Contributed by Jay Gamelin, Pastor of Jacob’s Porch, Lutheran campus mission to The Ohio State University.

Warm-up Question

 What would you do with ten million dollars?  Go ahead, fantasize away!  Try and be honest.

When I’m 60, I’ll Get Around to That

Something happened to Bill and Melinda Gates.  After the Gates amassed many billions of dollars founding Microsoft and creating Windows software, the two asked themselves what all this wealth was for.  Building more houses, buying more companies, and creating more wealth seemed hollow.

It was then they met Bono, the lead singer for the band U2.  Often outspoken on behalf of the poor, Bono challenged the Gates to understand the challenge of “stupid poverty”, that is, the people who die for want of a $2 pill because they live on $1 a day.  This was enough to draw Gates away from Microsoft years before he intended to shift his focus from making money to giving it away. He and Melinda looked around and recognized the shortcoming of the way in which the world values wealth and its distribution. “Those lives were being treated as if they weren’t valuable,” Gates told FORTUNE in 2002. “Well, when you have the resources that could make a very big impact, you can’t just say to yourself, ‘O.K., when I’m 60, I’ll get around to that. Stand by.'”

So rather than continuing to amass more wealth, the Gates family began to give it away.  With a foundation that is now worth over 30 billion (yes, with a “B”) dollars and growing from a generous contribution from Warren Buffet, the wealthiest man in the world matches all gifts given by the foundation to the tune of another 30 billion dollars.  The fund focuses on ending poverty in the poorest countries and fighting HIV-AIDS and avoidable diseases in the world’s poorest economies.

The Gates saw wealth, not as an end, but as a means to an end, a way they can contribute to ending poverty in this lifetime.

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever faced need and not been able to get what you needed?  If you have, how did this feel? 
  • If you have not, imagine what it would feel like to see extravagant wealth somewhere else while you were hungry?  What would you do to support your family?  What if you were not able to do this?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, August 1, 2010 (Tenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23

Colossians 3:1-11

Luke 12:13-21

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

This is not a lesson about whether or not it is evil to be rich. It is not about creating a guilt trip for those who have.  Nor is it a commendation to be poor.  Poverty is not in itself a value we should embrace.  This is a lesson about questions, the ones we ask ourselves when we have.

The Gates figured out that they had much.  They had amassed a staggering fortune, in fact larger than some national economies.  They had built extravagant homes, formed companies, bought more, and done more.  Yet, despite it all, they still had much.  At this point they had to ask themselves a question: Do we continue to try to grow a fortune or decide that the value is not in possessing wealth but giving it away?  They, of course, answered the call and are now considered two of the biggest philanthropists in the world.

Perhaps it is easy to hold up the Gates family, they have so much to give.  They could give away 90% of their income and still be considered extremely wealthy.  With such wealth, perhaps giving it away is rather painless.  But more than the amount, it was the decision that we focus upon.  They faced a difficult question and answered it the best way they could.

In the text, the rich man has amassed a fortune.  Seeing his fortune grow, he was forced to ask what to do next.  His decision was to build another barn, store more food.  We can see the story and say, “Well, I would never do this!  If I were rich I would give it away!” Would you give it away?  Are you rich?  These are questions to ask yourself: How many outfits do you need in your closet to clothe yourself nicely for a week?  How many pairs of shoes do you possess?  How many cars do you need to own?  How big a house do you really “need”?  How much do you need to eat?  Do you really need that second TV?  Is cable necessary?  How many drinking glasses do you have in your home and how many mouths?

But you might say, “But this means I need to account for every dollar I spend!”  Yes, you do.  We need to be confronted with our own wealth and understand that we are the rich man.  The average American spends enough in a year on food to feed a village in other parts of the world.  This should stop us short in our tracks.

Again, this is not about guilt for being rich.  It is about important questions: What do we have?  What are we doing with it?  What are we doing to help?  What more can we do?  These are the questions rich Christians such as we who read this study, downloaded from the internet on our expensive computers, can and should ask themselves everyday—for  tomorrow our lives are required of us and do not belong to us.  Let us use our riches to lift up others.  In this we become rich in God and not to ourselves.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think you owe anything to anyone else if you are rich?  Why or why not? 
  • What advantages do you think someone like Bill Gates may have had as opposed to a person in a third world country?  What advantages did he have in schooling and in the infrastructure of this country?
  • What obstacles might a person in a third world country face? How much more difficult is it to give them a hand-up to achieve?

Let’s ask the question again: What would you do with ten million dollars?  What would be OK to keep?  What would be OK to give away?  How much is enough to live on?  How much is enough to give away?

Activity Suggestions

“WHAT’S IN YOUR WALLET?”:  To avoid embarrassment, let read ahead and describe the activity.  Find a volunteer to either empty her purse, a back pack, or take everything out of his pockets.  Take a look at what is in there.  Look at what is in the wallet or purse as if you were an anthropologist or perhaps an archeologist.  If you did not know this person, what could you tell about him or her?

Now look at these things as an economist.  Which of these things are necessary for life?  Which are “extra” things?  Which would this person not miss?  Which would they miss?

PROCESS:  We all have things in our lives and there are some things we need and some we do not.  Our hope is that what we have can be used not only for ourselves but to support others, all for the glory of God.  The commercial says, “What’s in your wallet?”  I think it is a good question—what does what I have say about me? What can I use these things for?  How can they support others beyond me?

Closing Prayer

For all that you have given us, thank you God.  Teach us to be blessings of the abundance you have blessed us with.  May we be more and more like you.  AMEN.