Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Crisis & Choice, Pt 6: “Easy Come, Easy Go”


The biggest business collapse in 2001 was the downfall of giant energy-trading company Enron. For six years running, Enron was voted Most Innovative among FORTUNE's Most Admired Companies. In 2000, Enron's revenues shot to more than $100 billion, taking its net worth to over $200 billion and making it the seventh-largest company on Fortune 500.

A year later, in an October, 2001, press release, the company dropped a bombshell on investors by announcing a $618 million loss. Before the year was up, Enron filed for bankruptcy. Its stock fell from more than $80 per share to less than a dollar in a few weeks. The public later knew how Enron’s publicity machine, business practices and fuzzy accounting had conned unknowing employees, investors and financiers of their money. Its stock, earnings and reserves were overstated and inflated – a fool’s gold.

In Luke 12 Jesus was addressing thousands of people in the crowd (Lk 1:1) when a man interrupted his public and rich discourse with a private and selfish request. Naturally, Jesus denied the petitioner’s request to arbitrate in a sibling dispute over money. Jesus refused to act as a money manager, a family lawyer, a professional arbitrator, an expert negotiator or a skilled mediator. He warned hearers against greed in any form. In fact, he called a person who is obsessed with money, goods or property a fool.

Why was the rich farmer in Jesus’ riveting story a fool? Did he like to sleep? Was he a big spender? Did he lose his savings? Did he spend others’ money? None of the above. One who gains the riches of the world but loses his soul in the process is a fool and a loser in God’s eyes.

Why is a greedy person considered a fool in the sight of God? Why is mindless devotion to wealth a worthless pursuit to God?

A Fool’s Boasting is Bankrupt in God’s Eyes – Your Treasures are Earthly
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17 He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.' 18 “Then he said, '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. The fool’s little world is summarized by two words: “more” and “me.” (Luke 12:13-18)

Someone once asked John D. Rockefeller, the 19th century kerosene and oil king who was the Bill Gates of his times, the question, “How many millions does it take to satisfy a man?” Without hesitation, he answered, “The next million.”

In the nineties, more than a decade before the Enron debacle, insider-trading arrests were the biggest business news. A main player named Dennis Levine disclosed why he and his famous partner Ivan Boesky traded illegally with the information they had as insiders, buying stocks of soon-to-be-announced announced merging companies and then selling them for profit when the stocks rose upon the completion of the deal, implicating big names Michael Milken and Drexel Burnham Lambert in the crime.

Levine explained to Fortune magazine (5/21/90): “People always ask, ‘Why would somebody who's making over $1 million a year start trading on inside information?’ At each new levels of success I set higher goals, imprisoning myself in a cycle from which I saw no escape. When I became a senior vice president, I wanted to be a managing director, and when I became a managing director, I wanted to be a client. If I was making $100,000 a year, I thought, I can make $200,000. And if I make $1 million, I can make $3 million.”

Greed (v 15) is a craving, an obsession, a demand for more and more things, goods, property - more than what we need. It has been said, “Money is a good servant, but a bad master.” Greedy person can never have enough of physical or material things. They think of making more money, creating more wealth and becoming more prosperous. They dream of money in their sleep and bring up money in their conversation, believing that money talks, money makes money and money makes the devil his employee. The void in their heart becomes a hole and, if unchecked, a crater. Note that the rich man was already a well-off landowner (v 16) with money, land and barns - plural, but his appetite for wealth was insatiable. In today’s business terms, barns will have to make way for warehouses and depots, stores will have to give way to chains and franchises, and land to open the way to trucks and bulldozers.

The other word known to a greedy person is the word “me.” Incredibly, the rich man began to converse with himself. The word “thought” in verse 17 is derived from the single Greek word dialogizomai, or the English word “dialogue.” However, the rich man’s dialogue was a cover. He asked and answered his own question. He did not need any counsel but his own. The only opinion that mattered was his. He was his own personal adviser and financial consultant.

Further, the rich fool’s speech in Greek was peppered with incessant “I” and “my.” He uttered two I’s in verse 17 ('What shall I do? I have no place…), 4 I’s in verse 18 (I will do…I will tear…I will build…I will store), and a last I in verse 19 (I'll say to myself…). It was all about himself (v 17): my crops - literally fruits (v 17), my barn, my grain, my goods and my soul. In fact, the only “you” in his speech in verse 19 was addressed to himself: “You have plenty of good things...” The rich fool’s selfish motto in life is “What is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine!”

A Fool’s Bliss is Blind in God’s Eyes – Your Thrill is Elusive
19 And I'll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” '(Luke 12:19)

Forrest Gump pointed out, “There is only so much fortune a man really needs - and the rest is for showing off.”

On my last trip to Asia, at the end of 2001, I learned the wisdom of restraint, selection and prevention. I had my fill of Hong Kong dim sum, wanton noodles and milk tea the five days I was there and then headed to Singapore, where my mother bought me all the mouth-watering fruits that I had missed. In three days, I had eaten five durians. On day one I ate two durians for my afternoon snack. On the next day another two and on the final day I consumed the last durian, plus a mango and a dozen rambutans right after dinner before I was to take an overnight train hours later to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In the middle of the night – around 3 or 4 a.m., nature called and I bolted to the nearest available restroom. However, the men’s restroom was occupied and I deliberated whether to use the ladies’. Looking left and right and at all the sleeping passengers, I couldn’t wait and quickly darted into the booth–like ladies lavatory. At that time, I couldn’t care if it was toddlers only!

On the return trip to Hong Kong, the six families on my wife’s side – 3 returning from U.S. and three in Hong Kong - had a gathering at a fancy restaurant for a reunion! We were served a sumptuous dinner at Peking House, a restaurant located in Hong Kong’s Central Station subway station. The menu was impressive. The HK $4000 meal included shark fin soup, two Peking Ducks served with tortilla wrappings and my first taste of Beggar’s Chicken. Again, my stomach churned when everyone was sound asleep at night and I couldn’t sleep until I took care of business!

Unfortunately, a person can only stomach one meal at a time. The stomach has no respect for first-class chefs, five-star treatment or ten-course dinner!

The rich man had earned, saved and kept a lot of things. He counted his chickens before they were hatched, thinking he had caught a break and was set up for life. The man could afford to break a leg, live like a king and eat like a pig. The Greek repetition of the word “much” or “many” in verse 19 was pointed. The rich man congratulated himself: “You have much good things laid up for many years.” Actually what he had were fruits, crops and grains - all meant to be seasonal, perishable and temporary things.

The problem of the rich man was equating riches with the Greek word “rest,” translated as “take life easy” in NIV (Matt 11:28). Jesus never associated riches with rest but often contrasted the word “rest” with tiredness, weariness or drowsiness (Mt 26:45, Mk 6:31, 14:41). We can rest when there is peace, calm and quiet, and we should rest when we are tired, sleepy or exhausted, but rest is never equated with money. Actually, a rich man will tell anyone who cares to listen that his last luxury is rest or relaxation. Jesus alone has given us the only option for rest. In Matthew 11:28, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

The rich and the wise make merry in the Bible for two opposing reasons. Jesus has exclusively used the verb “be merry” for his three parables in Luke (Lk 12:19, 15:23-32, 16:19). Twice, it describes the celebration of the rich - the rich in this parable and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19) - who both made merry over luxuries and possessions and food, and once describing the celebration of the wise father in the parable of the prodigal son. Jesus contrasted the celebration of the two foolish rich men with the father of the prodigal son to a powerful effect. The wise and loving father celebrated for spiritual, eternal and priceless reasons: the return and finding of his lost son (Lk 15:23, 24, 29, 32). The only true cause of celebration disclosed in the Bible was never over the gratification of the flesh, but the salvation of lost souls.

A Fool’s Break is Brief in God’s Eyes – Your Time Will Expire
20 “But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?' 21 “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:20)

Several years ago I was happy as a lark with my nest egg. My cousin had convinced me to put in $2,000 a year to a tax-deductible Roth IRA account and recommended the popular low-cost Vanguard US Growth Mutual Fund. I watched the savings grow as the mutual fund giant delivered an average annual return of 15-20% for a few years.

Just after I had stopped investing in the fund in 1998, the bubble burst and it nose-dived with the economic downturn in the new millennium. The healthy $20,000 figure listed in my account at the end of the third quarter in 2000 was reduced to $15,000 at the end of the year in three short months. If that was not bad enough, the giant fund plummeted by another 31% to $10,700 at the end of 2001 and another 22% in 2002 to $6,900. I read at the end of the year that the fund was the third highest investor in Enron, buying 1.6 million shares in the fourth quarter of 2000 at the time the economy went south and that my fund was the biggest loser among the big cap funds. The events of September 11 dashed any hope of a quick recovery. I discovered that the stock market was like a bad monopoly game in the long run: I did not go anywhere and I did not collect anything!

Many people who invested in stocks had suffered a worse fate. Darling stocks like Yahoo dropped from its high of over $240 to $17.74 at the end of 2001, in just two short years.

The rich man was a fool because he was not ready for the last chapter of his life. A fool is one whose life is invested in physical and material needs, but not spiritual needs. The Greek text is rich in detail. Twice he had mistaken his body for his soul. In Luke 12:19 the man boasted, “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have much goods laid for years.’” However, the soul does not eat, drink, play or socialize; the body does. The rich man met the wants of the body, but not the needs of the soul (v 19). Before the day was over, God visited him with the truth about the soul: “Fool, this night your soul shall be required of thee.” The soul has a limited body life, expiration date on earth and an appointment with God.

Further, the soul was never the man’s to begin with. It could never be his if it could be taken away, or “asked back” (v 20) in Greek – the word appears only one other time in the Greek text (Lk 6:30). He could answer his own question (v 19) but not the question God posed; in fact, he did not even have a chance to answer! Life is a loan that is compounded with interest, a line of credit that cannot be defaulted and an independent future audit. Death renders everything we have useless, valueless and profitless. Unknown to the rich man, he had less than a day to live. If credit had to be given for his riches, it should rightly be given to the fertile ground at work (v 16), not to the rich man at ease.

Famous Hollywood director Martin Scorcese echoed this emptiness: “From our culture in the early '80s on to now I think the emphasis has become the worst possible kind of materialism. You make a lot of money. You spend it. And then what? You still feel funny when you go to sleep. You still wake up. You still have a chill when you think about dying and the void. Don't you?” (Times Calendar 11/10/91).

Jesus warns: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matt 6:19-20)

Some people are wealthy and some are rich. The wealthy are those who have money in their pockets, bags or banks, but the rich are those who have God in their hearts, minds and lives.

Jesus is the greatest model of riches. Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor 8:9). In 1 Tim 6:17-19, Paul charged the rich in the world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. The only lasting riches for the coming age, Paul continued in verse 18, is to be rich in good deeds, using the same word as Jesus did at the conclusion of the parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:21).

Conclusion: Money is a false sense of security. Life is a roller coaster with its ups and downs. Are you the biggest fool in not preparing to give a credible account of yourself before God? People do not usually think that life will bottom out until it is too late. Are you a fool with money as the first thing on your mind and eternity the last thing? Are you a fool who gratifies the wants of the body but neglect the needs of the soul? Is your life all about acquisition and no attribution? Are you the fool who does not recognize one’s Creator, Savior and Lord?

Small Group Discussion
1. What is greed? What are the advantages and disadvantages of accumulating wealth?
2. Is the rich man a hardworking man? How and where did he get his money (v 16)?
3. Is the man surprised or calm at his sudden wealth ( v 17)? What does his reaction tell you?
4. If you suddenly gain or inherit a million dollars, how do you plan to use the money?
5. How do you describe the rich man’s mentality and what is wrong with it (v 18)?
6. What are the words associated with time in the passage (vv 19-20)? Are the words like or unlike each another, and why?
7. Why is the man considered a fool in God’s eyes (v 20)?
8. God said, “Who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (v 20) Apply the same question to yourself.
9. Does wealth changes a person’s worth? If so, how?
10. How is a person rich towards God? What are the things you have or you’ve done that count or matter in eternity before your Creator?


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