Text: Luke 12:13-21
Gospel for Proper 13, Year C
Grace to you and peace from God our Father. (Col. 1:2)
J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Hobbit has become a classic of children’s books. The Hobbit’s plot couldn’t be simpler: A dragon dispossessed some dwarves of their mountain-home and their vast treasure hoard. Over the mountains and through the woods to Smaug’s house we go. Kill the dragon, get the gold. It is the very essence of an adventure story. But it is how Tolkien describes reactions to the gold which is of interest. Bilbo the Hobbit, “had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment … and he gazed motionless at the gold beyond price and count.” After the dragon has been slain, Thorin the dwarf prince barricades himself and his men into the mountain, fearing others will seek some portion of his gold. Tolkien describes that Thorin “did not reckon with the power that gold has upon” people’s hearts. “The lust of it was heavy on him,” Tolkien writes. There’s a name he gives to this kind of insatiable lust for gold – this selfish greed – Dragon-sickness. It’s not just about the gold that one craves to possess, but gold that one believes is owed to them. Nothing else occupies that person’s mind. And when that treasure has been acquired, it will be protected and not one penny will be parted with.
Tolkien is a master storyteller and is able to show in story-form how subtly greed can overpower our own hearts. And he isn’t the first one to use the story format to talk about the dangers of greed. Jesus uses a story it in today’s Gospel reading.
Symptoms of Dragon-Sickness
Jesus is in the middle of teaching a crowd of several thousand when he is disrupted by an anonymous guy who is completely obsessed with getting his portion of the family inheritance. But our Lord sees that there is more than just a legal dispute at work here. Getting your legal fair share is not a good thing when greed, dragon-sickness lurks behind it. So, Jesus issues a dire warning, which applies to us all: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness.” Dragon-sickness is covetousness, that misplaced craving in the heart. It is good desire gone wrong. Greed is our inordinate desire, our excessive love, for wealth and possessions, for money and the things money can buy — and even for self-esteem, security, status, and power. God made us to have and to need certain things. The problem of greed and covetousness is not that we want things, but that our desires are misdirected and out of proportion.
Jesus tells a story about a rich farmer. The already rich farmer gets an unexpected bumper crop. God had blessed him with just the right amount of rain and sun, no disease or pestilence, and huge yields. But there was no thought of sharing. What is his immediate thought? “What am I going to do with all this extra grain? I guess I’m just going to have to expand my storehouses You know what? I’m really set here. I’m not going to have to work another day of my life. I’m going to retire young, take it easy. I’m going to go relax at the beach and sip margaritas and drive fancy cars.” This rich man is so filled with greed, so full of “dragon-sickness”, that it simply never occurs to him that anyone other than himself could benefit from the surplus grain. The only person he can think about is himself. There was no thought for the poor, the ill, and the naked who were all around him. If you suddenly came into a lot of money, what would your reaction be? Would you react like the rich man?
Do you have dragon-sickness? What’s portrayed in Thorin and the Rich Man is that same sin of greed at work in all of us. Rich and poor. Capitalist and socialist. Unbelieving and baptized. If you think that greed, that dragon-sickness, is not in you, you’re in the gravest of danger. It is rampant in our culture today. Greed is commonplace in our society. Money is at the centre of nearly all our thoughts, decisions and activities. The so-called “American Dream” is to go from being dirt poor to filthy rich simply by hard work. North Americans own twice as many cars and dine out twice as much as we did fifty years ago. Instead of money bringing increased well-being, credit card debt and depression are the highest they’ve ever been. And our culture sees you as nothing but a consumer. They want you to spend, spend, and spend some more. The latest and the greatest. The new gadget. The new styles. Marketing and advertising seek not just to sell you a product, they sell you a lifestyle. Ads often come with images of how much better your life will be with this product. There is going to be fun, romance, safety, security, memories, good times. Eat, drink, be merry! You deserve it. Get yourself a little something. All attempting to stir up that insatiable greed for more, dragon-sickness.
Dragon-sickness lurks in our hearts, and we don’t even notice. We might not notice it when we walk the aisles of a store, or are tempted to fudge our taxes, or consider how much to tip the waitress, or how much to give the church, or whether to help a friend in need. We could be surfing on Amazon or flipping through a catalog, or planning our retirement, when our sinful and broken hearts swell in their desire for the things of earth in a way that eclipses the God of heaven. Our epistle reading from Colossians says that covetousness is idolatry. (Col. 3:5) Have money or possessions become your god? Anything you fear, love, and trust in more than the Lord is your god. Do you place more trust in your retirement package then in God’s provision for you? Do you fear the loss of income and stuff more than you fear God’s displeasure? Does your desire to have more material goods eclipse your desire for God? Do you hoard your wealth like a greedy dragon, or are you generous with it? Beware of dragon-sickness.
The Cure for Dragon-Sickness
There is a cure from dragon-sickness. Greed and covetousness need not consume you. Jesus continues his story. What the rich man failed to consider, and what we often fail to consider, is that life is on loan from God, and God can demand it back at any time. In fact, everything we have, body and soul, eyes and ears, clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, it’s all a gift from God. Yes even our very life itself is not our possession but a gift—on loan. If God gives five days or eighty years, it’s a gift we do not deserve. Since life is not something we merit or deserve, we cannot demand ten days nor for eighty years. Each day is a gift, and for all this it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him, each day. “We give thee buy thine own, what e’re the gift may be. All that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.” (LSB 781:1).
But God has given us a gift far surpassing even our life and possessions. St. Paul reminded the Corinthian church about this gift. “You know the generosity of our Lord Jesus Christ: he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Co 8:9. REB). Christ, the Son of God, came down from the glories and riches of heaven, and became poor for your sake. He emptied himself of outward glory, laid aside earthly wealth, and walked the way of the cross for you. He came to purchase your salvation. The price was his holy precious blood. In that one self-sacrificial act at Calvary, Jesus dealt dragon-sickness its deathblow. When he was nailed to the tree on the mountain, Jesus Christ our Lord defeated and ruined the real Dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and satan. Jesus gave you the biggest treasure you could have: the forgiveness of sins. The Dragon is defeated the chains of death have been shattered with resurrection life. Now the grave has no more power over you. Now you have what it takes to pass the test on that night when your soul is required of you. You have the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and your Saviour.
To be rich toward God is to believe that God is the giver of all good things. Those good things are not just life and stuff. The Law says, “Thou shalt not covet” and pronounces death upon us all because we’re all infected with dragon-sickness. But, God has given you the best gift, the most priceless treasure, a cure for dragon-sickness. Christian, we have a treasure infinitely greater than all the gold in Erebor. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God. Through faith we lay hold of and posses this Christ, and in Christ we have the riches of forgiveness and salvation. St. Paul says,“Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” It may not look like much of a life, by the world’s standards. Your true riches are hidden from the world’s eyes. But they are very real, and beyond surpassing. Christ himself offers you the true riches in his Supper. Come, eat and drink here at this altar. Eat Christ’s very body, given for you. Come, drink his holy blood, shed for you. Eat, drink, be forgiven! Christ is your Great Possession, and dragon-sickness has lost its power, and we are freed to possess the kingdom our Father created us to inherit.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding
guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Php. 4:7)