This last year, as I have been visiting congregations and saying goodbye, the sermon text has been “the parable of the rich fool” (Luke 12:13-21). As we close out the year 2020, the following are a few thoughts about experiencing the good life now, and as we enter 2021.
A Sunday school teacher, after the telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus, asked the class this question: “now, who would you rather be, the rich man or Lazarus?” After allowing for a few moments of reflection, one of the children replied: “I would like to be the rich man in this life and Lazarus when I die!”
The parable of the rich fool does a nice job of addressing two dominant cultural themes in the Western world: individualism and materialism. Individualism focuses on “life is about me” and materialism focuses on “life is about accumulating and acquiring more and more stuff.”
I love my grandson Jack (and my granddaughter Addie too) yet I must admit that Jack struggles with these two themes in his life (as do most of us if we are honest with ourselves). One of his favorite words is “mine” and whenever he receives a new toy, he sleeps with it for about a week or two until the next toy takes its place (and he has the tendency to become a fire-breathing Smaug if Addie tries to take one of his toys from the lair of his bed).
In order to help us understand what the good life looks like, Jesus told a parable to a couple of brothers who were struggling with possession of wealth; for they were arguing over who should receive what when the inheritance was divided up.
Jesus does not get involved in their dispute by telling them how to divide up the inheritance; however, what He does do, is to give them this counsel: “take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And then He shared with them the parable of the rich fool.
The land of a rich man brought forth a plentiful harvest year after year. His biggest concern was figuring out how to store all of his wealth. So he thought to himself and resolved to do this: I will tear down my old barns and put up larger ones and there I will store all of MY grain and MY goods; and then I can “kick back” and take life easy as I “eat, drink and be merry.”
But God said to him: “you fool…this very night your soul is required of you…and the things you have prepared, whose will they be…this is what it is like for the man who lays up treasure for himself, but is not rich toward God.”
So what is the good life? For the rich man in this parable it was working hard, acquiring significant wealth and then enjoying his retirement years as he ate, drank and was merry. Yet God had a different perspective, and a different judgment, upon this man’s version of the good life: “what good is it to gain the whole world yet lose one’s soul?”
A favorite verse from the Old Testament that answers the good life is found in Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you? That you act justly, that you love mercy, and that you walk humbly with your God.”
Over the years I have come across many stories that help illustrate the biblical text; and here are four stories that grant us a glimpse into what the good life is like:
1: Every person needs three conversions
Five hundred years ago Martin Luther, in one of his sermons, taught that every Christian needs to experience three conversions: first, of the heart because we have to believe differently; second, of the mind because we have to think differently; and third, of the wallet because we have to spend our wealth differently. Often, Luther said, the third conversion was the most difficult for the German people of his time.
Ambrose was a significant leader in the early church, living from 338 A.D. to 397 A.D. In his commentary notes on this parable, he had this applicational insight: “the rich man had plenty of barns in the mouths of the needy.” God had richly blessed him so that he could be a blessing to the families of the earth.
3: London Mission Society
One of the most active, and fruitful, mission societies in the last two hundred years was the London Mission Society; and yet, for the society to resource the sending of hundreds of missionaries, it required gifts from many people, especially large gifts from wealthy donors.
One day a solicitor from the London Mission Society was visiting a very wealthy business owner who was in the shipping business. After a very nice time visiting about the missionary work of the Mission Society, the owner wrote out a very large and generous check. However, before the solicitor could leave with the check, news arrived to the owner that a huge storm had sunk several of his boats in the Atlantic Ocean and that he had lost 50% of his wealth.
In response to that difficult news, the owner asked the solicitor for the check back; and slowly the solicitor complied with the owner’s request. Upon receiving the check back, the owner tore the check up and sat down; and, after a few moments of prayerful reflection, wrote out a new check for double the amount!
When asked why he did so, he replied: “It is clear to me that I don’t know how long I will have the things that I have; but I do know that God wants me to be rich toward Him and His mission.”
4: Robert Moffat, missionary to Southern Africa
Years ago, in a small church in rural Scotland, as the ushers were returning to the altar with the offering plates, a little boy, sitting next to the aisle, tugged at the sleeve of one of the men and whispered: “Sir, please put the plate down on the floor”
Bewildered, the usher did as the little boy asked. Whereupon the boy proceeded to step into the offering plate. This was his way of saying to God: “I give my whole self to you, not only the money in my pocket, but my time, my strength, my whole life!”
As we close out the year 2020, we thank Him for the good life that He has given to us; and we look forward to the year 2021 and the many opportunities that we will have to bless the families of the earth with the Gospel and as we “act justly, show mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”