Preached at Bolton St James on 1 August 2010 at 11 am.
Anyone know the name Lakshmi Mittal? No? How about Ernesto and Kirsty Bertarelli? No? David and Simon Reuben? No? Roman Abramovich? Ah, yes , you’ve heard of him – he’s the Russian oil magnate who owns Chelsea Football Club, isn’t he? The Duke of Westminster? Yes? Do you know who those five individuals or couples are?
They are the five richest people or couples in Britain according to the 2010 Sunday Times Rich List. Lakshmi Mittal is a steel tycoon whose wealth is estimated to be 22.45 billion pounds. Roman Abramovitch is next, but he’s worth a mere 7.4 billion. While below him is the Duke of Westminster 6.75 billion, then the Bertarellis who are into pharmaceuticals and worth 5.9 billion. And in fifth place come the Reuben brothers, property and internet tycoons, who are worth 5.53 billion. There are 1000 people on the Times Rich List but you know what? I couldn’t find any of you on it … though there is one person on there that you may just know. Many of you will have helped to put him there. Sir Ken Morrison is in 30th place with a personal wealth of 1.54 billion. The Sunday Times Rich List, eh. Perhaps you wish you were on it?
I think the man in the story that Jesus told probably would have been on it, if there’d been such a list in his day. Jesus didn’t give him a name but let’s call him Lot because that’s what he had – a lot of everything. At the start of the story his barns are full and as the story goes on his wealth just keeps growing. This is a man who owned not only Jericho United Football Club but Jerusalem Wanderers as well. Married to a Spice Maiden. Fabulous house by the Jordan with a garage full of vintage camels. Saville Row tunics. Chauffer-driven donkey.
He had the lot … had Lot … and he was accumulating more. Big re-development plans on the drawing board, barn-building invitations to tender flying out in all directions. But then, one night, just as he’s about to turn out the light and slide between his silken sheets, God shows up. “Lot” It’s a voice in the room and it turns Lot’s bones to jelly. “What?” whimpers Lot. “You’re a fool,” says the voice. “Because tonight’s the night you must kiss goodbye to every last thing you think you own. Tonight’s the night you move from this world to the next. And what counts there is not whether you are on the Palestine Chronicle Rich List but whether you are on God’s Rich List. And I can tell you now, Lot … you’re not.”
Now that raises a big question, doesn’t it? An important question. A vital question. So let’s not shy away from it and save it for later. Let’s get it on the table right now. Here’s the question? Are you on God’s Rich List? Am I? At the end of the day, there’s nothing else that really matters, is there? Are we (to use the words that Jesus used) “rich towards God”?
To answer that question we do, of course, need to know what “rich towards God” means. And I wonder what you would say it meant, if I asked you. Having a life full of prayer and praise and Bible reading perhaps? Regular church-going and involvement in stuff like home groups and Mothers’ Union? Good answers, but not the one the Bible gives. No, we discover what “rich towards God” means by looking at the situation that prompted Jesus to tell the story of the man I’ve called Lot. Because the call of Jesus for us to be “rich towards God” comes in direct response to something that has just taken place – something that Jesus has just been asked to do.
Do you remember the incident as Luke reported it in the Gospel? Jesus is in Jerusalem. He has his disciples following him and that marks him out as a rabbi. Rabbis with their disciples at their heels were not an uncommon sight and in those days they were often treated as a kind of mobile Citizens Advice Bureau. If you could attract their attention and put a case to them, they would often give a free legal ruling. They could often be persuaded to arbitrate, to act as a judge, and to settle disputes. And that is precisely what the man in the crowd in Luke chapter 12 wanted this new rabbi in town, Jesus, to do. “Rabbi, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me,” he shouted.
Under Jewish law, all the sons in a family would share in their father’s estate, though the elder or eldest would receive a double share. But there was a problem if the father’s estate consisted of land and property and one or more of the sons did not want to stay put in the family home. Then, the property would have to be sold so that the wealth could be divided; and an elder brother might well refuse to go down that route. And that seems to have been the situation here. “Rabbi, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me. I want my money but he’s refusing to liquidate the estate.”
But Jesus will not be drawn into that dispute. “Man,” he replies. “Who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to the crowd, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
Now at first reading that response and the story that Jesus then goes on to tell don’t exactly seem to fit with the situation, do they? I mean, would you have accused the man in the crowd as being greedy? All he wanted was the share of his dad’s money that he was legally entitled to. What’s greedy about that? So why does Jesus talk about greed and go on to tell the story of the rich fool?
Well, the more I’ve looked at this passage and thought and prayed about it over the past few weeks, the more it has been made clear to me that the key to understanding it lies in the idea of “inheritance” and in the importance, as Jesus sees it, of choosing the right inheritance in which we want to share. The man in the crowd wants his share in the inheritance of his dad’s estate. The rich fool wants to hang onto what must inevitably become someone else’s inheritance. But there is another inheritance that neither the man in the crowd nor the rich fool in the story are showing the slightest interest in … an inheritance in the kingdom of God, a share in the world to come; and that (Jesus is saying) is the only inheritance that matters.
“You’re going to die tonight,” God tells the rich fool, “and then who will get … who will inherit … what you have prepared for yourself?” The man cannot keep the inheritance he has accumulated in this world – and (here’s the point of the story) he has no inheritance in the next world. Having an inheritance in the next world, in the kingdom of God, is what it means to be rich towards God. Once we latch onto this and see where Jesus is going with his story, we find the truth of it written right through the New Testament.
In Colossians 1:12, Paul says that God the Father “has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light”. A “share in the inheritance” is precisely what the man in the crowd was asking Jesus to help him get. In Ephesians 1.18 Paul says “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which God has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.” Peter says: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you. And in Matthew 25:34, Jesus himself tells of how one day he will say to those who belong to him: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”
Inheritance, inheritance, inheritance. To any Jew, it was a word loaded with significance, charged with meaning. A word that carried big, big associations and that was guaranteed to push a button in people’s heads that would replay for them one of the greatest stories ever told. The story of how God had once visited their ancestors when those ancestors were slaves in Egypt; had rescued them from the tyranny of Pharaoh; had made a way of escape for them through the Red Sea, had given them the Law, had led them through the wilderness and had finally brought them to a promised land. A land that both they and God called their inheritance. The land they still occupied as an inheritance by the sovereign grace of God who had given it to them. An inheritance that, while their ancestors were still slaves, God had prepared for them to enter in and take possession of.
It was a rich land … At the very start of the wilderness journey, Moses had described it to the assembled tribes as a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Leviticus 20:24) … “It is,” he told them, “a land with large, flourishing cities that you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things that you did not provide, wells that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:10). He wanted them to understand, you see, that it wasn’t a land for them to earn. It was a land for them to inherit – if they believed in it enough to travel there and go in and take possession of it. “When you enter Canaan,” Moses told them, “the land will be allotted to you as an inheritance.” And so it had been. And so it remained. The people in the crowd around Jesus who belonged to the tribe of Judah still owned the land that had been allotted to Judah as its inheritance 1400 years before. The people from the tribe of Benjamin still owned the land allotted to Benjamin and so on. Indeed, the very inheritance that the man in the crowd wants Jesus to make his brother share with him is an inheritance in part of the promised land.
But, by his words and stories, here and elsewhere, Jesus is telling the crowds: “There is another promised land of which this is only a foreshadowing. It is the Kingdom of God. It is the Kingdom of Heaven. And it is an inheritance too. One prepared before the foundation of the world for those who will set their hearts on it. It cannot be earned any more than the Hebrew slaves could earn the land you are now standing on. It cannot be bought. But follow me, commit to me, give your heart to me and you will be allotted a share in it – a portion in the world to come – just as your forefathers were allotted a share in this land of Israel. And what you will inherit is eternal life. Kingdom life. Life lived in the glory of the age to come. Simple as that. Take me as your Lord and Saviour and you will enter God’s Rich List. But set your heart elsewhere, set your heart on the things of this world, lay up treasures on earth and trust in them and rely on them, and what you have here will be all that you will ever have in all eternity.”
So what does that come down to – in practical terms? Is Jesus really saying that, like it or not, you’ve got to be poor to get into the Kingdom of God? Clearly, he is not. What he repeatedly said was that it is hard (not impossible, just hard) to get on God’s Rich List if you are on man’s rich list. And that’s not because riches (whatever form they take) disqualify anyone from entering the kingdom of heaven; it is because riches can so easily ensnare a person … can become so central and all-important, that there is simply no room left in a person’s heart to accommodate God or the life he offers.
The Romans had a proverb that compared money to sea-water. The more you drink, they said, the thirstier you become. And Jesus knew the truth of that. He knew that, if ever faced with the choice of hanging onto their possessions or getting rid of them to follow him, most wealthy people would forfeit their inheritance in the world to come. What must I do to inherit eternal life?” a rich young ruler asked Jesus. (There’s that word again.) And Jesus, looking into his heart and seeing how attached to his wealth the young man had become, told him: “Sell what you own and give the proceeds to the poor.” But the young man couldn’t bring himself to do it. “He went away sorrowful,” we are told, “because he had great possessions.” And as Jesus watched him go, he shook his head. “How hard it is,” he said, “for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Hard … but not impossible. Abraham was rich. Isaac was rich. Jacob was rich. David was very rich. And Solomon was mega-rich – “greater in riches” we are told, “than all the other kings of the earth.” Yet all these wealthy people were on God’s Rich List and remained there. And one of them, David, tells us how they managed it. “David praised the LORD … saying, Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendour, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, O LORD, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honour come from you … And now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.’”
“Yours, yours, yours” says David of the wealth he has at his disposal. Whereas “mine, mine, mine” says the rich fool in Jesus’ story. My crops, my barns, my grain, my goods.
The rich fool. It’s important that we stick with that word “fool” for a moment because “fool” is a word that’s reserved in Scripture for only one kind of person. We use it of people who are a bit dim or stupid but the Bible uses it only of those who “say in their heart ‘There is no God.’” In their heart, please note; not necessarily with their lips. There are, I’m sure, plenty of people around who profess faith, go to church, sing hymns, take communion even; but who, in their hearts, whether they listen to themselves saying it or not, are quietly denying the reality of God. “There is no one out there that I need concern myself about. There is no accountability, no-one to whom I’ll ever have to answer, no consequences beyond the grave as regards what I do or don’t do, here and now.
And the man in Jesus’ story was one such fool. No doubt, every Sabbath, he would be in the synagogue – probably occupying one of the chief seats along with other revered members of the community. When the Shema was being sung, he would intone it with the rest of them – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord …” But in his heart he was occupied solely by thoughts of his new barn, by the prices on the grain exchange, by the additional fields he was trying to acquire … His lips were saying one thing but his heart – and the attitudes and actions and behaviour that sprang from his heart – were saying quite another. God and his kingdom had no reality for him. The only reality in his life was his barns and what was in them. A man rich towards the world but not rich towards God. A man of wealth in the eyes of other men, but a man of abject poverty and utter destitution in the eyes of God. A fool.
Am I such a fool? Are you? Well are you? How does God see you? How does he see me? Are we rich toward him? It’s very easy to delude ourselves. In the book of Revelation, God tells the church at Laodicea: “You say, ‘I am rich.’ But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17).
So how can we tell whether we are rich towards God? How can we be sure we are truly on his Rich List and not just kidding ourselves? Is there a test?
Yes, I think Jesus lays one down very clearly and St Paul repeats it after him. It comes at the end of the story of the rich young ruler I’ve already talked about. As that sad young man gets back into his Ferrari, Peter looks at his battered old push bike with its flat tyre and says, “Lord we’ve given up everything for you.” And what was Jesus’ response? “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to Peter and the rest, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, will inherit eternal life.”
Eternal life is still an inheritance, please note. Jesus is not telling the disciples that their sacrifices have bought them eternal life in the world to come; but he is telling them that their willingness to give up everything for him is the clearest of all indications that their inheritance is real … that they truly are rich towards God … that they are very definitely on God’s Rich List. Liberation from the hold that anything in this world has over us is a clear sign that we have, and that we know we have, treasure in the next world. Converted hearts show themselves in converted wallets and converted diaries and converted everything else.
St Paul understood that. In his first letter to Timothy, he draws a clear parallel between being rich towards God and being rich in good deeds which he defines as “being generous and being willing to share with others what we ourselves possess.” “By doing so,” he tells Timothy, “they – that is, those who have possessions – will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19).
He is doing no more than echo Jesus, of course. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
The world out there, of course, thinks that giving to God is a kind of madness. The world out there has a Judas mentality. Judas, you remember, saw Mary of Bethany’s jar of precious perfume as wasted on Jesus. “It could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor,” he said. Just so, today, the world regards “charitable giving” – donating to things like Cancer Relief or MS Research – as highly commendable; but giving to God? Well that’s just plain crazy.
A lady in this congregation was telling me just a couple of weeks ago how upset her children had become recently when they discovered just how much money she was giving to God. They wouldn’t have minded, she told me, if they’d found she’d been spending it on Bingo, but giving to God was just sheer foolishness. They could not, and still cannot, see that the freedom and the willingness and the readiness to give is a direct consequence and a clear sign of treasure laid up in heaven.
We all have Christian heroes, I suppose. And from the age of fourteen, one of mine has been a young man called Jim Elliott. In the late 1940s, Jim Elliott was a clever, gifted young man with the world at his feet. But then he answered God’s call to give up the glittering future that lay ahead of him, and to go instead to the forests of Ecuador, taking the good news of Jesus to one of the most savage tribes on the planet – the Auca Indians. He arrived there in 1952 when I was ten. For four years he and his companions made fleeting contacts with the Aucas and then they decided the time had come to get a bit closer to them. They set up camp on the banks of the river near to where the tribe lived in the dense forest. But on January 8, 1956, the body of Jim Elliott and those of his four friends were found in the river near their tents. They had been hacked to death by the Auca’s machetes. Jim was only 28. “What a waste of a young life,” said the world. “What foolishness.” But Jim Elliott had left a journal and in it he had written this. It has been one of my life mottoes for a long time. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Do you get it? Do I? if I cannot grasp that truth; if the beautiful logic of what Jim Elliott was saying evades me; if it leaves me cold and awakens no response in me; then I reckon I need to get seriously uncomfortable and worried about how real the richness towards God is that I claim to possess. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” The man in Jesus story was a fool because he tried to hang on to what he could not keep, devoted himself to accumulating more of what he could not keep; and showed not the slightest interest in gaining something from God that he could not lose and that would be his for all eternity.
Yes – richness towards God is a spiritual thing. It’s having our hearts set on Jesus and becoming an inheritor of a share in his kingdom by embracing all that he has done for us on the cross. The cross is where “though he was rich yet for our sake he became poor so that we, through his poverty, might become rich”. But though being rich towards God is a spiritual thing, it has – if it’s more than some phoney bit of self-delusion – practical, this-worldly, here-and-now consequences. And one of those consequences is sacrificial generosity. Generosity that starts in the heart and continues into every area of our life and our possessions. True richness in heaven opens up everything in us and about us to God … including (and perhaps especially) our wallets.
One last thought to leave you with. “To inherit” is to have something happen to you. It’s a passive verb. You don’t have to do anything. Inheritance is getting a letter in the post from Grabbit, Grabbit and Grimworthy telling you that you’re now 2000 quid richer because your long-lost Aunty Flo has died in Australia. But “to store up” is an active verb. Storing up is not something that happens to you, it’s something that you do. And according to Jesus, both are involved in being rich towards God. Yes, Jesus died on the cross and bequeathed us a share in his eternal kingdom, an inheritance in the riches in glory that are rightly his. But the sign that that inheritance has become real to us, that it is not just a piece of theological gobbledegook, and that we are actually entering into possession of it, is that right now we embark on a life of daily, risky, outrageous, crazy, silly, counter-cultural generosity with whatever we possess – time, money, skills, talents, relationships … everything. That’s what Jesus calls “storing up treasure in heaven”. And it’s the two together that put us on God’s Rich List. It’s the two together that make us the Ken Morrisons of the world to come.