It all starts with a request.
Moments earlier Jesus was teaching the crowd about the trouble that’s coming – trouble so bad it might even threaten their lives. “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill you,” Jesus says. “Our God who takes care of each little bird will take care of you,” he says. “When you’re drilled about your faith, the Holy Spirit will help you find the right words,” he says. “Don’t worry about a scary and uncertain future,” he’s trying to say.
Just as he finishes, a request comes from the crowd: “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me!”
Even someone reading this without the context – just picking up at verse 13 – might sense that this request is somehow out of place. Jesus’ initial response is almost mocking: “What, did God send me to earth so that I could be your personal judge?” (see verse 14). I imagine a chuckle rising up out of the crowd and possibly some ancient version of, “Oooh, dang!”
But then Jesus turns to address all of them. “Be careful, because there are many kinds of greed and none of them are good. Your life isn’t made up of money or stuff” (see verse 15). I see a quiet crowd after that line. Maybe all their minds then went to the same concern this man was voicing, a universal concern that goes beyond just inheritance:
Will I have enough for the future?
In modern terms this concern usually involves retirement – a word that brings happy thoughts in regard to the stage of life but anxious thoughts in regard to finances. Whether you’re pre-retirement or post-retirement, odds are strong that you’ve spent some time worrying over where the funds will come from and how long they will last. If we had been in the crowd that day, maybe it would have been one of us with the out-of-the-blue request, immediately forgetting the important lesson on how God will provide for us. Maybe you or I would have raised our hand and yelled out:
“Jesus, tell my parents to will their money equally to all three kids!”
“Jesus, make sure Social Security hangs around until I retire!”
“Jesus, don’t let the stock market drop again!”
To which Jesus would respond with his warning. “Be careful, because there are many kinds of greed and none of them are good. Your life isn’t made up of money or stuff.” And then, to illustrate the point, a story that could have gone like this if he told it today…
Once there was a man whose stocks produced abundantly. He thought to himself, “What should I do with all this money? How can I keep it safe?” A traditional bank account wasn’t big enough for this sum. So he opened new investment accounts – and a few overseas – to keep it safe. Then he put his feet up and felt peaceful, knowing that he would be in good financial shape for many years to come.
But little did he know – that very night his hour was up. What good was all that money saved away now that he was dead?
This is how it is for anyone who invests extravagantly in their own bank accounts but puts nothing into their relationship with God.
Part of me likes this parable, despite its ominous ending. I like it because it makes me feel justified in my (lack of) retirement planning. I mean, I hear you’re supposed to save 10 (15?) percent of your income toward retirement. I’m also told that you’re supposed to start as early as possible. And I think my husband and I are doing that… maybe? We save 10% (most of the time). The United Methodist Church is putting money away for my pension (but don’t ask me how much).
Oh, let me just be real about it: I have no plan. I have no idea what I’m doing for retirement. And when it comes to this parable, part of me feels justified; clearly I’m at no risk of this kind of greed, right? But another part thinks I ought to be a little more like the guy who built a bigger barn. Because what I don’t want to happen is forty or fifty years from now, our poor planning turns Alan and I into a huge financial burden on our children.
As I prayed over this parable this week I felt this tension in its implementation. I recognize that the only dependable thing about the future is God, and God’s care for me (and all of us). I want to invest heavily in God, both literally (in giving money to the church and to the poor) and figuratively (in spending time with God individually and corporately). And yet… I also believe that God has given me the capabilities and resources to be responsible for my future.
How do I invest in my retirement while investing much, much more in God? How do I manage the money I’ve got without letting greed trick me into thinking it provides any guaranteed security?
John Wesley has an answer for us. Three, actually.
Wesley – the founder of the Methodist movement – was a prolific preacher. He typically preached 2 to 3 times a day; it’s estimated that he delivered over 40,000 sermons in his lifetime. Among those was a gem titled, “The Use of Money.” Like any good preacher he had three main points… and the first two might surprise you.
- Earn all you can. This is not a green light to make money by any means necessary. Wesley qualifies his opening point by saying that we should not earn money in ways that cause harm to anyone, or damage our bodies, or exploit weaknesses in others. Instead, “earn all you can” acknowledges that making money is not in and of itself bad. If God has gifted you with the ability to earn, then earn. But also…
- Save all you can. This doesn’t mean building bigger barns so we can start hoarding away. Instead, “save all you can” is a reminder to distinguish between our wants and needs. We should, of course, spend money on food, clothing, and shelter. But we should also think twice about things that are luxuries. We do not “need” as much as we think we do. It is often possible to save more than we save. Wesley calls us to show restraint in our spending.
- Give all you can. Don’t think of this as the third in importance, an afterthought that we should practice if we get around to it. Instead, think of this as the culminating point of Wesley’s sermon. We earn all we can and save all we can so that we can give all we can. The first two prepare us for the third. We use our resources responsibly so that we can seize every opportunity to do good. To “give all we can” is not an option; it is a necessity. It is how we invest in God.
Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can. What if the man in the parable had taken this advice?
Once there was a man whose fields produced abundantly (“Earn all you can”). He thought to himself, “What should I do? I don’t even have enough space to store all this!” He filled his existing barn with the crops (“Save all you can”). Then he prayed about what to do with the rest, and as he prayed he noticed that many people in his community were hungry – they didn’t have enough. So he invited them to come and take out of his abundance (“Give all you can”).
Little did he know – that very night his hour was up. But no matter. His soul was peaceful because he knew God would provide for him what money could not: eternal life.
Now, the question comes back to us: What if we took John Wesley’s advice? What if we earn all we can and save all we can, but most importantly give all we can? How would our stories be different?
How would your story be different?
Go, and make it so. Because, after all, there’s all kinds of greed out there – and not a one of them’s good.