Rich Toward God
Our text for the sermon in church this morning was Luke 12:13-21 (“The Parable of the Rich Fool”). One of the verses in this passage has me thinking this evening. In verse 21, after condemning as folly a life of hoarding possessions, Jesus offers a typically elusive phrase: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” So what does it mean to be “rich toward God?”
I continue to make my way through Eric Metaxas’s fine biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor/theologian who courageously resisted the evil of Nazi Germany. In a letter from a cell in Tegel Prison to his fiance Maria von Wedemeyer, Bonhoeffer says these words about whether or not it is appropriate to be thinking of things like love and weddings in the midst of the hardship and misery of wartime Germany:
When Jeremiah said, in his people’s hour of direst need, that “houses and field [and vineyards] shall again be bought in this land,” it was a token of confidence in the future that requires faith, and may God grant it to us daily. I don’t mean the faith that flees the world, but the faith that endures in the world and loves and remains true to that world in spite of all the hardships it brings us. Our marriage must be a “yes” to God’s earth. It must strengthen our resolve to do and accomplish something on earth. I fear that Christians who venture to stand on earth on only one leg will stand in heaven on only one leg too.
Perhaps part of what it means to be “rich toward God” is to love and affirm what God loves and affirms, whether that is the goodness of human love or the vision of a world where all have enough. And perhaps being “rich toward God” may look a bit different in different contexts. For an imprisoned pastor in 1943, it meant courageously affirming the goodness of God’s world even when surrounded by and the victim of so much evil. For affluent twenty-first century westerners prone to endless “barn building,” being rich toward God” undoubtedly involves rethinking our patterns of consumption, giving sacrificially to the poor, and fixing our gaze beyond immediate pleasures. The two contexts seem laughably unworthy of comparison, but presumably “richness toward God” can be pursued at all times and places and in response to all kinds of pressures.
Maybe part of what it means to be “rich toward God” is simply to have the courage to stand, with both legs, wherever God has placed us in his world, affirming the good that exists and pointing always, in word and deed, toward the better that is promised.
For the sake of discussion, rabbinnic style, I offer this.
Re: “For an imprisoned pastor in 1943, it meant courageously affirming the goodness of God’s world even when surrounded by and the victim of so much evil.”
Elie Wiesel wrote that Hasidim bound for death camps danced and sang on the trains. I don’t get the sense in their case that this represented the virtue “courage” as much as it did theological confidence or patient endurance. For Bonhoeffer, I don’t know – it did take courage to join the fight against the Nazis. Surely courage is what many of the soldiers and others who died in that fight had. But singing and dancing on the trains to the death camps, and Bonhoeffer’s “affirming the goodness of God’s world even when surrounded by and the victim of so much evil” – I don’t think so. This is, instead, trust in God that rises up in defiance of despair.
Re: “For affluent twenty-first century westerners prone to endless “barn building,” being rich toward God” undoubtedly involves rethinking our patterns of consumption, giving sacrificially to the poor, and fixing our gaze beyond immediate pleasures.”
Consuming less is good, at least from an ecological perspective. Giving to the poor has a well established pedigree in theology. Fixing our gaze beyond our immediate pleasures (or torments) (on the promises or Word of God) also has such pedigree, if we mean by that expression the lesson God sought to teach Israel in the wilderness: man does not live by bread alone…
Yet, in the Torah, the promise is that if Israel obeyed the covenant, it would prosper – be able to consume more, not less, and right now, not later, and in the material way, not spiritually. In the New Testament the gaze beyond immediate pleasures (or torments, really) was only for a short time – the Messianic kingdom was coming soon.
The expression “rich toward God” is ironic in another sense. The classic posture of the pious towards God is poverty, not richness. That is the classic posture in the Psalms, for example.
It is not easy to connect the Bible with middle class lives or worries or desires in modernity in the West. Every connection is tenuous and comes with doubt.
Why would “trust in God that rises up in defiance of despair” (or theological confidence/patient endurance) be incompatible with affirming the goodness one knows to exist in the world (if not in one’s own immediate circumstances) or with virtue and courage? Having nearly completed the book, I can say that I see all of these features and more in Bonhoeffer’s story alone.
Re: consuming less, I don’t think that advocating a rethinking of our patterns of consumption is equivalent to doing away with the language of material blessing. I think it is entirely possible consume responsibly (from an ecological or a theological perspective) and still be grateful for material blessings.
Of course, the two poles—poverty/riches, material/spiritual, suffering/blessing, etc—will always be part of a life of faith. I suppose there will always be some dissonance in our relationship with the Bible and the demands it makes upon us —in the middle class modern West, or anywhere else.
Maybe this will add clarity.
I think the courage Bonhoeffer showed in planning to kill Hitler was a heroic virtue, rather than a theological one. Heroic courage is good, and not necessarily incompatible with theological virtues. Bonhoeffer exercised the virtue of courage when he plotted to kill Hitler. When he affirmed what he did while imprisoned, it was not courage that he showed, but trust in God – not courage, but patient endurance. His courage was not incompatible with his trust in God. But, if Bonhoeffer had thought that God would protect him from harm when he planned to kill Hitler, then his act was not courageous.
re: “I think it is entirely possible consume responsibly (from an ecological or a theological perspective)”
I agree if the theological perspective is care for the creation. The correlative from an ecological perspective is found in deep ecology. I think that the deep ecology concern for all of life and the earth is closely similar to the concern expressed in the care-for- creation theological perspective. But much of contemporary green ecology is different. It is a concern for sustaining a high level of consumption. If it connects with theology, it connects with one that regards consumption as blessing.
Deep ecology, of creation care, hardly mattered in Biblical times – the world population was so small, and so was consumption.
Deep ecology is a panentheism, or pantheism. So is creation-care theology.
I am simply saying that, as I see it, Bonhoeffer’s life strikes me as a good example of being “rich toward God.” Why is it important to you that his affirmation of the goodness of the world in the midst of evil not be designated “courageous?” Isn’t it possible that exercising patient endurance, trust, hope, etc involves (even requires) a kind of courage? It certainly seems plausible to me.
How or why do you think creation-care theology is panentheistic (or pantheistic)?
Re: “Why is it important to you…”
I don’t mean to say that this has some kind of “importance” to me. It was just an observation.
Re: creation-care as panentheistic or pantheistic.
Deep ecology is panentheistic or pantheistic, and creation-care theology is virtually the same as deep ecology, even while the latter is couched in Biblical language and the former generally ignores its resemblance to Christian panentheism.
It is very hard to distinguish contemporary secular movements from their religious counterparts. It is tough to tell who is copying who. The doubtful thing is that either represents the views of scripture. The secular folks, like those who hold the views associated with deep ecology, see that better than the religious ones sometimes.
Maybe we’re thinking about different things with the term “creation-care,” but I think Scripture gives a fairly straightforward justification for taking care of the world God made. In fact, I think it is significantly easier to justify the kind of environmental ethics we currently see across the religious-secular spectrum from a biblical worldview than from a materialist one.