Rev. Keli Shipley Cooper | 7.31.22
In general, we don’t like to talk about money. Well, we don’t like to talk about specifics. It’s rare, upon meeting someone, you ask them how much they have in savings, what they make in a year, how much they have in their 401k, etc., etc. But we do make certain judgments – when we see the car someone drives, the clothes they wear, the school they went to, where they live.
When I say I went to an all-girls prep school for 7 years, there’s a judgment that may be made. When you see me bring in leftovers or build a lunch out of the staff snack basket, there’s another assumption. When I say my daughter has a nanny, another financial assumption. We may even ask questions about how much something costs, whether it’s a purse, lunch, or a trip. These assumptions are not always consistent—and not always true, but it’s a subconscious judgment made by each of us. So, we, in fact, love to talk about money.
We love to assign value to something—and perhaps are always comparing ourselves— somewhere between who has less than us and who has more than us. So, here we are today with the story of a man asking about his inheritance—and the parable of the rich farmer often referred to as the rich fool. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, in this journey narrative in the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of Luke is all about the themes of wealth and poverty, placing them side by side. And an unnamed man from the crowd yells out to Jesus, “Teacher! Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” First off, here a man is telling Jesus what to do—so, not off to a great start. Regardless of the amount, it’s obvious this brother thinks this is unfair. He wants what his brother now has.
Jesus responds with something we should maybe all learn to say, that isn’t my job. But… while we’re talking about money, here’s a parable. Yes, Jesus and his parables. A teaching opportunity at its finest- tackling the taboo topic of money- a topic that is mentioned multiple times in this Bible- and especially in this Gospel. Jesus tells the story of a farmer whose crops were producing—and, in fact, overproducing. He had so many crops that he ran out of storage space. And the farmer thought to himself—we can even hear the inner dialogue in the text. “Hmm, what should I do?” “You know, I’ve got it! I’ll just pull down my barns and build BIGGER barns. And then I’ll store up everything and be set for years. I’ll say to myself, relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” This farmer is literally talking to himself—the emphasis on the first-person language is hard to miss. My. My. My. I. I. I. He’s banking on this early retirement.
God responds by saying “You fool!” Interrupting the farmer’s inner monologue. Yikes. God reminds the farmer of his mortality and questions who will even own these possessions once he dies. What does it matter? “So, it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Or, as the First Nations Translation, an indigenous translation of the New Testament, states, “This is how it will be for the ones who make themselves rich but forget about Creator’s true riches.” Life is more than money—our land, our material possessions. Life is about being rich towards God. Life is about sharing our lives, whether that is our money, our time, our talents—to be in connection and conversation with one another and with God. Imagine what it would be like to be rich towards God—and imagine how, as a society, money matters would transform if we remembered what truly matters.
When I read the Gospel reading for today, I immediately thought about all the questions I was going to ask my husband Marcus. He’s a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley and I wanted to know his thoughts about the farmer and the brother. He jokingly said to set up a time with his office—so, I rolled my eyes and then we went to lunch. Of course, his initial reaction was, “well, the farmer needs to diversify his assets.” Ah yes, of course. And then he asked questions like, “And how much is the brother getting? Who is building the new storage barns? What about taxes? What’s the farmer’s succession plan?” Okay, okay, okay. I get it. There’s not a direct financial translation from this story to our capitalist society. But then we began to really talk about what the story was about… because it isn’t really about the money. Which is the whole point. Yes, a man in the crowd asks about his inheritance. Yes, a farmer decides to store up way more than he needs—but it’s really about greed—defined as “intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.”
In Brené Brown’s most recent book, Atlas of the Heart, she and her team explore 87 emotions that are at the core of humanity. The closest emotion to greed that I read about was “envy”—an emotion that occurs when we compare. She says, “comparison is the crush of conformity from one side and competition from the other—it’s trying to simultaneously fit in and stand out. Comparison says, ‘Be like everyone else, but better.’” Envy happens when we want something that someone else has and is often attributed to attraction, competence, and yes, you guessed it, wealth. Money makes us uncomfortable—well and makes some people more comfortable than others. There can be shame, discomfort, and awareness that comes from sharing how much money one has—and it’s often that people are envious of those who have more than them. Jesus warns of this- wisdom for each of us.
Rembrandt painted this story—entitled “The Parable of the Rich Fool” or “The Money Changer.” There’s an old man sitting in a dark room, surrounded by all his possessions- mainly books. And there he is, holding his candle, studying a coin, all by himself. The man didn’t steal his money nor the crops. He earned them fairly; however, the parable illuminates that he never thought about his neighbor—sharing his abundance, and, never thought of God—giving thanks. The man has a lot of things, but no relationships. Our material possessions are not the sum of our lives, for all that we have and all that we are God’s.
Each Sunday during worship, we collect an offering. We often hear the offertory sentence “Walk in love as Christ loved us, and gave Himself to us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.” Worship provides us with an opportunity to re-orient ourselves toward God—the entire service intentionally models this for us. Throughout my childhood, my dad gave me a quarter on Sunday mornings. Each Sunday. I would place the quarter in the offering plate as a reminder that money is not all there is to life—and it was to be shared. We gave back to the church, the community, we symbolically recognized that money was temporary; but our relationship to God was everlasting. To be rich towards God. To be reminded that our time, talents, gifts, and all that we are are God’s—as we live as disciples of Christ. We must walk in love. We need to try to stray from greed.
The church doesn’t always get this right. There used to be a practice of renting pews, at many churches, including St. Paul’s, as a way of offsetting costs for the church itself. Sure,
seems like a good idea and a fair way to create a stream of income; however, it created a divide between the haves and have nots. The pews became ways for people to show their status, based on the closeness to the pulpit, perhaps even what the pew racks looked like. If you get a chance, look at pew 63- there is a gorgeous wooden replica of the Last Supper based on the Tiffany mosaic found right here. This was in a highly sought-after pew- formally Jefferson Davis’ pew. Money and status literally bought you a place in worship and thank goodness we moved to free and open pews that we sit in today—because there might only be a bidding war for the back pews. Life is more than money—more than being seen and more than what we store up in our metaphorical, or actual barns.
Many times, the clergy here offer the blessing “Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make this journey with us. So, be swift to love. Make haste to be kind. And may the God who made you, who loves you, and who journeys with you be with you now and forever more.” This blessing hits at the pangs of our hearts- the inner workings of our gut- our humanity. Notice it doesn’t mention anything about money but mentions what truly matters. Mentions how to be rich towards God. Be swift to love. Be in relationship with others. Be kind. Know that you are never alone, for God is always with you—in all that you are and all that you have. Amen