13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘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. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
In some of my weaker moments, I am prone to watch religious programming on television. I am not a huge tv watcher—last Friday we had our cable hooked up for the first time in at least a couple of years—but I do sometimes watch religious programming on television, although I really should stop, because almost all of it gives me indigestion. I know I shouldn’t get so bent out of shape by something that is essentially entertainment, and I know that some of the stuff on TV isn’t awful, that it is particularly good for those who can’t make it to church and who need a little lift as they face the day or the week.
It’s just that the theology is so bad, so shallow. And, it seems, in many of those television churches, it is all about me, how God is at work in my life, what God has for me, how I can be the best person I can be. There’s nothing in the Bible about being the best you. The apostle Paul actually says that you should clothe yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, not that you should have your best life now.
But the thing that gets me absolutely burning hot under my lightly starched collar is the way that churches on tv talk about money. It just makes me sick, because believe me, the folks on tv know who their audience is: it is made up of people who are desperate to be a part of something bigger, something larger than themselves, desperate to be seen as good by a God who oftentimes seems as far away as the farthest star. In short, it is made up of humans.
And, because they know this, the theology of money that comes from these programs is just downright sinful. It is awful. I’ve seen plenty of these televangelists who insinuate that if you give money to their program, God will bless you, but it was not until I heard one of them promise that if you just gave all your savings to his church, God would bless you by giving you a car, that I realized what we are up against.
It is easy to turn up our noses at the slick tv preachers, and maybe I am just jealous of their influence, but the bigger issue, I think, is that this kind of thinking about money has spilled over into our own understandings of money. I was once in a United Methodist church in which I heard the speaker pose this rhetorical question:
“Should I tithe my money on my before tax income or my after tax income?”
“Well,” he said, “do you want before tax blessings or after tax blessings?”
Now, I hope you do tithe, which as you know means giving the first ten percent of your income to the church. I even hope you tithe on your before tax income! Of course, I would never ask you to do something I don’t do myself, and as a practicing tither, I find the giving itself to be a gift, but it is not magic! I remember talking to someone one time who was having a tough time, just couldn’t get it together, and he called and said, “Dalton, I don’t understand. I do right, I give money to the church, and I thought God was supposed to bless me because of that. If this is blessing, I’d hate to be cursed.”
Isn’t that sad? Even when the preacher doesn’t outright say that God will bless you in proportion to the percentage of your income that you give to the church, the implication is there that if you would just give, if you would just get out that crowbar and pry your wallet open just a little further, God has a blessing just for you.
In my darker moments, I worry that the televangelists have won. So as a strike across the bow, as we seek to reclaim a good theology of money, of giving, let me just be brutally honest about what God promises will happen to you when you give money to the church. Are you ready? Here it is.
The only thing—the only thing!—God promises will happen to you when you give money to the church is that you will have less money and the church will have more.
Now, I happen to believe that is a good thing. The church needs money—this church needs money—not just now, but always, but certainly now, for we there are many things to be done. We have people to reach, mission to do, children to teach. All of these things take money, and if you don’t give it, we can’t do it. When the money dries up, it is just like the power going out at your house. Everything just stops.
When you give your money to the church, the only thing I can promise is that you will have less money and the church will have more. And that, I think, is a good thing.
And yet people think they’re supposed to be specially blessed when they give money, as if giving is all about me rather than God. I just don’t understand how this isn’t really clear, although it is preachers who have spread the lie that by giving you will have more, so I guess I ought not be too surprised. And the lie has a corollary, which I am sure you have heard before and I will give five dollars to the first person to find this in the Bible: God helps those who help themselves.
Of course, that is not from the Bible. It is from Ben Franklin, from Poor Richard’s Almanac. But it is a lie we tell ourselves, just like, “do you want before tax blessings or after tax blessings?”
When you put it this way, of course it sounds ridiculous on its face, but when you are working the late shift and picking up extra hours wherever you can, well, it sure is nice to think that God helps those who help themselves. You start to do well, you start to make progress, and it is not long before you need bigger barns to support your success. This does not sound too crazy to me.
I mean, I have a pension, I have a retirement account and here I am, something like twelve years old, already thinking about this kind of thing. I am just not seeing the problem.
Furthermore, I mean, this is how business works. You save and store and save some more so that you can get ahead. Our economy is built on this model. As I say often, you don’t get rich by giving your money away. It is a difficult truth that churches in areas marked by the highest levels of affluence have the lowest levels of giving when you look at the percentage of people’s incomes. You don’t get rich by giving your money away. The only thing God promises will happen to us when we give away our money to the church is that we will have less money.
Let me be even more honest for a moment, if I can, because I know what it is like to hear a sermon about money. Nobody likes to hear a sermon about money. You know, I put it on the sign outside and I put it up on Facebook this week that the sermon was going to be called “An Honest Sermon about money, for once,” and I kind of wondered if anybody was going to show up. And I have thought a lot about this, about why people don’t like to hear sermons about money. I used to think it was because nobody likes to give their money away, but the longer I have been a human the more I know that is not true, neither in the church or in the world. I have come across the most generous saints in the church, here and elsewhere, people who love to give. And when sociologists have done studies on wealth and giving, they find that the happiest people are not those who have the most money. If I may quote the title of a song by the rapper Notorious BIG, when you have mo’ money, you have mo’ problems. Bigger barns do not solve anyone’s problems. It turns out that the happiest people are those who are the most generous, who give freely.
I used to think it was the case that nobody liked to hear about money because they felt guilty, which may be part of it, but here’s where I have landed:
Nobody likes to hear a sermon about money in church because it is not like the preacher is an uninterested party. The top of my paychecks say, “North Decatur United Methodist Church.” Here goes the pastor again, talking about how we need more money, so he can go off on one of his vanity projects and end up looking good while the rest of us go broke tending to the ship.
So it is not so hard to imagine what it must have been like for the rich fool in today’s parable to sit in church and hear this kind of message, because I bristle a little bit at it, too. Save up your crops, store up your riches for a rainy day, and God calls you a fool. I would bet my pension that you bristle at this a bit, too. The church writer Leonard Sweet says that Jesus’s teaching goes against the grain, so if you don’t find splinters in your mind and spirit after you’ve read the Gospel, you ought to read harder.
What is even easier for me to imagine is what it must have been like for the poor servants who worked for the rich fool to hear this story, because you have to think they must have gotten a little satisfaction at the fact that the rich fool died before he got to enjoy all the things he had saved up for himself, because don’t we love it when the mighty fall. You can hardly turn on the news without some local newscaster recounting with near-glee at the fall of another celebrity, another stint in rehab, another drunken rampage. The culture in which we live loves to watch the mighty fall, so I can imagine how much those poor souls who lived around the rich man’s farm must have felt to watch him turn inward, spend all his time and energy and money on himself, and then have no life left to enjoy it. You know what they say, the bigger they are . . .
And, in many ways, it is this thinking that motivates us more than anything else, for the reason we so giddily delight in the fall of the rich and powerful is that we are jealous of all they have accumulated. The problem of the rich man is the same problem of the rest of us, for even if we do not have enough to build bigger barns, we wish we did, we wish we could afford a better vacation, a better college, more things so that life wouldn’t feel so tight. If we only had a little more, we would not feel such a heavy burden.
Let me just share this as we move towards communion. Millard Fuller, as you may know, was the founder of Habitat for Humanity. If we had saints in the protestant church, he’d be Saint Millard, for the work he has done has changed the lives of millions. But at age thirty-three, he was about to lose everything. He was a successful businessman and lawyer, and he’d become a self-made millionaire before he was thirty. And his wife came to him one day and said, “You are working too hard, you do not resemble the person I married, I am leaving.” Fuller was devastated, of course, and went to see a close friend who said, “before you do anything else, I want you to go meet with Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinoinia farms down in Americus.” So Fuller went to talk to Jordan who was a great Bible scholar and wise teacher. And Fuller said to Jordan, “I don’t understand. I have been successful. I have been blessed with a fortune. And yet I feel so weighed down.” And Jordan looked him right in the face and said, “Of course you are weighed down. A million dollars is quite a load to bear.”
I don’t have a million dollars. You probably don’t either. But I have to tell you that as someone who has recently moved and been reminded once again of the ridiculous amount of stuff I have accumulated, it is quite a load to bear. And the more I give away, the more I offer to God, the freer I feel. I have a ways to go. But it is a gift.
This is the promise of God. When you give your offering to God, you will have less money and God will have more. But what a blessing to allow God to invest those offerings, for if you choose to invest in yourself—if you build bigger and bigger barns—you’ll find that you have even less than if you gave it all away.
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