The Rich Fool’s New Car

I’m buying a new car today. It’s not actually new but new to me. It’s a sweet ride and a bit of an indulgence. Do I really need it? Not exactly. Is it okay for me to buy it? Good question. Let’s weigh the options.

After using the parable of the rich fool to opine about binge TV and wasting time, I found myself looking back to the actual parable and what it says about possessions. So let’s remind ourselves of it:

A rich man’s land was very productive. He thought to himself, “What should I do, since I don’t have anywhere to store my crops? I will do this,’ he said. ‘I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones and store all my grain and my goods there.  Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.'”

But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared—whose will they be?” (Luke 12:16-20)

What a fool! We can all agree on that, right? But what should the rich fool have done? What actions in response to his great harvest would have earned him God’s approval rather than disdain? What could this man do with his bumper crop other than use it to coast into the sunset? Let’s explore the possibilities.

He could leave it out exposed to the elements where the rain and the rats would compete to ruin it first. Surely we can agree that God would not be pleased with that sort of stewardship.

He could give it away to the needy. Is that a good use of the crop? Apparently the rich man was going to be able to feed himself and his entourage for many years to come. It stands to reason that he could have fed a much larger group for a shorter span of years. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? But of course when it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t spend or give away the same dollar (or bushel of grain) twice.

He could sell it and then invest the proceeds. If this man had a hundred acres, perhaps his excess could be sold in order to fund the purchase of a hundred or two hundred more acres. Whatever good could be done with the crop from the smaller lands could be magnified on the larger lands. But is purpose of profit simply to generate a bigger empire to create ever-bigger profits?

He could store it for a time of need. This is how Joseph saved Egypt in Genesis, isn’t it? The rich man could store his grain and then keep on producing more for future consumption. Then, when a bad situation arises, he could draw from those reserves and save the day. The downside to this approach is that he still has to build storage facilities and protect this reserve until bad times come.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t tell us what the rich fool should have done. He just lets us know that the man made the wrong choice. Is there a right answer to what he should have done?

Is there a right answer to what I should do with the extra money that appears in my bank account from time to time? In the past year, I’ve done some of all of these things. I’ve indulged a little bit. I’ve given some money and goods away. I’ve invested some money toward tomorrow, and I’ve simply stuck some into a savings account for an unforeseen need, like the opportunity to buy a car. Did I do it right?

Since Jesus didn’t give us exact instructions for dealing with whatever plenty he provides, I have to assume that he had a different way for directing us. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:16 that through the Holy Spirit, “we have the mind of Christ.” The mind of Christ lets me know when I’m mishandling both my money and my time. I just have to ask and then listen to the response.

What does that say about the car? In reality, this choice is a no-brainer. The car pleases me, is priced right, can be purchased (easily) for cash, and should keep me driving reliably for another four or five years. And did I mention that it pleases me? Jesus never said we shouldn’t enjoy life a little.

Binge Living

Lately, I’ve been making my way through Mad Men, which is, to my mind, a terrific morality play about the vanity of human wishes and all of that sort of stuff. The central character, Don Draper, seeks and seeks for something, but he never seems to find it.

Today, however, I really don’t want to focus on the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, womanizing Draper but upon the non-drinking, non-smoking, monogamous me. Yesterday, you see, I watched an episode of Mad Men. Or perhaps it was two. Okay, having looked back on it, I see that it was actually five. Five episodes of Mad Men in a single day.

To be fair to myself, I finished up an outside writing assignment a couple of days ago. There’s no grading to do, and the weather is too chilly for yard work. Nothing else was demanding my time, so I spent nearly five hours watching the ad men of the 1960s muddle through their complicated lives.

In reflecting on those five hours this morning, I was reminded of the lead-in to Jesus’ parable of the rich fool. In those verses, after refusing to arbitrate the inheritance dispute of two brothers, Jesus broadens out the point, warning everyone to beware of greed, because “one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions.”

While that parable is rightly used to discuss the folly of people who think too much of their possessions–people who perhaps worry about where their financial security will be found or who get a little proud and cocky about the magnitude of their 401K–I’m taken with that quotation above from Luke 12:15: “one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions.”

What the Greek indicates there is pretty clearly indicated in the King James and other translations: a man’s life consists not in possessions. The version quoted above uses a perfectly acceptable although perhaps less elegant English word, “is.”

This “is” translation allows the verse to be read in a different manner. What Jesus pretty clearly meant to say is that we should not measure our lives in terms of things. However, when we read “one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions,” we can take it to mean that a person’s lifespan is not as abundant as a person’s possessions. In other words, “Your days are less abundant than your things.”

To be clear, that’s not what Jesus meant to say, but I think it is a useful concept for us and certainly not doing violence to his overall message. When we waste time, when we, like the rich fool, “take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy,” we’re not tuned in to the things of God. When God blesses us with extra time, he expects us to steward that time just as surely as we are to steward the riches he might put within our grasp.

We’re warned in Proverbs 23:33: “a little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the arms to rest, and your poverty will come like a robber, and your need, like a bandit.” Let’s recall that not all poverty, not all need can be measured in terms of dollars.

Benedict Arnold, American Hero

Benedict Arnold, that ultimate American traitor, made one big mistake in his career during the American Revolution: he didn’t die soon enough. Had Arnold possessed the good sense to, say, die of blood poisoning after the victory at Saratoga, he would today be held up as an American hero  of the second rank. No, he wouldn’t challenge George Washington’s primacy, but honestly who could? On the other hand, he would sport a greater claim to fame than several others who true history nerds know: Nathan Hale or Dr. John Warren. Nathan Hale, had he possessed more than one life to give for his country, might well have done something ignoble with the second one. Arnold, to his detriment, got that opportunity.

Early in the war, Arnold, while a bit reckless and self-promoting, enjoyed a string of bold actions that were mostly successful.

  • When the town fathers in his hometown of New Haven, Connecticut dithered, he forced their hand, broke in to the armory, and led his militia unit off to help around Boston.
  • He famously helped to capture Fort Ticonderoga and was instrumental in bringing the fort’s cannon down to Boston, which proved key in driving the British from the city.
  • To take the battle to the enemy, Arnold led a group through the wilderness and made an ill-fated but incredibly bold attack on Québec.
  • Later, he proved instrumental in blunting British efforts to recapture Fort Ticonderoga and, with it, control of Lake Champlain and the north end of the Hudson valley.
  • Finally, it was Arnold who led the successful fighting in the victory at the Battle of Saratoga, a battle that Arnold and many historians believe would have been an even greater win had General Gates heeded his subordinate’s call for further attacks.

After that, Arnold’s triumphs were over. He grew disillusioned and bitter about an array of slights, both real and imagined. Eventually, he got into contact with Major John Andre, and the rest is history.

How sad is it that many Christians enjoy a Benedict-Arnold-like career serving God’s kingdom. We may spend years doing all the right things, teaching Sunday School or passing out bulletins. We might be married for decades or raise a string of godly children. We might, like the prodigal son’s older brother, make all the right moves.

But then, nearing the finish line, we can foul things up. We can wind up damaging our family or dividing our church. What a shame to transform oneself from the hero of Saratoga to the archetypal traitor. That’s why we are warned in Hebrews 12:1-2 to run the race with perseverance. It’s why, in 2 Timothy 4:7, Paul doesn’t look back at how he started the race but remarks that he has “finished the race.”

It was at Saratoga that Arnold took a musket ball to the leg that left him limping for the rest of his life. Never given the credit he deserved from that battle, passed over for promotion, and not reimbursed for large personal expenditures, Arnold grew increasingly bitter and eventually conspired to betray the defenses of West Point to the British. If only his wound had proven fatal.

Don’t Step in It!

[Abstain from sexual immorality] that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.–1 Thessalonians 4:6

When I attended the recent college composition teachers’ convention last week, I walked into the strangest of sessions. Although I don’t recall the exact title of this colleague’s presentation, it had to do with the communication employed by strippers and exotic dancers as they protested legal changes in New Orleans. If you’re wondering how any of that could even remotely help college students to write better, then get in line behind me, but that’s not my point here.

The assumption behind the signs and slogans of the strippers and behind the conference presenter was that “sex work” was a victimless crime. Opposition to this work, they argued, represented a typical male-dominated effort to disempower women and blah, blah, blah.

The reality, however, is that sexual immorality, at whatever level it occurs, is not a victimless crime. Paul says so very clearly here. There are two positive effects of avoiding sexual immorality (which was mentioned much earlier in the sentence, back in verse 3). First, we won’t transgress the laws of God. That ought to be enough by itself, but second, we won’t wrong our brother or wrong another person.

How does sexual immorality wrong another person? It’s obvious how this works in the whole #metoo environment, but what of more “innocent” things. What if both parties consent? What about pornography? What about those nice girls in New Orleans who are putting themselves through college doing pole dances?

One of the realities of life is that every action generates effects. Consensual sex does not leave either party precisely the same afterward. Let’s take a hypothetical case. “Harvey” goes to a local club where lithe young ladies prowl the stage. “Lulu” particularly catches “Harvey’s” attention. She performs for him. He gives her cash. Everybody’s happy, right?

I can’t speak to “Lulu’s” situation other than to agree that it improves her bank account. But “Harvey” will go home to his wife or his future wife or his girlfriend or whoever and will not be able to keep from comparing her physique to that of “Lulu.” Is that fair? Not at all. Transgression. “Harvey” will have associated, at least to a subconscious degree, sexual gratification with money. That leads to transgression against every woman “Harvey” will encounter.

Sex is supposed to be a powerful overflow of the love that binds husband and wife. It’s supposed to mirror the love relationship between Christ and the church. It should involve self-sacrifice, mutual respect, and enduring, eternal love. How tawdry to reduce it to a money transaction.

Walk around my backyard carelessly and you’re likely to step in something objectionable. That only affects you until you walk into the house or sit in someone’s car. To think that you can magically clean your shoes and not affect anyone else is naïve.

So it is with the sexual stuff. While we cannot erase every sexually impure action, image, or thought from our past, we can move in the direction of purity and do our best not to step in it.

Controlling the Belt Buckle

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God. –1 Thessalonians 4:3-5

Recently, as I looked around a group of godly men, most of them my age or a few years older, I noticed something that nearly all had in common: bellies bulging out over their belts. I say that fully conscious that my own profile on that evening looked pretty similar to theirs.

What makes men of a certain age put on weight? You don’t expect a sixty-year-old to have ripped abs, but is there really some reason why we should all look as if we’re a pregnant woman who hasn’t just started to show?

In my case, the explanation is quite simple. Over the last couple of years, I haven’t controlled my body very well. Lest you hear that and recall the verse quoted above, let me hasten to say that my lack of control isn’t in the sexual arena. No, my lack of control involves the amount of food that goes into my mouth and the amount of physical exertion that consumes that food.

It didn’t take me a long span of life to learn that food tastes good. Lots of food tastes good, and it doesn’t stop tasting good when you’ve eaten a bit of it. The fifth piece of pizza is almost exactly as rewarding as the first.

Gluttony–just like sexual immorality–is a sin. My body requires stewardship just as surely as my bank account, regardless of whether that stewardship deals with my sexuality or my fitness. Bad behavior in either area can ruin me for effective Christian ministry.

“Control your own body,” Paul insists, as if it were an easy thing. But of course he knew that it wasn’t an easy thing. It’s not an easy thing to hit the gym in the morning. It’s not an easy thing to stop at one or two pieces of pizza. And it’s not easy to keep your mind from thinking sexually impure things. But actually that’s where the key lies.

Unless I am completely wrong, I will probably never stop looking at at least some workouts as something to be dreaded. I will probably never cease to long for more and richer food. And I will probably never stop being tempted in that other carnal area. Still connected to that “body of death” of mine, I’m subject to temptations.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul does not say that his readers had to escape all temptation. Instead, he urges them to control their bodies and not act upon the temptation. With God’s help and my own efforts, I have mastered my sexual desire. I’ve seen the same combination of forces master my physical shape. Now, wearing a larger size of pants, has God stopped helping? Of course not.

“Learn to control your own body,” Paul insists. Did he suggest it was easy or automatic? Apparently not since it had to be learned. I may not be able to control the physiques of my brothers, but I can, with some effort, make a change to my own.

…and my lungs and limbs and all the rest of me.