God or your fellow human beings, then your life is both futile and worthless. For Jesus wealth is not money or possessions. For Jesus wealth is relationship with God and goodness towards our fellow human beings. These are things which we can take with us when we leave this life. Jesus himself is the perfect example of this. How such degradation and extremity as His crucifixion could be transformed into such a lasting blessing and benefit to the world is a great mystery. But it happened and we share in it. And so this should encourage us to love and worship the Lord God and to love and serve Jesus Christ. It is not stuff wasted and forgotten. It is the true purpose of life. None of us here is like the rich farmer. But we can in our own small ways live selfish lives. We can be mean and miserable towards God and we can certainly block out the needs of our fellow human beings. We can be miserable and mean-spirited, full of negativity and criticism. We can be misers comforting ourselves by admiring our bank accounts.
Bill Gates is described as the richest man in the world with $87.4 billion. Is he though – the richest man in the world? It depends on how you measure wealth. I'd say Jesus is the richest person in the world. He has the love and devotion of hundreds of millions of men, women and children. He has the recognition of 2.3 billion of humanity who are called Christians and he is highly regarded by 3 billion and more others. Think of all his churches and congregations. Think of all the good works dedicated to Him throughout history and throughout the world today. Think of the spiritual riches in so many people's lives that are his. Bill Gates $87.4 billion dollars is very poor and very small riches by comparison. If we don't measure wealth just by having things or being able to buy things, many people are rich indeed. Maybe some of us here are wealthy in God's sight because of our faith and faithfulness, our love and service of Jesus and the blessings we have received through faith and prayer.
I'd rather have Jesus than silver or gold,
I'd rather be His than have riches untold;
I'd rather have Jesus than houses or land,
Yes, I'd rather be led by His nail-pierced hand.
I'd rather have Jesus than worldly applause,
I'd rather be faithful to His dear cause;
I'd rather have Jesus than worldwide fame,
I'd rather be true to His holy name.
Would you though? Jesus or a lottery win? Which would you go for? Can you have both? What is in the secrets of your heart? What is your longing? Is it for money? The desire for money is strong. Jesus' teaching counters our acquisitive nature as human beings. It counters our envy of the rich and powerful in our societies. It reverses the world order of ambition and fame. Jesus' is the complete reversal and the complete denial of what many aspire to throughout the world. 'Blessed are the poor in spirit' says Jesus. 'Blessed are those who are in mourning. Blessed are the humble hearted. Blessed are those who want to be good. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the innocent. Blessed are those who make peace. And blessed are those who suffer for their Christian faith'.
Jesus then goes on to tell everyone not to worry about material things nor to doubt God's capacity to provide what we need to live. Anxiety is very common in life today. Lots of people suffer from internal stress. Christians are not to be worriers. Jesus says that your life is more precious and more beautiful than the loveliest scarlet lilies on the hills of Palestine. We are not to be foodies, obsessed with what we will make to eat next. We are not to live to buy the next fashions. These things have their place far down what the priorities of the Christian life should be. And that is how to live in peace. To put your trust in God first and to trust God that you will always have what you need. It is a spiritual way of life – different from the hustle and bustle of the market economy in which we live where everything has a price.
Serenity is possible in the midst of the false and frantic values of our nation and society. It is not found in gathering wealth nor is spending it selfishly. It is found in the lovely gifts of heaven and in sharing these with others as we live out our days and years.