(a Lection Reflection on Luke 12: 13-21)
There’s an old joke about sermon writing that references “three points and a poem.” If you’re working on a sermon, I don’t have a poem for you — although there are some on the site — but I do have the three points:
- What does it mean to be wealthy?
- Are you wealthy?
- Are you wealthy toward God?
Let’s think about these.
What Does It Mean To Be Wealthy?
If you ask people “what does it mean to be wealthy” you will get a range of answers, usually accompanied by a rueful laugh, or a snort, and a self-deprecating joke like “how would I know?” But, if you press on and ask people to reflect on being wealthy, you may be surprised at the depth of the responses. (Might be a good exercise for a Bible study class.)
In a recent story, UBS Investor Watch asked 4,450 investors if they consider themselves wealthy. Most of those with a net worth of $5 million or more said they were wealthy, while those worth $1 million to $5 million were much less likely to consider themselves wealthy. So, for these people at least, a net worth of $5 million seems to be the threshold.
What I found interesting, though, was the question asking these investors to define “wealthy.”
Half of the respondents said that, more broadly, being wealthy means having “no financial constraints on activities.” Only 16 percent said it meant “surpassing a certain asset threshold” and 10 percent said it means “not having to work again.”
Now we’re getting somewhere: “no financial constraints on activities.” That is much better than just an asset threshold; if you made $10,000 a year and lived in Zimbabwe, where the average annual income in $176, you would be financially wealthy. Or, as an article in Time points out (“What It Means To Be Wealthy in America Today”),
A prince of income in Danville, Va., is a relative pauper in New York City. In Danville, the threshold for the top 1% of earners kicked in at $179,000, while it took $588,000 to reach the top 1% in New York City and northern New Jersey.
So, it’s not really about “how much do you have” — it’s more about “what can you do with it.” If you have the basics of the Maslow hierarchy well under control, and are also able to buy or do most of the things you want without worrying about what you are spending, then you are certainly on your way to being wealthy.
But, there’s another aspect to wealth — security. Take a look at this survey of 1,260 investors and their top answer to what it means to be rich.
One of the reasons people save and invest is to have greater security. Life is full of surprises, and having enough money to deal with those surprises is one of the first things we teach our children. Our families, our businesses, and even our churches, all have “rainy day” funds, and we usually would consider someone irresponsible if they didn’t.
BUT — at what point does the security of the wealthy become a trap, or an idol? At what point does the parable in today’s passage start to kick in? More on that in a moment.
Are You Wealthy?
If you have read to this point, and have seen some of the net-worth numbers thrown around above, your first reaction to this question is probably “No!” followed by one of those derisive snorts I mentioned earlier.
I want you to take a moment to reconsider your answer.
Forget the monetary thresholds. We saw that those are relative, anyway. Let’s go to the definitions:
Do you have the basics of Maslow’s hierarchy under control? Do you have food, clothing, shelter? Do you have personal security, financial security, health and well-being?
On top of these, do you have enough discretionary income to be able to buy or do most of the things you want?
If you can answer “yes” or “mostly yes” to both of those questions, you qualify as wealthy by the definitions we posited earlier.
At this point almost everyone will start shaking their head and issuing caveats.
- “Well, I still have bills to pay.”
- “I still have to work.”
- “My 401k is certainly not where it needs to be.”
- “We can’t buy that house we really want.”
I get it. These may all be true. But there’s an underlying reason, at least for some of us, that causes us to resist the “wealthy” tag.
We don’t want to face the fact that today’s parable might apply to us.
Which takes us to our third and final question:
Are You Wealthy Toward God?
This whole piece began with me reading the lection and thinking what an odd construction Jesus uses: “wealthy toward God.” How can you be wealthy toward someone?
The answer, once again, is our good old Greek preposition εἰς, which shows relationship and sometimes movement. “Wealthy toward God” could also be read “wealthy in God” or even “wealthy in your relationship to God.”
And now, it’s time for the main point of all this. If we think about what we’ve learned about wealth to this point, and apply it to our God-wealth, we get some interesting and potentially tough questions to reflect upon:
- Is your God-relationship strong enough and rich enough that you have no constraints on your spiritual activities?
- Can you spend yourself spiritually without worrying about reserves?
- Are you investing in God and in your spiritual bank account?
- Are you monitoring your God-accounts, and making sure they are trending upward?
- Are all your forms of security based on your God accounts, or on your bank accounts and possessions?
- If you were to compare your Maslow wealth, your financial wealth, and your spiritual wealth on a chart, which bar would be highest? Which ones would be trending upward? Which ones would be flat, or declining?
Being wealthy is not bad, in and of itself. Being wealthy can be a good thing. Being wealthy and using that wealthy responsibly can be a very good thing.
Being wealthy toward God, though, is the most important thing. Let us all put ourselves in that parable, take a long hard look at our barns and at our spiritual ledger book, and reflect on our wealth — or lack thereof.