"Filthy rich." What an expression! Filth comes from the Old English word for putrid matter, but filthy' means covered with, containing, or characterized by. Yet generally when we use the expression filthy rich' some of the putridness remains. It doesn't have to.
You are filthy rich. That's what the Scriptures say in 2 Corinthians 8, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich." It's the whole prince and pauper thing. The Prince of heaven changed places with you. He took on your blood, sweat, and tears. You took on His royal garments. He took on the beatings, kickings, and scoldings a pauper regularly gets. You got angels to wait on you, archangels to serve you, and the fellowship of all the company of heaven.
You are filthy rich. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3, "All things belong to you." If you own everything, that makes you a rich person. The cattle on a thousand hills are yours. The birds sing to make music for you. The flowers burst into bloom, vegetables bear, and fruit trees produce all for you. They do this for you because they didn't do so for Jesus, their Creator. When He walked this earth, as a pauper, He hid His divine majesty to take your place under the obligations and punishments of the law. So He had no place to lay His head. He went hungry and the birds didn't feed Him as they did Elijah. He went thirsty and rocks didn't burst with water as they did for Moses. But you have the princely holiness that Jesus gave up so all things belong to you.
Doesn't feel that way or look that way does it? In John Irving's book The Cider House Rules every night the orphanage director says goodnight to his lowly waifs saying, "Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England" knowing full well how bleak things really look for them. You are princes and princesses of heaven. That's the truth no matter how things look. Scripture says that with Jesus you reign even now. You reign, not sin, not death, not the devil, but you. In Jesus your sins have been forgiven, the devil has been defeated, and you're gonna live forever.
Billy Joe Shaver has a song "Live forever" where the refrain is "I'm gonna live forever/ I'm gonna cross that river/ I'm gonna catch tomorrow now/
I'm gonna live forever now." You're gonna liver forever and you do live forever now. How come? Because you are bodied and blooded to the Body and Blood of the Eternal God through the person of Jesus. What could be more costly, more precious than the Body and Blood of God? In Baptism you have put on the Body and Blood of Jesus says Paul in Galatians. In Holy Communion you eat His Body and drink His Blood. Who in heaven or on earth could be richer?
You are filthy rich, but riches can be filthy. They can cause divisions between people. Two brothers are divided by riches in our text. One of them wants Jesus to arbitrate between them. You've all seen this. Mom and dad die leaving an estate and trouble erupts. It doesn't even have to be that many riches even a little can taint the most loving of relationships. Like the smallest of coins tossed into the biggest of ponds still sends ripples to the farthest shores, so just a little riches can put up a wave of polluted water.
Of course, division between people is not the worst filth riches can bring. They can also divide from God. This division is the focus of this text. When riches divide brothers they are on the way to separating from God.
In parables Jesus strips people bare so we can see what they really think. Notice how the rich man is focused on self. When the problem' of what to do with his excess riches comes up, he only consults himself. See the preponderance of the pronouns referring to self. "What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops. This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "Self you have plenty" No fewer than 12 times in 44 words does he refer to himself.
Picture this rich man. See his full fields in the background and in the foreground his old barns being razed and new ones being built. I know you picture this man as old as almost all painters have, but there is no warrant for this in the text. He could be a young man. The fact his soul was required from him that very night says nothing about his age. Sudden death is no respecter of age. Perhaps the man in our text is a rich young heir. Maybe he's no older than Bart Simpson. After all he is like the Bart Simpson who said this table prayer, "Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing. Amen." No matter your age or how little your worth, riches are filthy when they separate you from God.
They can also be filthy if you're deceived by them. Riches deceive in 2 ways. First they appear long lasting. Despite the Lord plainly saying in Proverbs, Riches are not long lasting," and, "Riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle toward heaven," somehow riches deceive people into thinking they last. Though the world itself has sayings like, "You can't take it with you," and "A hearse doesn't have a luggage rack," still the lie persists that riches endure beyond this life.
However, the most serious way riches deceive is not that they appear long lasting, but that they appear life-giving. This is what made this rich man a fool. This is what made his riches filthy to him. He concluded that just because he had an abundance of riches he had an abundance of time to live. Think that's so foolish no intelligent person could ever think it? I sure have.
They keep telling me how long I'm suppose to live, and I keep thinking I need to make sure I have the money to live that long. Then when I can see how through this savings plan, this annuity, and this retirement I can have an income for that many years, I give a sigh of relief. What a fool I am. All the riches in the world don't add a dime's worth of time to my life. When my soul's required of me, I will be whisked before the judgment throne. And then I will know the truth of Proverbs 4:11, "Riches profit not in the day of wrath; but righteousness delivers from death."
The redemption of a human soul is precious. No amount of money can deliver a soul. Only something more precious can. What's more precious than a sinful, fallen soul? Only a perfect, holy one. Now we're back to being filthy rich as opposed to our riches making us filthy. God has redeemed us not by gold or silver says St. Peter, but by the holy precious blood of Jesus and by His innocent suffering and death. The righteousness that delivers from death on that unknown day when God comes for you is that of Jesus. Clothed by Him in Baptism, forgiven by Him in Absolution, bodied and blooded to Him by Communion you escape the day of wrath.
You are filthy rich, yet riches can be filthy, but they don't have to be. Riches don't inherently make you filthy. Abraham was a very rich man. Nowhere does the Lord tell him to divest himself. Job was a very rich man, and when Satan swept his riches away, the Lord restored them. The only rich man the Lord told to sell everything was the rich young man. Why? Because his riches were filthy? No, because then Abraham, Job, Zacchaeus, and Nicodemus and should have sold all. The rich young man was told to sell all because riches were filthy to him. If your riches however big or small they might be are filthy to you sell them, give them away, get rid of them. Die poor rather than a fool.
In the Middle Ages this is what many rich people did. The Catholic church taught then and still teaches today that voluntary poverty is a special work of the Gospel. It is one of the 3 characteristics of a life consecrated to God (Celibacy and obedience are the other two.) However, just getting rid of your money doesn't mean you're not a fool. You still die a fool if you think your impoverishing yourself somehow commends you to God. Christ's righteousness avails in the day of wrath not your good works.
Fear, love, or trust in money, no matter how little or how small, is the problem. That's when money become filthy. Just because you give money away doesn't mean you cease fearing, loving, or trusting it. No, that can only happen by an outright miracle. It takes a miracle to rescue a man or woman from their riches being filthy to them.
Jesus describes the miracle in the last verse of the text. The problem is it's translated poorly. Jesus is made to warn against storing up things for yourself and not being rich toward God. If you preach it this way, you switch people from believing that their riches keep them alive to believing their riches toward God, their giving, keeps them alive! What Jesus says is what I've preached. He says literally, "So is the one who treasurers himself and is not rich in God." The man's problem was not that he had retirement accounts and savings, but that he knew of no greater counsel or thing then self. He treasured himself above all else.
Second, Jesus speaks of being rich in God not toward God. Briefly, with verbs of going, sending or moving the Greek is translated "toward." When it's used in connection to a person or thing, it's translated, "with reference to." Jesus is pleading with us to be rich with reference to God. Count yourself rich in what God provides whether it be food, drink, house, home, or His Body, His Blood, His forgiveness, His grace, His mercy, His peace. Read the 13 verses that follow this text. There Jesus says there's no need to worry about tomorrow because of all that God provides. He says nothing about what you give to God but all about what He gives to you.
Jesus shows you how it will be for fools who are rich in self and not in God. You are not a fool when you believe you are poor in self, but rich in Godfilthy rich in fact. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XI (20070812); Luke 12: 13-21