It’s all about money this morning. And stuff. And how you can’t take it with you, and how foolish it is to try. And how you’ll never enjoy whatever riches you have if you make a religion out of wealth and an idol out of riches.
When it comes to wealth, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, is an expert. Most people think he’s Solomon, the Son of David, the richest king in the history of Israel. He had it all. To put it in modern terms – cars, houses, women, personal chefs, a wine cellar, horses, gardens. You name it. He was the middle eastern version of excess. Over the top consumption.
And now he’s writing to us to tell us what it’s like. His report from the lap of luxury? Vanity. Emptiness. Nothing. Chasing after wind. Boxing the air. You work and work and work and some fool enjoys all the benefits. Or the economic bubble bursts. Or your paper profits evaporate. And all that you’ve worked so hard for, all that you planned to have is gone. Like the wind. Vanity. Emptiness.
We don’t like to hear that. That’s why prosperity preachers are so popular. That’s how Joel Osteen can pack them in like crazy. He promises the abundant life to those who do it his way. God is going to give you in abundance, whatever you want, and more, pressed own, overflowing. Cars, clothes, houses. Ask and it will be given you. I wonder if he ever read this morning’s Gospel, that a man’s life “does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” When Jesus promises life in abundance, He doesn’t mean an abundance of stuff. In fact, the parable of the four kinds of soil tells us that an abundance of stuff can get in the way of life in abundance, the cares and riches of this world choking out life-giving Word.
We learn early in life to idolize our money. It comes with the first allowance and all the rules about not spending it all in one place, etc. We learn the power in money as stored wealth, how we don’t have to build bigger barns like the rich man in today’s parable, but we can simply gather our money, put it in the bank or stuff it in the mattress, or if you don’t want to take the government’s word on currency, buy some gold and bury it somewhere. The beauty of money is that you can store your wealth, and unlike grain, it won’t get moldy. It may not earn much interest these days, but at least it won’t rot, though the deficit will certain devalue it.
We learn early in life to envy the kids with more money, the latest video games, the latest X-box or whatever is the thing to have. We grow up coveting even more, there seems to be no end to the things we want, and we mistake the abundant life for an abundance of stuff, a hefty portfolio, bigger houses, faster cars, a celebrity lifestyle. The cost is great. Just consider the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Solomon tried to warn us. There is nothing there there. Do we listen?
Two brothers came to Jesus. They were fighting over an inheritance and wanted Jesus to serve as mediator. Jesus refuses to get involved. “Man, who made me judge or arbitrator over you?” Think of this from what you know. Jesus had come to die and rise, and here were two brothers bickering over their share of their folks’ inheritance. You’d think they know better. How many families have been torn apart by inheritance disputes, with everyone demanding their fair share?
Jesus uses the incident as a warning to His disciples. Watch out! Be on guard against all covetousness. That seemingly polite almost secret sin of the heart unbuckled from God. The heart is like velcro and will stick to anything. St. Paul calls covetousness “idolatry,” because idols are made in the heart. Luther said that the sinful human heart is a veritable idol factory, cranking out one idol after another. An idol is whatever you bow down and worship in your heart. Whatever you fear, love, and trust above all things. It usually isn’t in God we trust but in gold we trust. And that love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. We will do most anything for money.
Jesus goes on to tell a parable of a rich man who had an unusual bumper crop on year. “The land of a rich man produced plentifully.” Notice that it’s the land. Like most riches, the man had little to do with it. It was just plain dumb luck, being at the right place at the right time. And this excess created a crisis. What to do with it? Where to store it? And so he embarks on an ambitious building program, which so often happens when you fall into unexpected wealth. You get ambitious. Tear down the old barns and build bigger ones to store “my grain and my goods” And then, after he was done building and storing, he could finally retire. Enjoy life. Relax, eat, drink, kick back, have some fun after all this hard work.
One small problem. There was a little blood vessel that was set to pop at about 2 AM, and his life would be over. And all the things he labored over and worried about and planned would wind up in probate court. And then what? It’s a tragedy, played out all too often – a rich man who has no joy in his riches. Or someone planning for a retirement that never comes, a plan cut short by cancer or a heart attack or an accident. As the Preacher of Ecclesiastes says, it’s all vanity, emptiness, nothing. Chasing after the wind.
So then what? What’s the alternative? Is there a better way to live? The answer, of course, if yes. The apostle Paul lays it out for us in the 3rd chapter of Colossians. He basis what he has to say on the fact that in Christ we are already raised and glorified. We died to this life, even before our death. Baptism buried us in Jesus’ death. “If you have been raised with Christ (and you have been raised with Christ), seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. “Seek first the kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “and all these things, the stuff of your life, will be added.” First the kingdom. The things that are above. The eternal things. What you will have forever, thanks to Jesus.
“Set your minds on things that are above and not on things that are on earth.” Again, fix your minds that are renewed in Christ on eternal things, not temporal things. Why? You died. That’s right. You’re already dead to the world, and one of the nice things about being dead to the world is that you have nothing in the world to lose. All that stuff you own that’s piling up in your garage and the attics and closets of your life, is not your life. That’s just your stuff. Your life, your real life, the true you as God created and intended, is hidden with Christ in God. HIdden. You can’t see it. You must be told or you wouldn’t know it.
What does this mean? It means, contrary to what Joel Osteen and the prosperity preachers tell you, that the abundance of your life is not having an abundance of things but being in Christ and receiving the abundance of life that He gives. It means that your life, as you now live it, is not a matter of building bigger barns to store more grain so you can enjoy life in the future, but living by faith in the Son of God who loved you and laid down His life to save you, and who gives you life in an abundance you cannot now even imagine.
It means that we hold our possessions loosely, with a dead, open hand of faith. There is nothing wrong with having stuff. Abraham had stuff. David had stuff. Solomon had lots of stuff, and he wrote to warn us about it too. But stuff can only be held loosely or you won’t enjoy it. Think about it. You buy a brand new car. And it’s all shiny and the finish is perfect. What’s your biggest fear? Someone is going to ram it with a shopping cart in the parking lot and put a ding in that flawless finish. And so you park it way off in a lonely corner somewhere. And you size up the neighbors and try not to park it next to junkie looking cars. Like mine, for instance. No one wants to park their late model beauty next to me. I don’t even wash my car. That’s why it’s better to buy your cars pre-dinged. You don’t care, and you’re free to enjoy driving the thing. And if a piece of freeway junk hits it, so what?
You do not know the day or the hour your life in this life will end. And what’s the point wasting it worrying over your stuff like that foolish rich guy agonizing over his barns when we has less than twelve hours to live? That’s where idolatry will get you. Your idols will wind up consuming you, robbing you of every last ounce of joy that the gifts of God can bring you. But holding them with the dead hand of faith, trusting that even if we lose everything, we’ve lost noting, there is the freedom to enjoy and to give away and to employ. One church father remarked of that rich man in the parable, “There was plenty of storage space for his surplus grain in the empty mouths of the poor.”
Solomon in all his wisdom said this: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in his toil. This also is from the hand of God, for apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” Ah. There’s the secret. Apart from God who can have enjoyment? Without God at the center, without Jesus in the middle redeeming all things, reconciling all things, making all things new, there is no lasting enjoyment. Just a race against decay, a futile running after the wind, an emptiness that can’t be filled no matter how many ways you indulge yourself.
That’s no way to live, my friends. And it’s no way to have a life. But you are baptized into Christ who holds your life in a way that you cannot. And when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.
Until then, enjoy your work, enjoy your food, enjoy your drink. That is a gift from God. As the Hebrew toast goes: L’chaim. To life in Jesus. Abundant, eternal life.
In the name of Jesus,