Sermon for 9 Pentecost, Year C
Based on Lk. 12:13-21
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Today’s gospel comes as a warning to both rich and poor people, as well as those of the middle class. The poor and middle class folk are instructed not to covet the wealth or possessions of the rich. However, the rich are instructed not to be greedy with their wealth—using it only for selfish reasons—nor are they to place their security in their materialistic wealth.
In his novel Perelandra, C.S. Lewis places an Adam-and-like couple in a world where they live on floating islands of vegetation. Sometimes the islands would break up in the waves. There are places in this world where solid land exists, but the couple are forbidden to remain there overnight. The temptation of solid land in this novel is that stability and security can be attained without God. And that is also the temptation of wealth. It fosters an illusion of self-sufficiency that can blind us to our ever-present need for God. God alone is our security. 1
Jesus’ parable of the rich fool certainly speaks to us today—because we live in an age where materialistic slavery reigns supreme. Too many people today are led to believe that the answers to all of life’s problems and questions are found in the abundance of material possessions and wealth. This is all very obvious when one carefully analyzes the commercials on television. Unless you buy such-and-such a product, your life will not be happy or complete. You need our product, say the production company; you simply cannot live without it. The commercials promote covetousness, so that people are forever bombarded wanting things they don’t really need. Some people believe this so strongly that they become enslaved by it. That’s why we now have bumper stickers reading thing like: “born to shop” or “shop till you drop.” That’s also why we have some people who go on buying binges; using their credit cards without realizing that when the bill comes, it will take a half-year or more to pay for everything. That’s also why we have some people who believe that their self-worth depends on their material possessions and wealth.
For example, in most North American cities today, more and more highly educated people are purchasing SUVs. These vehicles are anything but environmentally friendly—polluting fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow! Yet, these highly educated folks—who intellectually, not to mention ethically, should know better!—don’t seem to give two hoots about how they are polluting their environment with these SUVs—nor for that matter does the automobile industry. Rather, what really matters to these highly educated SUV owners is that they drive such vehicles as a clear status symbol that they have made it in life; they’re rich, powerful and successful. (I know many try to rationalize their purchase of SUVs with the view that they feel safer in such vehicles, but is this really true? It seems to me that this is merely a cover-up of their motive to purchase such a vehicle as a status symbol).
This endless storing up of material possessions and wealth makes some people feel secure in their materialism. If they have all of this material wealth, somehow they will be protected and safe from the big bad world out there. Or they try to justify all of their materialism by convincing others that it’s all necessary in order to make life easier and more pleasant.
But Jesus tells us in this parable that our material possessions and wealth will not make us secure. These things will not prevent us from dying; or our homes from being destroyed by a natural catastrophe; or our lives being made more difficult because of some accident or disease. Death comes, natural catastrophes come, accidents happen, people suffer from diseases and our material wealth cannot make us secure from these things.
Holocaust survivor and famous psychiatrist from Vienna, Viktor Frankl once insightfully wrote several years ago, and it is even more accurate today:
I notice, having recently returned from America; that everybody there is on a pleasure kick. I declare to you that those who make pleasure their main goal in life are doomed to failure. This is because people are then no longer told by their driving instincts what they must do. And they are no longer told by their traditional values what they must do. Those who no longer know what they want to do and have no purpose in life fall victim to conformity, doing what others do, and pleasure and materialism will not fulfill them. Not ever. 2
Dr. Frankl is right, life is not more complete, content or fulfilled just because material possessions and wealth promise to make life easier and more pleasant. Often if something is easy or pleasant, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right. In fact, the very reverse may be true.
For example, it may be similar to the process of freezing to death. When a person is dying of hypothermia; they get to a stage where they feel so relaxed and comfortable they just want to close their eyes and drift off to sleep. If they are going to survive the cold, then they need to fight that sensation and struggle to stay awake, and keep active to try and stay as warm as they can. In a situation like that, it’s certainly not easy or pleasant to stay awake, and active in order to live—but by so doing one may survive such an ordeal.
It’s so terribly easy and pleasant to fill our lives with the so-called modern—now post-modern—conveniences of life. Even that phrase “conveniences of life” sounds seductively attractive to the ears. However if we become victims of and seduced by materialistic slavery; we may very well miss out on God’s real purposes for our lives. We may have lived in vain, for the wrong reasons. Oh we can live relaxed, comfortable lives entertaining and pampering ourselves to oblivion—like the rich fool in our parable. But God is not mocked! God may choose to take our lives suddenly, without warning, then what? Will we be—are we?—prepared for that? Our lives cannot always be easy and pleasant—especially if we take Jesus’ call to discipleship seriously! Our lives shall be a constant, ongoing struggle to discipline ourselves so that we give adequate time, talents, gifts to God; so that our lives are Christ-centred; and we then live in harmony with his will and purposes. He is our true security. His Spirit will lead us to growth and maturity in faith. Through his help, grace and guidance, we can be good stewards/managers of our lives. Our material wealth, which he has given us, is intended to be utilized for his purposes.
Sharing our material wealth is not only good for our personal health and well-being—this should not be (contrary to pop-psychology) the first and primary motive for our sharing, God’s love and grace towards us is the first and primary motive—it is also good for the rest of society collectively, and for the whole of creation. All is a gift from God. May today’s gospel be a warning to us all, so that we learn from the tragic mistakes of the rich fool. Jesus never did, nor does he know promise his followers a life of materialistic wealth, ease, or pleasantness. Life involves struggling to become—none of us have arrived or shall arrive completely in this world—more responsible, obedient, humble and loving servants and stewards of God. On the other hand, Jesus did promise that he’d be with us in our life struggles; if we too would avail ourselves of being with him through worship and service; work and play; study and practice; as we journey through life with our faith active in love.
1 Cited from: Craig M. Watts, “Why More Is Not Enough,” in The Christian Ministry, January-February 1993, (Chicago: the Christian Century Foundation, 1992), p.27.