He who dies with the most toys still dies

Today’s sermon is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


When I was in high school, there was a popular T-Shirt brand called No Fear.  It was the early days of a professional class of extreme sports like skate boarding and many teens in the late 90s found some freedom in their no fear attitude.  No Fear T-Shirts were a perfect way to share a pithy philosophical slogan of teenage angst and rebellion with the world.  I had one No Fear shirt, and I can still remember the slogan on the back, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.”  My favorite slogan, however, had deep scriptural roots, even if the designers and wearers didn’t realize it.  “He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”  This is the perfect slogan for Proper 13, Year C, though I doubt it would make a compelling church ad campaign.  “Join Saint Paul’s in Foley as we talk about two taboo topics: death and money.  And remember, He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”  Of course you wouldn’t lead with that, but since I have you here already, and since Jesus seemed perfectly comfortable talking about money and death, it seems wise to talk about these two less than desirable subjects here this morning.

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The story we heard from Luke’s Gospel is a strange one.  As you’ll recall, Jesus has set his sights on Jerusalem.  All along the journey from Mount Tabor to Jerusalem, Jesus entered village after village, sharing the Good News of the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, and casting out demons.  As you might expect, his popularity grew immensely during this time, and by the start of chapter 12, Luke tells us that the crowd following Jesus numbered in the thousands.  There were so many people that they began to trample on one another.  In the midst of this sea of humanity full of crying babies and shouting adults, a man comes front and center with a request, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  As a rabbi, Jesus would have been qualified to interpret the laws dealing with inheritances, but Jesus is clear that he is not a judge.  He did not come to settle family squabbles.  He came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God most certainly does not look like greedy family arguments over a dead man’s money.  The message of Jesus does, however, have a lot to say about how we spend our money and what sort of preparations we should make for when we die.

Let’s start with the money piece.  Jesus warns the crowd, including the argumentative brother, to be on guard against greed.  He is very clear that the goal in life is not the accumulation of more stuff.  So what is the goal in life?  Jesus answers this question by way of a parable about a rich man whose land produces abundantly.  When this rich man realizes that he has become even richer, the only person he can think of is himself.  He doesn’t stop to thank God for good soil, for seasonable weather, or for rain.  He doesn’t consider the many others who made this abundant harvest possible: the sowers of the seed, the tenders of the plants, the harvesters of the produce, the picklers of his okra, nor the builders of his barns.  He doesn’t think about sharing the harvest with anyone: not family, not friends, and certainly not the poor who probably lived just outside the walls of his estate.  Instead, the man thinks only of himself.  Eleven times in his soliloquy, the man uses a first person pronoun!  “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?  I will do this; I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

This man is so self-centered that in the midst of a conversation with himself, he interrupts himself to have a different conversation with himself!  His problem wasn’t really money or possessions or power, but that he worshiped only one wrong thing: himself.  There was nothing outside of himself that he cared about, and so, his money afforded him the luxury of spending years and years not having to worry about anything or anyone.  Clearly, this is not what Jesus would have us do with our money.   The Kingdom of God is not about accumulating things, but rather accumulating relationships.  The accumulation of wealth is of no value if it can’t be shared with love and joy with those around us.  In the Kingdom of God, money is not bad, in and of itself, because money allows us to build relationships.  It allows us to build familial relationships as we use it to nurture, nourish, and educate children.  It allows us to build friendships by inviting people to share a meal with us.  It allows us to build co-working relationships by engaging others in work.  It allows us to build neighborly relationships as we pay our taxes for the upkeep of society and the common good.  It allows us to build relationships of mutual respect when we minister to the poor and the poor, in turn, minister to us.  Money can be a good thing when it is used to build relationships, thereby building the Kingdom of God.

Still, as that old No Fear t-shirt said, “He who dies with the most toys still dies.”  It doesn’t matter whether you have the most money, the most influence, or the most friendships; you can’t take any of it with you when you die, which is at the heart of God’s harsh words to the rich man, “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  That question, “whose will they be?” rang in my ears all week.  Some commentators suggested that because this man had no family or friends, that the abundant supply of his storehouses would end up being given to the community of people around him that he never even noticed.  Some even suggested that he might become a hero by default; feeding the community for years after his death.  Others think that perhaps the grain in his silos would do nothing but rot away after his death, that all his selfishness would continue, even in death, as the hungry continued to be hungry while years’ worth of grain went to waste.  None of these seems like a comfortable ending to the story, which is precisely the point of a parable.

It seems to me that this is a story not just about the right use of our money in life, but the proper planning for its use after our death.  If we have not given any thought to the question, “whose will it be?” we have failed to see our relationships through to the end.  Even after death, our money and possessions can be used to foster relationships, to build up other people, and to grow the kingdom of God.  The Church suggests this is important, albeit uncomfortable, when, tucked deep in the Prayer Book, on page 445, at the end of the service of Thanksgiving for a Child, the rubrics require that Ministers “instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.”[1]  Neither Jesus nor the Church say that having money when you die is a bad thing, but both argue that not having planned for how it will be distributed is.

“Whose will it be?” is a good question to ask, not only as we become parents, but continually as life goes on.  There are other considerations as well.  “What do I want my funeral to look like?”  “Who will have my medical power of attorney?”  “Do I need a Living Will?”  As the parable of the Rich Fool reminds us, our days are never guaranteed, and having made careful decisions today, we can save our families and friends from difficult choices down the road.  Making plans for a future in which we do not exist is one more way to show that we care about something other than ourselves, build healthy relationships, and, ultimately, usher in the Kingdom of God.  One’s life does not consist of the abundance of possessions, but it can certainly be made better when we make careful, intentional decisions about how those possessions will be use with love and joy with those God has place in our lives both here in this life and after we’re gone.

[1] 1979 BCP, 445.

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