This morning we are in Deuteronomy 7 and 8. Again, the people are poised on the edge of entering the Promised Land after wandering for forty years in the wilderness. This is the farewell speech that lasts for 34 chapters. At the end there is nothing left unsaid that was meant to be said. There is nothing left undone. As Paul said to the believers in Ephesus, “For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” That’s quite a statement and one many of us would like to be able to make at the close of our lives. We have not only run the race set before us but we have left nothing unsaid.
Moses is not only commanding the people to be careful in paying attention to the commands and decrees but warning them about becoming proud when they have become successful. Not only proud – but useless. That is the irony of success. John Wesley noticed it when the virtues of hard work and saving produced wealth. People became soft and it was their success that eventually spoiled them for what God intended. We call it the “Protestant lift” when people practice the virtues of work, education, saving, and deferred gratification. But, unfortunately, at some point a virtue becomes a vice. The purpose for careful obedience was to produce a particular kind of people and, ironically, obedience creates success as well. That is the paradox of obedience. We forget what our purpose is and success itself becomes a trap. Look at what God is warning the people about.
“When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God.”
I cannot read this passage without thinking about the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
While I have not decided whether the parable is directed toward the man demanding the share of the inheritance hoping to shame his brother in public or toward his uncharitable brother, I think it may well have been intended for them both. Parables are so much better than judgements. They are like yeast. You cannot keep them from working on you. They get below your radar and defenses. While I don’t like the question and believe there must have been better questions from a crowd of thousands, think what we would have missed had he not asked it.
His answer is directed not only to the crowd that is uncharitably trampling over each other to get good seats but to the disciples as well. It’s a warning for them. “Be careful. You are going to face this one day and I want you to be prepared. This will threaten your ministry.”
How many examples of people in ministry scrambling for recognition and success do we see today? How many people have been turned off by ministers and religious leaders striving for more people, bigger buildings, bigger budgets, more fame and influence?
Billy Graham determined early in his ministry that more ministries had been destroyed by sex and money than anything else. So, he separated himself from temptation in both. He was never alone with a woman and he took a salary from the ministry but had nothing to do with the money.
It’s important to be clear that this is not a parable against wealth or the enjoyment of things. Scripture is not saying that we should live ascetic lives. Look at Ecclesiastes 5:
This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.
C.S. Lewis wrote in Screwtape “the man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world for its own sake, and without caring in the slightest what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our (devils’) subtlest modes of attack.” We are meant to enjoy the gifts we are given and the products of our labor – not to cause envy on the part of others or to create the desire for more in ourselves. What we have – much or little – is not the source of happiness.
I like the way J.B. Phillips translates verse 15 here: “A man’s real life in no way depends on the number of his possessions.”
Our real life does not increase by eliminating the number of things we genuinely and honestly enjoy. We do not expand our true lives by trying to shrink the number of things we truly enjoy. We cannot subtract enough to get to joy or to please God. Otherwise, we begin to look like what Sinclair Lewis describes in “Main Street”:
“It was twelve noon by the clock on the courthouse tower and the Presbyterian church on the corner began to give up its dead.”
The goal is what Paul had come to in his life. “Whether I have much or little, I am content.”
The warning is not about wealth but about the inability to share or the desire for more than abundance. In fact, it says there was a certain rich man so he must have been rich before he became a fool. He became a fool by his own choice.
It is not the parable of the Rich Man but the rich fool. He may not have been a fool before he was rich but he was now.
It’s an interesting word here in verse 15 for abundance. It is “pleon” and it means completely full and satisfied but that is not enough for the man. He wants more (ekteo) or going beyond being full. He is already stretched to capacity with all he can use but he wants to reach for more than he can ever use.
It’s like being so full at dinner that you cannot bear the thought of another bite but you reach out and take food off another’s plate.
What do we see that is obvious?
First, the ground produced the crop. Clearly, it is not luck but hard work combined with good land. There would not be one without the other. There must have been a time in the life of the man when he was both rich and productive. Wealth did not come to him by luck but over a period of time. But it was not by his own hand. He forgot that. He had been given good land.
Second, he consults only himself and isolates himself from everyone around him. The passage is filled with “I, me, mine” and no reference to any other. He has no other counsel in his life.
Third, he makes four decisions and each one is progressively worse.
- He will not just add on or improve but tear down and rebuild. We call this conspicuous consumption or the need to be seen as rich. It was not enough to expand but to capture all of it – even the overflow and the corners of the field that were reserved for the poor.
- I will own it and not use it. It will take it out of circulation and the word here is our word for “thesaurus” – I will preserve it or I will hoard it to myself by storing it.
- I will stop and be at ease. This is different from genuine rest or taking a little time off. This is to stop being productive. It is to be both self-satisfied but also subject to the nagging fear that there will not be enough. God through Moses tells the people that one of the results of their disobedience will be something similar. “There the Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life.”
- I will, having seduced myself, my mind, my emotions and even my physical self, seduce even my own soul. Verse 19 is read, “I will say to the soul of me.” I will seduce or put to sleep every part of me until I am thoroughly caught up by this desire. I will allow everything about me to be corrupted. I choose to be a fool.
And how does God respond?
“Tonight, I will take your soul.”
Can that mean something other than he died? I think it can. I think it can mean he did not die but he is soul-less. He is a dead man walking. Whatever there was of real life in him is gone. He is a damned soul but not yet a dead man.
In Perelandra, C.S. Lewis describes a man whose soul disappears but his body remains moving.
“The forces which had begun, perhaps years ago, to eat away his humanity had now completed their work. The intoxicated will which had been slowly poisoning the intelligence and the affections had now at last poisoned itself and the whole psychic organism had fallen to pieces. Only a ghost was left – an everlasting unrest, a crumbling, a ruin, and odor of decay.”
“For a damned soul is nearly nothing. It is shrunk, shut up in itself.” Lewis wrote in “The Great Divorce”
I’ve been around and know enough about my own heart to realize that Christ is right. Keep your eyes open. It’s subtle and gradual and fatal. In 2 Kings 17 God says, “They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless.” They lost their souls. They became the walking dead and only a ghost was left – an everlasting unrest, a crumbling, a ruin, and odor of decay.”
So, how do we keep from becoming rich fools? How do we become rich towards God instead?
First, stay focused on why God gives an excess of anything. “You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and..your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.” It is not just to be generous but to be generous in a way that results in thanksgiving to God. God had a purpose for the people of Israel. Their blessings were to make them a peculiar people. A light to the nations. A treasure. That is why he warns them about the effects of abundance. Os Guinness said wisely that wealth is a blessing, a test or a curse and that is why Jesus wants to get our attention with his opening words, “Watch out!” Look at this and pay attention to what I am going to say to you. This is serious.
Second, don’t become isolated by wealth. Don’t be the rich fool who trusts only his own counsel and has been cut off from every other relationship either through pride, suspicion, or even cynicism that comes from feeling like a target or an ATM machine.
Third, look for ways to be productive and still rest but not be at ease and non-productive. You may not need to work as hard but you need to keep in mind why God has allowed you to have abundance.
Fourth, don’t focus on your worth but on your value. Focus on what you can do with what you have been given – whether it is money, time, relationships, or skills. As you know, I hate the phrase “high net worth” to describe people. I would much rather hear people described as those who fulfilled their purpose and calling. They use what God has given them and have discovered the secret of contentment. They have used what God has given them to become God’s peculiar people.
The parable of the rich fool is an extreme but the yeast of this parable will work on you and me. “To whom much is given much will be expected. Great gifts mean great responsibilities.”