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The difficult things Jesus said about riches. Haddon Willmer shares a housegroup discussion

6 May 2020

From a very good discussion in our housegroup last night, despite awkward zooming, looking at difficult things Jesus said about riches

The Rich Young Man, Luke 18 v 18 – 30; the Rich man and Lazarus, Luke 16 v 19 – 31 and the one I am reporting on here the Rich fool, Luke 12 v 13 – 21. 

Question 1: Did this man come a cropper because he was rich or because he was a fool? 

The answer, I think, is because he was a fool, in the biblical sense: The fool says in his heart there is no God (Psalm 14,1;53.1), with the corollary that the fool acts in pride, assuming God does not see, so he is free to treat others without respect (Psalm 94.1-11; 10.4-11).

The man in the parable felt free to make wealth for himself, store it for himself, talk about it with himself  (it is a private money, God and others must not interfere with my right to my own).

If he ever prayed it was like the Pharisee in the Temple, who framed words that sounded like a prayer, but in reality was nothing but talking with himself, Luke 18.11.  He aimed at justifying himself, rather than letting God who knows the hearts judge and justify by forgiving the humble (Luke 15.13-15).   He behaved, in short, as though there was no God, nothing beyond himself, and his wealth and power, to be counted and treasured. 

He came to disaster because he stored up treasure for himself, and was not rich toward God.

Question 2: What is it to be rich toward God? We tend to manage this story by seizing on the bits we find easiest to identify and talk about.  We know about riches, whether we have them or lack them, and we care about them, because it is hard to live with little, too little.  And I am  naturally, inevitably centred on my-self – from my birth, my-self has been the nearest, most obvious  thing in all the world pressing on me, so I worry and I work to make what I want of myself and to look after myself as long as I can.  Denying this truth about ourselves is the first step to ending up like the pharisee at ‘prayer’. 

So we care about riches of some sort or another, for the sake of the self we are enclosed by.  We may not like it when Jesus comes along saying that this self-centredness, whether it is expressed materialistically or spiritually, will in the end leave us with nothing.  But we may get an uncomfortable sense that he is speaking truth and wisdom.  We get a little troubled, and ask, What then shall we do?  What is the alternative to this way of being which we are stuck in? 

Jesus says, Be rich towards God.  And then we are flummoxed. We cry out against the cruelty of the advice. Why is it cruel?  Because, while it is easy to know what we are talking about when wealth or self is the topic, it is very hard to say what being rich towards God is.  When we try to explain it to anyone else, do we not flounder in waffle and collapse into cliché and stumble into silence?  It is much easier to spend time and passion in a sermon exposing materialism, than to begin to communicate in a non-trivial practicable way what it is to be rich toward God.

If you don’t agree with me, on this crucial point, just try to say in your own words what it is to be rich toward God, and then look at the words and ask, Am I really on track of knowing and saying what being rich toward God is?  And go further, and try it out on an honest friend.   I don’t say you won’t succeed.  I do know that I struggle with this task, which is the key issue the parable puts to us. 

Question 3: what alternative retirement plan could you offer this rich man?  What different retirement plan do you have for yourself – it is never too early to be thinking about it, and never , while we live,  too late to be troubled by it, and so  to think of revising the plan we are living by.   

This man, it seems was lucky, so rich he could retire at 40.  And then he can show what is really in him, being free of what the necessities of earning a living impose on him.  And then he thinks all is well, but is deceived.   In truth, he needs a retirement plan that will do more than let him comfortably collapse into spiritual death.   His life (soul) will be ‘required of him’:   he cannot escape being called to account for his failure to live well. 

So what retirement plan will make him rich toward God?  No that is the wrong question?  I must ask, What retirement plan will bring me to being rich toward God? 

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