There are some doors that money doesn’t open; there are some palms that cannot be greased. When Jesus is asked to interfere in a family financial dispute, he declines. Sort it out between yourselves, he tells them. Deal rightly with one another, that’s what counts. Riches will not buy you heaven. There is nothing on earth that God does not already own, and God’s free gift to us is our lives, and all that is in them. God’s free gift to us is eternity.
There is nothing wrong, we might argue, with planning for the future. There is nothing wrong, we might insist, in enjoying the fruits of our labours. There is nothing wrong, we might be right in saying, with being a rich man.
So why the harsh judgement of the man in the parable Jesus tells, who also builds bigger barns and stores up as much of his wealth as he can in them? And how does that relate to Jesus’ refusal to arbitrate the inheritance case between two brothers?
To start with, Jesus’ summation at the end of the parable states clearly that this rich man is rich only towards himself, and much less generous in his attitude towards God.
This is borne out by the man’s apparent desire to store up riches only so that he could then take his ease and live off of the fat that he had gathered, believing that this would take care of any future concerns that might arise.
Hidden deep in this mindset is the fallacy that this is a self-made man, that this rich man created all of the wealth that he enjoys, and that he owns and deserves it in full. Hidden from his recognition are the many labourers who have built his barns and worked his fields; he forgets the very valets who are dressing him in his fine silks even while they touch up his pleats and refill his wine goblet. His tunnel vision has blinded him to his dependence upon the poor people upon whose labour he stands, and he is light years away from a simple word of thanks, let alone an attitude of gratitude.
The man’s possessions have come eventually to consume him. There is an ambiguity in the Greek towards the end of the parable; our translation opts out of defining just who is demanding the life of the rich man, but it is quite possible and even probable that it is, in fact, his goods, his riches, his hoards which are whispering in his ear and demanding to take possession of his soul this very night.
Actually, you might say that the biblical story of wealth and its right use is the basic story of faithfulness versus idolatry. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul defines greed as idolatry: wanting and worshiping that which is not God (Col. 3:5). When we set our faith in that which we have stored up instead of in God’s providence, that is idolatry. When we work only to achieve more money, instead of to make a better life here on earth for all that we can, that is idolatry. When we ignore the working conditions of those making cheap clothes – child labour, the overcrowded, under-protected working conditions in that garment factory in Bangladesh – when we overlook or turn a blind eye to these matters of life and death just so that we can save a buck, that is idolatry. When we make the “invisible hand” of market forces out to be some sort of hand of God, that is idolatry. One of the most egregious mistakes that we have made in modern times is, I think, to equate riches with health: we have made it in this country and on a global scale too that we buy healthcare in proportion to our wealth, as though our very wellness, soundness, wholeness ought to be bound up in how much we earn and how much insurance we can acquire; the rich deserve ease, the poor suffer proportionately greater pain. That is immoral; that is idolatry.
To put it another way, to place our hope, our faith, our investment in our salvation in our own resources and finances is idolatry. We are not able to buy our way into heaven, either in this life or the next. We’ve all read the crash and burn stories of huge lottery winners – so why do we still want to win? We are not able to win or to work our way into heaven, to barter or to beg. God’s gift in Jesus is to welcome us already, and any payment we make is an offering of gratitude and love. It doesn’t affect God’s bottom line.
There is a line in the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer that directs the Minister of the Congregation “to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.” (BCP, 445)
It is not unbiblical nor irreligious to provide prudently for the future of one’s family and to arrange for the right and judicious use of resources acquired during a life of work and leisure. (If you want a positive biblical story about building barns and storing up crops, read the story of Joseph in Egypt in Genesis 41 and following chapters.) It isn’t wrong to possess nice things or to enjoy them. It isn’t that God doesn’t want us to eat, drink, be merry – to enjoy the blessings with which we are bestowed – but God also wants us to look around and see who needs to be invited to our table, who would welcome a morsel of food, a cup of cold water, a song and an invitation to sit awhile.
William Stringfellow, in an essay about money, argues that the only way to avoid idolatry of money is to use it sacramentally. He says that
“That includes not simply freedom from an undue affection for money but, … It means the freedom to have money, to use money, to spend money without worshiping money, and thus it means the freedom to do without money, if need be, or having some, to give it away to anyone who seems to need money to maintain life a while longer.
The charity of Christians, in other words, in the use of money sacramentally – in both the liturgy and in the world – has no serious similarity to conventional charity but is always a specific dramatization of the member of the Body of Christ losing their life in order that the world be given life. For members of the church, therefore, it always implies a particular confession that their money is not their own because their lives are not their own but, by the example of God’s own love, belong to the world.”
By the example of God’s own love, our lives and all that is in them belong not to ourselves but to God’s love and to the world. That is what the rich man, what the disputing brothers, what most of us outside of the most hallowed saints tend to forget. When we hoard things to ourselves, we tend to destroy their value for ourselves as well as for others. But when we allow them to open us up to our brothers and sisters in God, then we are acting in unison with God, who gave even the life of Jesus to be spilled out and shared out among us.
There is a prayer in the back of the BCP entitled, “For the Right Use of God’s Gifts.” The rich man could have used it. I offer it now for all of us:
“Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honour thee with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (BCP, 827)
 “Money,” by William Stringfellow, in Simpler Living, Compassionate Life: a Christian perspective, edited and compiled by Michael Schut (Morehouse Publishing, 1999), 70-71