Rich Toward God

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

Dragons have maintained a firm hold on the human imagination for hundreds of years.

According to Purdue Professor Dorsey Armstrong, who has taught an entire course on dragon lore, it’s possible they are more popular today than at any point in history.  The winged, fire-breathing beasts played a starring role in HBO’s Game of Thrones, and Disney’s latest animated production – Raya and the Last Dragon – debuts tomorrow. 

Dorsey recounts a famous medieval Germanic myth in which a conqueror accumulates vast treasure.  

His greed turns him into a monster.  He becomes a dragon – a paranoid, self-absorbed reptile who sits atop his stash of gold coins and trinkets.  Day after day, he counts every piece.  He never shares his treasure.  In Germanic tradition, someone who hoards his wealth is not part of the community.  And to be without community is not to be human. 

At the heart of a number of medieval stories is the quest to slay a fierce dragon – and thereby to inherit his heaps of gold.   

Does this sound like the best thing that could ever happen to you?

It’s not.

Long before dragons became an international obsession, Jesus had a lot to say about money.  Consider, for example, the Parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12:15-21, where Jesus tells the story of a farmer who hits the jackpot:

“The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.  He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do?  I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do.  I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years.  Take life easy; eat, drink, and be merry.’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool!  This very night your life will be demanded from you.  Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”

According to Jesus, the object of life is amazingly simple: We are called to become rich toward God.  Anything that gets in the way of that is the worst thing that could ever happen to us.

The farmer in Jesus’ story, however, has a different plan.  Once again we reference the superb insights of the Middle Eastern cultural historian Kenneth Bailey. 

“The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.”  Right off the bat, Jesus makes it clear that this bumper crop is not primarily the result of this man investing six months of 80-hour workweeks.  The ground yielded the grain. 

And who owns the ground?  God does.  Likewise, God owns the temperaments, the resources, and the brain cells that we use to make our living.

This farmer, however, is in a self-congratulatory mood.  He says, “What shall I do?  I have no place to store my crops.”  He thinks he’s quite a guy, and now he has the happy problem of figuring out what to do with his unearned surpluses.  He decides to stockpile them.  He will hang on to his stuff as a hedge against future need.

Things haven’t changed all that much in 2,000 years.  People still tend to think that building bigger barns is the pathway to personal security.  The primary difference is that we have so much more stuff. 

As of December 2019, there were 47,539 self-storage facilities in the United States.  A half century ago this industry didn’t even exist.  Today it’s worth about $38 billion – almost as much as the entire American music industry.  That’s a lot of money just to make sure other people are watching our stuff 24/7.

Furthermore, this man hasn’t been talking to God about his next steps.  He’s confidently having a conversation with himself.  “I will say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years.  Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’” 

But then comes the thundering voice of God: “You fool!  You were stockpiling these gifts for the future?  The future is now.” 

Without so much as a notice in the mail, God is calling in his loans.  He says to the farmer, “This very night your life will be demanded of you.”  The verb translated “demanded” was part of the vocabulary of first century economics.  The farmer’s life has always been on loan – something he has obviously failed to grasp.

He isn’t a fool because he wants to store his crops, and certainly not because he is a person of little intelligence.  In the Bible, someone who scores 1600 on his SAT’s can be a fool. 

This man is foolish because of what he thinks is going to bring him happiness. 

Everyone knows how this story is going to end.  When someone dies it’s not unusual to hear people ask, “I wonder how much he left.”  The answer is always the same.  He left it all.  

Everybody always leaves it all.

As John Ortberg points out in his book It All Goes Back in the Box, it’s worth hearing the voices of some of those whose financial fantasies actually came true:

“I have made millions, but they have brought me no happiness.” (John D. Rockefeller)
“Millionaires seldom smile.” (Andrew Carnegie)
“I am the most miserable man on earth.” (John Jacob Astor)
“I was happier when doing a mechanic’s job.” (Henry Ford)
“Of the billionaires I have known, money just brings out the basic traits in them.  If they were jerks before they had money, they are simply jerks with a billion dollars.”  (Warren Buffett)

Make no mistake:  Having money does bring comforts and a certain measure of happiness. 

It’s wonderful to be able to drive a car that doesn’t routinely break down.  And it’s great to be able to fill it with gas.  And it’s a joy to order dessert at a restaurant every now and then.  But such short-term joys must not be confused with finding meaning in life.

The transforming news is that you can be rich toward God.  Right now.

Even if you don’t find a dragon’s hoard.  Even if your bank account is empty.  Even if you’ll never have enough money to purchase your favorite professional sports team. 

Don’t be a fool, Jesus says. 

Having stuff will never lead to the joy of simply trusting God, which is what our souls crave most deeply.

Which means we can all go to bed tonight knowing we are very rich people, indeed.