For July 31, 2016
For Commentary on the texts, please click HERE
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
A few years ago I took a youth group to Lutheridge in the mountains of North Carolina for Confirmation Camp. There we learned a game called “Would you rather?” The students lined up down the middle of the room and then they were asked questions like: “Would you rather always have to say everything on your mind or never speak again?” “Would you rather be a dog named Killer or a cat named Fluffy?” “Would you rather be able to hear any conversation or take back anything you say?” “Would you rather be born with an elephant trunk or a giraffe neck?” the kids went to opposite sides of the room, depending on their answer, and then discussion ensued.
The game reminded me of the old comic Jack Benny, who made being cheap a part of his act. A man walked up to Benny on the street, put a gun in his ribs and said, “Your money or your life?” There was a very long pause while Benny adopted his trademark pose of chin in hand, fingers drumming against his cheek. The mugger jabbed him with the gun and demanded again “Your money or your life.” Benny replied, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”
A man wants Jesus to make his brother share the family inheritance with him. Rather than get involved in this family dispute, Jesus takes the opportunity to caution his listeners about the dangers of greed, illustrating his warning with a story. The “rich fool” and his barns allude to the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph was in prison because his boss’ wife had accused him of sexual harassment. In prison, Joseph made quite a name for himself as an interpreter of dreams. Meanwhile Pharaoh had strange dreams about fat cows and skinny cows, and about full and empty stems of grain. He asked his servants if they know any dream interpreter and someone remembered Joseph. They sent for him.
Joseph interpreted the dreams to mean that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine and advised Pharaoh to build large barns to store the surplus from the good years to help tide the country over in the bad times. Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph that he appointed him Prime Minister. And when things worked out as Joseph had predicted, the country was saved, and Egypt was able to help people from other starving countries.
Our Gospel story is similar in that great material blessing are followed by a great plan for the future.
The stories begin to differ in the use to which the great material blessings will be put. In the Joseph story, Pharaoh followed the advice and used the surplus for the good of the community and for hospitality to strangers. They stored up the blessing to be used during the time of want and need. They managed God’s blessing – not for themselves, but for others. They provided for the poor people of Egypt and the poor people of the world.
In Jesus’ little story, the farmer thinks only of himself. New Testament scholar William Barclay said that no other parable of Jesus is so full of the words “me” and “my” and “I” and “myself.” The Greek word for I is ego. The rich fool is a case study in egotism; narcissistic self-interest that sees everything only in terms of “what’s in it for me.”
God has given us what we have, not for ourselves but for the benefit of others; for others in our community and for others in our world, for hospitality to others, even if they are strangers. This is true, whether we are talking about our personal, individual goods; or the goods we hold in common as a congregation. Everything we have, right down to the last breath we take, God has given to us..
Tithing has gone out of fashion, I suppose. At least very few people seem to do it anymore. I think tithing lost its appeal among Lutherans because if seemed too legalistic, too rule-oriented. After all, we are Gospel people, living in Evangelical freedom, able to respond to the grace of God as we see fit. I think this is unfortunate, for it robs us of the many blessings to be received from a proper understanding of stewardship. We have created for ourselves a Stewardship game of “Would You Rather,” a game nobody wins. We have created a false choice between two styles of giving and then acted as though we’ve been forced to choose between them.
I like easy math, so let’s use $100 as an illustration number. A tithe on $100 would be $10. An “of my own free-will” attitude toward stewardship would say: “I have done well, worked hard and earned this money. It would be a good thing if I gave some of it back to the community. Let me examine the programs and agencies in the community to see which deserve my hard-earned dollars. I will give them, say $10.” Now, this is a commendable and worthy attitude, but it is not Biblical stewardship.
A “God’s Law compels me” attitude toward stewardship says, “God has commanded that I give $10 of every $100 I earn to the church. Because I am a God-fearing person and do not want to make God mad at me, I will give the church $10 of my money.” This results in the church having the money to use to do good, but it makes the giver feel like they have been coerced into giving. And again, it is not Biblical stewardship
Do you see how this is a bad game of “Would You Rather?” The first one feeds our ego, making us feel like we’ve something for God – when in reality God has done something for us and others through us; the second one makes us feel like we had to do it, that God made us do it, so we feel no joy, only compunction and resentment and perhaps a certain smugness for having done “our part.” Neither one is Biblical stewardship.
A Biblical, Christ-centered attitude toward giving says: “God has $100 and has trusted me with it. God has asked that I use at least, “at least,” $10 of this money for the benefit of others and the spreading of the gospel. Of the other $90, I may use as much as necessary for my needs and I am free to share the rest with others in response to the needs I see around me.”
What we do with our possessions depends upon which of these three attitudes we take toward stewardship. In his parable, Jesus reminds us that we are all going to die someday. And Jesus says, at the inevitable moment of our death, our accumulated possessions will be worthless to us.
As a matter of fact, they could be worse than useless. If the care and maintenance of our stuff has diverted us from seeing to the care and maintenance of our souls; the very things we cherish in this life will have been that which has ruined us for the next. As Jesus said, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
God has placed in our hands all that we are, and all that we have. And the question is: What are we going to do with it, with our life and with our stuff? Would you rather serve God or serve yourself?
“Your money or your life?” That is the ultimate “would you rather?” question.
Amen and Amen.