I was in a systematic theology class one day in seminary when my professor, Dr. Kate Sonderegger, who had a near photographic memory and who had taught systematics at Middlebury for thirteen years, went on one of her famous long-form instructional soliloquies. She was brilliantly enlightening us on the how method can determine outcome, on how the subject of the Trinity cannot be addressed in the same manner that the Persons of the Trinity can, when she made the mistake of taking a breath. That’s when a fellow student, a young man famous (or infamous) for his academic ambition, began to ask her about the minutiae of the syllabus, about how course credit will work.
Well that doesn’t make any sense, right? Talk about taking everybody out of the moment. But Dr. Sonderegger is not the first or the finest teacher to be treated in such a manner.
Luke’s 12th chapter begins with Jesus giving some fantastic, real-world instruction. Some thousands of people had gathered to hear Jesus talk, and He was giving them great stuff: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known; do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do, fear God instead; but fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows; every one who acknowledges me before men, the Son of man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but he who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God; every one who speaks a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven; when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
This is great stuff, life-giving stuff, but the a “stranger approaches Jesus with a practical matter involving a family argument. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!” It’s not even a question, is it? This is a demand, and Jesus seems a bit upset about it. “Mister,” Jesus says, “I don’t know who you are or what you’re talking about! I am not a judge and have no authority here at all.” It was a curt retort… but you can’t blame Jesus. If I am midway through a lecture on the fruit of the Spirit, I will not be very happy if someone raises his hand to ask if I have any advice to give on how to do estate planning!”1
There’s little explanation for why this man would insert himself into Jesus’ instruction like that, except that it seems like he was totally occupied with what was coming to him, if only he could get his brother to give him his cut. Jesus wasn’t having any of this, and so he told the crowd a parable, a parable which is quite funny when you read it the right way:
A rich farmer did pretty well for himself one year and so he thought to himself, `How am I going to keep all this stuff?’ And 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. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, `Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’
In other words, you can’t take it with you. A truth so universal they wrote plays about it. Hoarding for yourself, then, according to Jesus’ words here, leads to death, to a lonely death. “So is he,” Jesus said, who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
So how does one become rich toward God? Well, there’s lots of ways, of course, but this morning’s parable gives us a few clues to inspect today. One, don’t be like the rich man, who talked only to himself. To be rich toward God, we must be around other people, we must value other people. Two, don’t be like the rich man, who ignored God, only to find that God has all the power in the end. To be rich toward God, we need to see everything and everyone as a reminder of the God who made all things, who gives us life and has the power to take it away. Three, don’t be like the rich man, who thinks that the riches of the earth are his alone. To be rich toward God, we need to remember that all things come from God and that He means for us to use these riches for the benefit of not only ourselves, but for others.
“Teacher,” the man said, “tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” I don’t know if that man ever got his half, but what an inheritance we will all receive from the riches of our Father’s kingdom.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week