Eustace Conway is the subject of a book called The Last American Man written by Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert describes his life as a modern mountain man who still lives like our ancestors lived in the early frontiers of our nation. She tells about his extraordinary adventures such as walking the 2,000 mile Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia living almost exclusively off of what he could hunt and eat along the way and his legendary journey on horseback across the United States. Out of a passion for this way of life, he now operates a camp for children and adults in a 1,000 acre sanctuary he calls Turtle Island in the hills of North Carolina. One of the things he cares deeply about is trying to help people, especially grade school children, understand their connection with the natural world. At one of his speaking engagements, he asked fifty sixth graders to talk about the meaning of the word “sacred.” No one seemed to know what this meant, and so Eustace asked them to write down a list of what was valuable to them. He remembers only one out of fifty having a real idea of sacredness. After reading paper after paper filled with things like money, new cars, and telephones, one boy in the class said “life.” Eustace later wrote in his journal, “Only one small soul in the class was on the right track away from greed as a motivator, and thank goodness for him…”
Unfortunately, greed is a powerful motivator in our society. In order to understand what a powerful motivator it is, you only need to look at the number of states who sponsor lotteries as a sure-fire way to make money off of their people! If we just had a little more, then things would be better. Our advertising companies realize this and if you just watch a few commercials this afternoon, you’ll realize how much your life is lacking and how much better it would be with just a few more strategically purchased products!
Even though Jesus lived in a time with far fewer resources and considerably fewer choices of things to buy, he still faced many of the very same issues. In fact, a significant portion of Jesus message dealt with serious issues of wealth and possessions, even though at times we tend to shy away from the things he had to say. Or maybe even worse, we try to explain them away to make them easier to take! Luke’s twelfth chapter is packed with Jesus’ teaching about wealth and possessions. When we first see Jesus in this chapter, he is surrounded by a crowd of people so thick they are stepping on each other’s toes. A few moments before our passage, he had just been talking about the ways his followers could expect hardship and maybe even martyrdom if they kept following him faithfully.
So it seems totally random when a man steps out of the crowd to ask him about inheritance law! To be fair, this man wasn’t totally out of line because Jesus was a teacher – a Rabbi – and one thing Rabbis were able to do was understand the complicated legal issues surrounding the Law of Moses and apply them to everyday life. Since Mosaic Law described the ins and outs of inheritance, rabbis were often consulted on these issues. So, this stranger from the crowd simply wanted a quick ruling on a legal dispute with his brother – hopefully in his favor! But as Jesus does so often, he bypasses the question the man was asking on the surface and gets to the root of what he is really asking inside. He uses this as a teaching moment for his disciples and undoubtedly for the crowd gathered closely around. “Take care!” Jesus says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” The common wisdom, then and now, seems to suggest that life does consist in an abundance of possessions. But Jesus reminds us that this is not the kind of script our life is supposed to have. To say it as simply as possible, there is much more to life than having lots of stuff.
And then, to take things deeper, Jesus tells parable. There was once a very wealthy man whose crops had such a good year that he couldn’t even store the harvest. So he said to himself, “I’ll tear down the barns I have, build bigger ones, and store up all my grains and goods. That’ll be perfect! I’ll say to myself, self you’re doing just fine. In fact, after you build those big new barns and fill them up with the harvest, you’ve got it made for the next several years – so sit back relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” He thought he had it made…but there was one variable he hadn’t figured into the equation… God came to him that very night with very strong words, “You fool! This is the very night you’re going to die! Now who’s going to get all of the stuff you’ll have in storage?!” Jesus then says, “That’s the way it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich in the things of God.”
Our first reaction might be to come to the guys’ defense here (or maybe it’s to defend ourselves!) We’d like to be there so we could say to Jesus, “It’s not like he’s doing anything other than simply practicing good business sense! He isn’t stealing from others, is he?!” But Jesus’ words are a clue to what he’s saying at a deeper level. The word fool is not a word that’s used lightly in Scripture – in fact it’s only used two times in the gospel of Luke – compare that to nearly 70 times in Proverbs. The foolish person is always talked about in contrast to the person who exercises the very wisdom of God. In Scripture, the word fool refers to those people who live their lives as if God does not exist. Jesus parable reminds us that we’ll never get the formula for our lives right unless God is at the very center. Jesus didn’t believe that wealth or possessions were evil in and of themselves and neither are the people who have them; Jesus simply knew that wealth and possessions offer us a great temptation to put our faith and trust in them rather than in God. That’s what was wrong with this farmer – he calculated his life without including God in the equation. Richard Foster describes the temptation this way, “…[when] we lack a Divine Center our need for security [leads] us to an insane attachment to things.” That’s why there are warnings throughout Scripture. Psalm 62:10 says, “if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.” Proverbs 11:28 reminds us that, “Those who trust in their riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like green leaves.” There is much more to life than having lots of stuff.
A minister preached a sermon along these lines and tried to emphasize everything, including our possessions, belong to the Lord. An old farmer skeptically sat in the congregation, listening to but not agreeing with the sermon. That afternoon he invited the preacher to Sunday dinner with him and his family. After dinner they walked outside, the farmer made a point of showing the preacher around his house, barns, tool shed, and pointed to his beautifully kept farm. Then he asked the preacher half jokingly, “Pastor, I worked all my life on this land. Do you mean to tell me that it’s not my land, that it’s the Lord’s land?” The minister reflected for a moment and then quietly said to the farmer, “…ask me that same question in a hundred years.” The story is a good illustration of the old phrase, “you can’t take it with you.” Martin Luther, the great Reformer, put it this way, “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands – that, I still possess.”
Just like that old farmer, the only things we can take with us are those things that we place in God’s hands. Our faith and trust in God, the good we do for our neighbor in the name of Christ, the devotion we have to God, the sacrifices we make for the sake of God’s Kingdom, and the time spend carefully and quietly listening to God’s Holy Spirit. These are the things are sacred, these are the things that last, these are the things that make you rich in the eyes of God.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.