John Welsely preached that we who are Christians have a duty to earn as much as we can, to save as much as we can, so that we might give as much as we can. Wesley was on to something.
Regarding earning as much as we can, if we must work each day, all things being equal, is it better to make $1 an hour or $2? As a general rule, it makes sense: if you have the choice, choose the job that pays more. Of course, the Lord may call us to a job that pays less financially but has greater rewards in other ways, but barring a specific leading from God, there is wisdom in choosing the job with higher pay so that we have the best return for our labor.
When Welsy said we should save as much as we can, he was saying that we should live simple lives, not wasting money on unnecessary luxuries. Which is, undeniably, very wise.
And Wesley’s final advice to give as much as we can is at the heart of what Jesus was getting at today in His parable of the rich fool. The story begins when a man approaches Jesus asking Him to serve as probate, and Jesus is not interested at all.
Love for Money Divides.
Notice the language the man uses - "Divide the inheritance between me and my brother". This is language of division and it goes against the grain of Christs’ mission – to unite us. Commenting on the audacity of the man’s request, Augustine said, “Greed wants to divide, just as love desires to gather.”
And so Jesus answers the man’s self-interested plea with a rebuke: “Man, who made Me a judge or an arbitrator over you?”
Has God ever answered your prayers with a rebuke? He has for me. Sometimes we grow discouraged when God doesn’t do what we want Him to do - as if He is somehow indebted to us! What does God owe any of us? Isn’t His love enough?
I think of the scene in the cartoon South Park where the whole town is out to watch the local football game, and one of the people in the bleachers prays, “Lord Jesus, please help our team win!” The scene pans over and down a few rows to Jesus, also watching the game, who looks over his shoulder and annoyedly says to the man, “Quit bugging me!”
Of course God hears every one of our prayers, but that doesn’t mean He agrees with every one of them. Sometimes we are asking for things that would do us more harm than good. Many times we are asking for exactly the wrong things. And most of the time we are praying out of fear, not faith.
“What Shall I Do?”
So Jesus launches into a parable – a troubling story about a man who hit it rich, but remained raggedly poor. The parable is very clear about what the man does wrong, but not entirely transparent about what the man should do. If storing up treasures for ourselves is the wrong thing, what is the right thing? What is it we ought to be doing with our abundance? Moreover: is Jesus saying it is sinful to plan ahead or to save for retirement?
If, as the Master says, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses,” we’re left with a quandary. What does one’s life consist of? That part is not immediately clear in the parable. We can conclude a few things, however.
First, the problem which Jesus addresses is “covetousness”, or greed. So it stands to reason that the solution that Jesus is after might be the opposite of covetousness, which would be generosity. If greed is the wrong response, generosity is the right one.
I must point out that abundance, sound planning, and good financial stewardship do not seem to be the primary issues here. It is really a parable about greed versus generosity. In fact, the mention of grain and storehouses call to mind another figure from the Old Testament, Joseph. We don’t think of Joseph as greedy. Just the opposite, in fact! Joseph was a very wise planner who built vast storehouses – too large to measure! – to preserve grain for Egypt’s people to use during seven years of famine. We find no condemnation of Joseph for wise planning – he is practically praised for being so shrewd.
Why? Because Joseph was generous. He did not horard grain for the purpose of keeping Pharaoh fat, but to bless the nation – and, as it turned out, Joseph’s own family was blessed in the process. Wise planning is not what Jesus condemns in today’s parable – He is calling out financial planning for the purpose of serving ourselves only. Indeed, wise planning for the sake of generosity is commended throughout the scriptures, from the pages of Proverbs to the Book of Acts.
The Biblical perspective on abundance is simple: abundance is a good thing. Abundance is not a bad thing! But abundance must be handled the right way. It must be understood that abundance always comes from God, always belongs to God, and is always meant to be harnessed to do the work of God. Any abundance we have is on loan – an investment God has entrusted to our care, and He will expect a return in the form of heavenly dividends. Abundance is for serving others. We must set aside the poverty of greed and be rich toward God by being generous with what He gives.
“So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (v21)
Pooronomics / Richonomics
The Pathetic Poverty of Hoarding.
“What does the rich man do, surrounded by a great supply of many blessings beyond all numbering? In distress and anxiety, he speaks the words of poverty. He says, ‘What should I do?’” (Cyril of Alexandria 375-444 AD)
The rich man “speaks the words of poverty,” says brother Cyril. And what are those words of poverty? They are words of worry and fear: “What should I do?” Our rich man turns out to be nothing more than a pathetic poor man, a corpse as poor as a stone the morning after his most successful day. Our miserable friend’s actions provide an apt picture of poverty values, or “pooronomics”.
“Hoard what you have. Cling to what is perishing. Think only of yourself.” These are the pathetic guiding principles of pooronomics. Turn back to one of the earliest sins in the Bible, and you will discover that the principles of pooronomics are the very same principles that Cain lived by. When it came time to offer a sacrifice to God, he kept the best for himself and his family, and was stingy toward God, giving the Lord only the rotting leftovers. Cain would make a wonderful patron saint of poverty and greed.
The deepest poverty comes from greed. Hoarding perishable things like money, homes, cars and crops is a losing investment. Putting what we have to its highest and best use by investing in what God is doing produces the greatest wealth we will ever know.
To become a pathetically poor person, all we must do is think of ourselves alone. To become truly rich we must think of God and others first: “How might I love God with what has given me?” “How can I bless my neighbor with my surplus?” “How might I bless my enemy?”
Greed is not “a” poverty value, it is “the” poverty value. Greed is the toll booth on the broad path that leads to destruction. Greed is not merely a result of poverty, it is the cause. Really, how much can one of us eat, and how much can we wear, and how much can we travel in a day? Enough is as a feast. Whatever we are given beyond our daily bread is given as a means to gain the truest riches. For being rich toward God means doing what is right according to God. And doing what is right according to God means looking after widows and orphans, bearing one another’s burdens, and spreading the gospel of love. Bearing one another’s burdens mints deeper relationships with one another. And relationships are one of life’s richest treasures. "Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends," wrote Clarence the old-timey angel to Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey in the richonomics masterpiece, It’s a Wonderful Life.
The Tremendous Treasure of Giving.
“I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.” (Psalm 37.25 NIV)
I’ve never met a generous person who doesn’t have enough. Quite often they have more than enough, because they are so generous with others, their network of friends will rescue them from any financial trouble that comes their way. Hear what Augustine has to say about the rich fool:
“He was hoarding perishable crops. I repeat, he was hoarding perishable crops, while he was on the point of perishing because he had handed out nothing to the Lord before whom he was due to appear. How will he know where to look, when at that trial he starts hearing the words “I was hungry and you did not give me to eat”? He was planning to fill his soul with excessive and unnecessary feasting and was proudly disregarding all those empty bellies of the poor. He did not realize that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns. What he was stowing away in those barns was perhaps even then being stolen away by thieves. But if he stowed it away in the bellies of the poor, it would of course be digested on earth, but in heaven it would be kept all the more safely.” (Augustine 354-430 AD)
If pooronomics is all about hoarding what we have for ourselves and our families, richonomics is centered on the kingdom principle of sharing our abundance to alleviate suffering, to spread the gospel, and to care for the alarming number of widows and orphans in distress everywhere aroundabout us.
The pooronomics of hoarding always makes us poorer, while the richonomics of generosity cannot do anything but make us richer. Take a dollar and hide it under your bed. What will happen to it? The dollar immediately begins to lose value due to inflation. Now instead, use that dollar to buy a meal for a hungry child, or to buy gas to get to the school down the street where they are asking churches to provide volunteers to encourage children who are going through trauma. What will that evaporative dollar become then? You will have made an investment that yields eternal dividends for that child. Your dollar given to the work of God will make you far richer than the shrinking dollar you are saving for a rainy day.
Pooronomics is determined to cling to a dwindling supply, while richonomics will give its very last dime in the service of others, and therefore in the service of God. Some people in this world appear to be rich because they have vast real estate holdings, offshore bank accounts, and money tucked under every mattress – but they are not rich at all. They have nothing, because they’ve cargoed their treasures on an armada of swiftly sinking ships. They are poor indeed!
But then there are those who recognize that the mansions of Heaven are a far more fireproof investment than the tinder of our earthly abodes. These are rich indeed!
This is why I have come to embrace tithing the first and best 10% of our financial gain as one of the most vigorous of spiritual exercises. The only cure for greed is to let go of what we are hoarding, and to be rich toward God. And I have come to see that the price must be steep enough that it significantly impacts our family budget. Otherwise it is no more than meager charity. It doesn’t all need to go to church, even though we all will hopefully do our part to keep the lights on. But the full measure of our tithes should be given where the Lord is leading us to sacrifice. Most importantly, to get the most out of tithing, our offerings should never be used as leverage or seen as mere do-gooding charity. True tithing is a spiritual discipline - and perhaps the most challenging spiritual discipline. It is an exercise in dying to self in the most practical, accessible way. Not many of us will be called upon to give our lives as martyrs, but we all have an opportunity to sacrifice the best of our increase. Tithing is an exercise in letting go of the things we have hoarded, releasing all personal claim on what was never ours to begin with.
God isn’t looking for big donors, he’s after heart donors. Jesus is looking for those who understand the kingdom truth that wheat spoils, dollars inflate, and treasures sink – but kindness does not. Indeed, generosity always multiplies and yields a return unmatched by any worldly portfolio.
Make friends with the money you have. It is those friends who will carry you when you don’t have a penny to your name. And you will discover in your darkest hour that you are rich indeed.
I’ve quoted a lot of other people, but as I see it, Jesus must always have the last word:
“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?” (Luke 16.9-11)
Let us use our unrighteous money to do the righteous work of God, to build lasting portfolios in the Lord’s investment house. May we be always generous, and never greedy.