Ecclesiastes 5:1-3; Ecclesiastes 5:8-17
I was in a book store recently and saw a book that caught my eye. I tried to walk out without buying it but I turned around, went back, and picked it up. It is called The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook. It is a little book of about 100 pages, easy to read, and has a lot of cartoons in it. I thought at first it was a joke, but it is a very serious book. The author is in the business of helping people in dangerous situations, and he has assembled a handbook for us to use when we are in a bad situation. I looked at some of his examples of worst-case scenarios. I decided I needed to keep the book with me all the time. Then if I’m ever attacked by a mugger, I can tell him to stop until I’ve had a chance to refer to the book to find out what I’m supposed to do.
As I read these, my comic mind took over. The author wrote a serious book but it didn’t come across as serious to me. For example, what do you do if you are chased by a swarm of African killer bees? The first thing he suggests is to run for cover. (I would have thought that without having the book!) What would you do if you were chased by a charging bull? The first thing you should do is don’t antagonize the bull. What if you are chased by a stampede of cattle? The first thing you should do is get out of the way. How do you fend off a shark? You should hit back. What do you do if you find yourself in the line of gunfire? You should get as far away as possible.
In the Peace Corps Handbook given to all Peace Corps volunteers before they go overseas, there is the suggestion of what to do if you are attacked by a python. First of all, you take your knife firmly in your hand and lie down. The python will start to swallow you from the ankles up. You just lie still and quiet, let him come on up until he gets to your waist. He is then immobile, so take your knife and slit his throat. The next time you are chased by a python, remember that.
The Bible has some worst-case scenarios. Have you ever thought about Moses standing before Pharaoh? Moses has been out in the dessert with a bunch of sheep. He smells like them because he didn’t get a chance to clean up and change his clothes. God said, “Go down and talk to Pharaoh.” He walks into Pharaoh’s gilded throne room and Pharaoh has all his flunkies around him. Moses starts pleading his case, “Let my people go.” That’s a very bad case. All he had was a rod and an invisible God.
Another worst-case scenario – have you ever thought of what Jesus must have felt like when he was preaching to 5,000 people, and just as He was giving the invitation, someone came forward and said, “Master, they are hungry, and you have to feed them.” All He had was a boy with five loaves and two fishes. I think the ultimate in worst-case scenarios is in Jesus’ story about the man who had more money than he thought he would ever have. He was a farmer, and he hit the lottery with his crop – the wind was right, the rain was right, the soil was right, and he had an abundance of crops. No one else did, so he was hot on the market. He was in the worst-case scenario. He did what a lot of us would have done. He built bigger barns. He opened a new bank account. He found a new stock market account. He had bigger everything to take care of his abundance. Jesus said, “Thou fool, this night your soul will be required of me.”
The Bible has a lot to say about money. Why people come to the Bible and think that money is not spiritual, I have never understood. There are only four basic doctrines of the Bible: God, sin, salvation (Jesus Christ), and stewardship. Everyone wants to hear the whole gospel until the preacher preaches on the fourth great doctrine of the Bible; people don’t like it. They say, “Well, he’s just a money preacher.” As I’ve been reading the book of Ecclesiastes, I have been overwhelmed at the passages that talk about us and our money. It’s not a matter of trying to fleece the sheep; it’s a matter of giving the sheep an understanding of the benefits that God has given to them and how to use them. You know that Jesus had more to say about money than He said about anything else – love, faith, salvation, the way we treat our neighbors, or prayer. There is something else here. We have let the devil speak to us for so long that we have the idea that money is not a part of the gospel.
I want to go with the worst-case scenarios, and look at the Scripture. What would you do if you were like the farmer, and all of a sudden your barns had more than they could hold? The bank calls you and says not to deposit any more money; your account won’t handle it. The stock broker said, “Don’t buy anything else. They are going to investigate you and wonder where your money came from.” You have more than you can imagine or can handle. What would you do?
The book of Ecclesiastes makes it very clear. There are three things I want us to see.
First of all, the eighth verse says the rich are different. We are all rich by international and historical standards. I’ve been to places in the world where people do not even have a floor under them, and their families live under a tent. We are all rich. You see pictures in the newspapers frequently of little children with distended bellies. We are all rich and privileged, by national, by world, and even by Atlanta standards. So enjoy it! Don’t look around and say, “I don’t have enough.” Look around and say, “God has blessed me and I am a privileged person living in a privileged place.”
The writer alludes to government people taking advantage of others by skimming off the top to fill their pockets, and he said, “That’s not right.” The eighth verse is not a diatribe against the rich or against money or against possessions. He said, “Those who love possessions.” He didn’t say, “Those who have possessions.” The New Testament says, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” It doesn’t say, “Money is the root of all evil.” The root of evil is the love of money, putting it in the high place, putting it on the throne. Our writer does not approach this from the standpoint that food and clothing and shelter are wrong. He approaches it from the standpoint that just to possess it is okay but to love it is different. What does that have to do with the rich being different? The rich tend to be better educated, more influential, in control, the leaders, and the lawmakers. But when that privilege comes our way, the temptation is to be selfish, insensitive, and beyond being pleased with anything.
I like the story of the eighteenth century French merchant, Beaujean, one of the richest men in France who had a marvelous chateau in Switzerland that he used in the summertime. He had the most beautiful garden in Switzerland but Beaujean had indulged himself so much that he was too fat to walk in his garden. The rich are different. You know the story of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. When they were toppled from the leadership of the Philippines, 2,700 pairs of shoes were found in Imelda’s closet. They had a dozen homes in the Philippines, plus homes in New York and Europe. This is focusing on wealth. This is what the Bible says is evil. What about King Farouk who ate 600 oysters a week, and had a harem of 3,000?
We’ve come to the place where we as Christians have missed the point on all of this. We think the Bible calls us to wear a hair shirt and to live in the dessert with only a small tent over our heads. That is not the point of it. I’m not calling the church to be like the dessert fathers and become monks and live away out in the dessert. I’m caught up by the Scriptures to understand that when you are privileged, you have a responsibility. For every privilege, whether it’s a privilege of position, possessions, or education, there is a corresponding responsibility, and the Bible makes it clear. For unto whom much is given more will be required. We don’t like that. We want to build a bigger barn, have a bigger party, have a finer chateau, and let the underprivileged struggle.
The second thing the passage says is wealth does not satisfy. Someone said that passage meant that there was a “destination sickness.” You work all your life to climb the ladder, standing on the backs of everyone around you, working long hours, and causing your family to sacrifice. Finally, you’re there; you have arrived. You look around and say, “Is that all there is?” It doesn’t satisfy. That becomes a “destination sickness.” Money can buy tons of comfort but not one ounce of contentment. There is never enough for the money-hungry, according to Bible. I asked a man who was playing this game, “How much money do you really want?” He looked at me in all honesty and said, “I want just a little bit more.” I said, “And when you get that?” He said, “I’ll want just a little bit more.”
There was a large article about satisfaction recently in the New York Times Sunday magazine section, written because some professors at Ivy League schools had done some studies about what it takes to satisfy us. They had run all the control groups to quantify this to the academic community, and had come to some conclusions about what it takes to satisfy us. They said that above the needs of the middle-class comfort there is no difference in satisfaction. Once we reach a middle-class comfort – food, clothing, shelter, and the things you need (I’m not talking about living on the margin) – more becomes diminishing returns. There is very little difference in satisfaction between someone who is mature about his middle-class needs being met and someone who has amassed mammoth amounts, like Imelda Marcos and her 2,700 pairs of shoes. The full stomach of a rich man does not allow him to sleep.
William Randolph Hearst was a major publisher in this country who commanded the media. He had more money than he knew what to do with, and he dated Hollywood actresses in abundance. Through the years he decided to build a magnificent castle on the shores of California’s Pacific coast of Big Sur. It is absolutely magnificent. It makes Versailles wane with embarrassment because Hearst Castle is so wonderful. But in his latter years, he could be found in the basement of his castle replaying the motion pictures of his girlfriends, trying to relive the days when he was a young “bon vivant” dating young Hollywood actresses. His employees felt sorry for him because he was a miserable old man who had lost his past. Wealth does not satisfy. Beyond the needs and comfort of the middle class, there is very little difference in the satisfaction level.
The third thing is that increased wealth brings increased parasites. I would like to share a personal story that exemplifies this truth. My father had been an entrepreneur; he owned a couple of businesses and had rental property. My parents were not wealthy by our standards but by 1932 standards, they were very comfortable. When I was six months old, he died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. When word got out, my mother received attention from distant relatives she had never known. These relatives were third and fourth cousins from the mountains of North Carolina. They went to the reading of the will and began to fight over my father’s possessions. My father had only a wife and two children, but these other people began to do hand-to-hand combat over stuff they had no right to. Finally, the court stepped in and protected my brother and me. The court set up a small trust fund for me, just enough to get me educated and married.
Several years after my father’s death, we moved to Florida where there were no relatives or friends. My brother had enlisted in the Army, and when I was old enough, I asked my mother what we were doing in Florida. She told me of the reading of the will and said she wanted to get away from all the parasites, and start over.
Joe Lewis, the heavyweight champion of the world who set the boxing world on its ear, had parasites living off him. When he ran out of money, they abandoned him. He ended up as a doorman at a Las Vegas casino. When Elvis Presley died, all his parasites were trying to get all they could because they had lived off him for years.
Therefore, what is the best-case scenario? It is for us to become responsible stewards, to be responsible for what God has given to us. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Mammon in that passage means the evil nature of things. Mammon is the material word. You can’t serve God and worship the things of this world. We have to have food, clothing and shelter; we have to pay our bills. The way we deal with that is to become responsible stewards – exercise control over the mammon we have to have, get in charge of it. It is God’s, and God’s gift to me, and I give a portion of this back as God has commanded through God’s church to the world. You can cut it a hundred different ways but the Scripture teaches stewardship as an accountable response of Christians to the gospel. Zachaeus said, when he was converted, “If I have defrauded any man, I will repay him fourfold. Half my goods I give to feed the poor.” The instant response from his conversion to his life was to get in charge of his means. We cannot serve God and mammon.
William L. Self is Senior Pastor of Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, GA.