21 August 2010

Proper 18 C - If I had $1000000

Sermon for 1 August 2010

Luke 12:13-21

By Sharyn Hall

The other day I was singing along with a popular song on my car radio, when I realized that the song is very appropriate to today’s gospel story. You may know the song; it’s called, ‘If I had a million dollars.’ The song was created several years ago by a musical group with the provocative name ‘The Bare Naked Ladies.’ The group has no ladies, only five young men with a gift for quirky lyrics and unusual musical sounds; however, their songs often have a message. ‘If I had a million dollars’ is a satirical poke at our materialistic society. The song is the age-old story of a young man trying to impress a young woman by describing all the things he would buy for her if he had a million dollars. He would buy her a ‘reliable K-car’, some art (maybe a Picasso), lots of Kraft dinner with expensive ketchup, and a fur coat, ‘but not a real fur coat; that’s cruel’. The song ends with the words, ‘If I had a million dollars, I’d be rich’.

In our gospel today, Jesus tells the story of a rich man who becomes a great deal richer because of an unexpected abundant crop of grain. Wealth in the Biblical world was not measured by money, but by possessions, and those possessions were usually associated with the land. A wealthy person owned land to produce crops and land to graze livestock, herds of sheep, goats and cattle. A wealthy person had a huge household of servants and slaves to harvest the crops, tend the livestock, and take care of domestic chores.

The attitude toward rich people in the Bible is ambivalent. Wealth and possessions are seen as blessings from God. All things belong to God, so if a person has good fortune to have bountiful crops and plentiful herds, the person has been rewarded by God for his faithfulness. Conversely, if the crops fail and the herds die, he must have angered God and is being punished.

We see this way of reasoning in the story of Job. Job’s so-called friends claim that the calamities in his life must be punishments by God for his sins, but Job protests that that is not true. He has been faithful to God, and he does not understand why God has taken everything away from him. In the end, God restores Job’s fortunes as reward for Job’s faithfulness. In the story of Job, wealth is understood as a sign of God’s favour, but in several of the psalms, rich people are criticized as wicked and poor people are portrayed as righteous.

This ambivalence toward wealth in the Hebrew Scriptures is also found in the New Testament. Jesus condemns wealthy people when he declared that it is more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but he also says that if you seek first the kingdom of God, God will provide all your material needs. In today’s gospel story, Jesus describes the rich man as a fool because he believes that his abundance can provide security for his future. He believes that his soul will be content for many years. Material riches can compete with God for the heart and soul of any person, no matter how religious they appear to be. The rich man has made wealth the idol of his existence with the power to give life meaning. As Jesus said, ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’

Jesus grew up in a society in which there were few rich people and many poor people. The general view of people who were not rich was that wealthy people were greedy and hard-hearted. They amassed wealth by oppression through unfair wages and dishonest taxes. It was understood that a disproportionate amount of fortune for a few people was gained at the expense of many others. People could only become rich if they made a great many other people poor. Therefore, those who were fortunate to have wealth had the responsibility to share their good fortune with the poor and others in the community.

In our gospel story, we can see that the rich man made two mistakes. First, he believed that his wealth could secure his future. He trusted in himself and his possessions to assure him a good life for a long time. Secondly, he had no thought of thanking God for his good fortune. Perhaps if he had been grateful, he would have realized that he had an obligation to share his abundant crop with his labourers and the poor people of the village. Instead, he decided to build bigger barns so that he could keep all the crops for himself. He did not honour God’s commandment to love his neighbour.

In our society, it may be difficult to hear this gospel story and not wonder why the rich man was a fool. Some people might argue that he was being prudent. He had a windfall of a bonus crop and he was putting it away for a rainy day. We might say that he was building up his investments for a comfortable retirement. It is a good policy to be prudent, but being prudent need not overrule God’s commandment for compassion and generosity toward those less fortunate.

The refrain of the popular song says, ‘If I had a million dollars, I’d buy you love.’ Love is not for sale and cannot be bought, but love can be given away. If you had a million dollars, what would you do? If you ever have a million dollars, remember the rich man who decided to build bigger barns and forgot that God’s blessings are to be shared. Thanks be to God.

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