8th Sunday after Pentecost, August 4, 2019
– Luke 12:13-21
– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –
How much are you worth? That’s a strange question to ask in a church, yet one that needs to be asked nonetheless because we live and work in a world where our worth as human beings is often determined not by who we are, but by how much we have.
If we wish to buy a house or car or any item of major expense, and we’re unable to pay cash up front, we arrange a payment plan whereby institutions such as banks, credit unions or loan companies size us up before risking such payments in our behalf. They want to know our financial assets, our credit history, or what we’re willing to commit as collateral to assure the security of their loan to us. In other words, they want to know your net worth.
Net worth is determined by assessing how much you own in the form of cash, income, property, insurance, stocks, bonds, securities and the like, and weighing that against how much you owe.
For me an early lesson in personal net worth was learned as a child watching the movie classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” in which George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, owned a loan company that enabled poor people to purchase and own their own homes. When Bailey loses a large sum of money, partly through the negligence of his uncle and partly through the scheming of his corrupt rival Henry Potter, his reputation and entire business are threatened, along with the lives of many struggling families that depend upon him. In desperation, with nowhere else to turn, he swallows his pride and begs for a loan from Henry Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore. Potter asks Bailey about his net worth only to learn he has no securities, stocks or bonds in assets, just a very small equity in a life insurance policy, to which Potter remarks, “You’re worth more dead than alive.” And this callous remark causes Bailey to wonder if life would have been better if he had not been born.
“Vanity of vanities,” says the teacher, “all is vanity and chasing after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14) But in the Bible wind or ruah also gives reference to God’s breath of life and Holy Spirit (Isaiah 42:5, John 3:8).
The reason I love this movie, directed by Frank Capra, is not because it provides a sobering message about net or worldly worth, but because it offers a spiritual response to it. Through the means of a guardian angel named Clarence, Bailey is allowed to see the tragic scenarios and consequences of a world without him as a way of underscoring the priceless value and divine capacity of every human life.
How much are you worth? The material world provides a method of answering this question by weighing your gains against your losses and calculating the difference; and according to such rules, we may at times be worth more dead than alive. But God does not play nor live by these rules, and neither should you.
Jesus tells the story of a man so rich and wise in in the ways of worldly possessions he barely had enough room to store all his wealth. Like Potter, his riches enabled him to assume enormous power and influence. He could afford the best seats at restaurants, theaters and sporting events. He could buy his way out of embarrassing and scandalous situations by scratching the backs and manipulating the strings of others. Such individuals may command the notoriety and respect of millions during their lifetime, but ultimately are worthless fools in the eyes of God.
A previous parish I served was located in Wilton, Connecticut, a community with one of the highest household incomes in the nation, yet several, due to a need to downsize or retire, were stuck in situations where they were losing income because of their inability to sell their huge, energy-draining homes to a new generation of executives that preferred the convenience of inner-city living over suburbia.
Sometimes people are stuck in dilemmas of overabundance and, in a different way, confront the question raised by God in Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Fool: “The things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” But more often they are trapped in prisons of poverty within a world that deems them more valuable dead than alive.
How much are you worth? A funny advertisement for a finance company read: “Now you can borrow enough money to get completely out of debt!” Many of us spend our lives expending valuable time and energy in debt to the material world while having little time to pursue the passions of our spirit.
Your life makes an enormous difference to others and to God, which starts by discovering the enormous worth God has invested in you. Life need not be vanity and chasing after wind if the wind we chase is the sacred breeze of God’s breath of life. The Spirit of the Lord is upon you. Amen.