This story has as much to say to us in our time and place as it did two thousand years ago. In a culture which is so focused on consumerism along with the accumulation of financial wealth and material possessions, Jesus’ words are a challenge to us that we cannot ignore if we are going to be his faithful disciples.
I have heard people try to justify a consumer society by arguing that when people spend money, jobs are created, our standard of living improves and everybody wins. While I might be able to understand this perspective I am also aware than lives which are focused on the accumulation of material goods leave people feeling unfulfilled and empty. The constant struggle for the latest product, the smallest device, the most powerful technology, or the biggest appliance leave us wanting more and more when the next model comes out and what we have is superseded. I am also noticing recently that there seems to be a shift away from accumulating possessions to collecting experiences. Some might argue that this is a better option which provides an alternative to a consumer culture. However, the attitude remains the same. The only thing that is different is the product that is consumed as it shifts from physical possessions to things that we can do or experience. In the end, the parable Jesus teaches about the rich man’s barns carries the same message. Whether we are collecting material possessions or life experiences, when we die they count for nothing. We can’t take them with us and they ultimately do no good, either for us or for other people.
Jesus offers us an alternative way to live at the end of the parable. He says that fools spend their lives focused on storing up earthly wealth. Wise people, however, ‘have a rich relationship with God,’ or as the NIV translates, are ‘rich toward God’ (v21).
Exactly what Jesus means by ‘rich towards God’ is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about this week because it seems to be a bit of a riddle. How can a person be ‘rich toward God’? One thought that came up in a group where we were discussing this text is that we often see our wealth as security for our lives. Being ‘rich toward God’ could therefore mean that we look to God for our security. Another way of thinking about it is that we often try to find a sense of identity in our possessions. Being ‘rich towards God’ could also mean that we find a sense of who we are in our relationship with God instead. Another possibility is that instead of spending so much time and energy accumulating possessions or experiences that do not last, Jesus is urging us to spend our time and effort pursuing the things of God that last for all eternity. Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 13 that the things of this world will pass away, but what will never pass away are faith, hope and love. Is it possible that ‘being rich in God’ means making the goal of our lives experiencing the love of God in Christ Jesus through faith, which then results in hope for this life and the next, as well as love for God and for the people around us?
However we might understand what it means to be ‘rich towards God’ it does not mean that we need to completely reject earthly wealth and separate ourselves from material possessions, just like the monks and nuns of the Middle Ages for example. In 1 Timothy 6:17-19, Paul writes,
Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life. (NLT)
From these words we can learn that God gives us money, material possessions and even experiences for our enjoyment (v17) and so we can thank God for them and enjoy them in good conscience. Paul also says that we experience what he calls ‘true life’ (NLT), or what the NIV calls ‘the life that is truly life’ when we use what God has given us to bless people around us, especially those who are in need. When we use money and material possessions for the good of our family, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the needy, both locally and internationally, we find that a real and fulfilling life consists not in accumulating things for ourselves, but in acting on God’s behalf as we share his blessings with others. It’s like a line I remember from an old musical I saw when I was younger which said, ‘Money is like manure – it’s only good when you spread it around.’
Being ‘rich toward God’ is ultimately about faith. Like we discussed last week when we heard Jesus teach us to ask and it will be given to us, to seek and we will find, to knock and it will be opened to us (Luke 11:9), to be ‘rich toward God’ means trusting that he is the source of every good thing in our lives, that he will always provide us with what we need, and then focusing our lives on mining the inexhaustible wealth of his grace, love and goodness in the person of Jesus by the power of his Spirit. In the riches of his grace, God gives us security, identity, and purpose, along with faith, hope and love. We find real life in the riches of God’s goodness to us in Jesus. And when our lives in this world end and we leave these things behind, the riches of God’s love for us will continue beyond death and will never be taken away from us.
More to think about:
- What do you think Jesus meant when he talked about being ‘rich towards God’?
- How much do you rely on material possessions for a sense of security, identity or to fulfill a need in your life?
- Do they fulfill your needs? Or do they leave you feeling empty?
- How might your life look differently if you made being ‘rich towards God’ a higher priority?
- How might being ‘rich towards God’ free you from pursuing things in this life that consume a lot of our time, energy and effort but ultimately don’t last?
- How can the Christian community to which you are connected help you become ‘rich towards God’?