Luke 12. 13-21 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
When I was a kid every fall a toy catalogue would arrive in the mail. That was one of the most exciting days of the year, because back then we couldn’t drool over every new toy on the internet any time we liked. Our lust was concentrated through thrilling TV commercials and glossy catalogues (some of you remember a time before that, laying on your belly in the living room, ears bent toward radio commercials promising the toy that would change your life). When that catalogue turned up I’d get out the pen and start circling. Maybe I could save up for this. Maybe I could ask for that. Just imagine how great my life would be if I could get my hands that action figure or the new Batmobile. The possibilities were mouth-wateringly endless. That catalogue was my kid treasure map to happiness. Today, I’d like to say I’ve evolved, but as Wordsworth wrote, “the child is the father of the man”, though the stakes are higher now of course. Toy catalogues have been replaced by car leases, competitive interest rates, the dream of a comfortable retirement. Just imagine how great my life would be if I drove that or lived there. Just imagine if I could secure that future, get in that financial position. The treasure maps don’t disappear as we age, they just tempt us with heavier treasure chests.
Full disclosure: talking about money in church can be awkward, I think for a couple of reasons. First, money is a sensitive subject. It’s close to heart, maybe closer than we like to admit. As much as we’d like to think we’re cool and disconnected about money, we’re not. In fact most of us are private, maybe even insecure about it. Why? Because money matters. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that our basic psychological needs are directly connected to material provision. We need food, water, warmth, rest, security – and only a few of those things grow on trees. So whenever we talk about money in any setting, we’re talking about stuff that hits deep. I once heard a research study state that the two main stressors in most marriages are finances and in-laws (surprise). It’s interesting that many of the characters in the gospel of Luke who experience Jesus’ generosity react by getting generous themselves. When the heart opens, so does the wallet. In that sense, Luke’s gospel is another example in scripture of how fragile hearts and financial holdings are intimately connected.
Another reason we get nervous about money talk in church is because we think the church might want our money, and we worry that the evil side of capitalism has infiltrated this sacred space. Maybe religion is no different than the rest of the world, willing to use any tactic to drum up more cash. When money comes up in church we feel like saying “don’t drag God into this”. And I think we rightly get skittish when the “biblical” teaching comes out, telling us that if we do this with money then God will do that. Which connects to a third reason we get nervous about money talk in church which is that sometimes religious groups haven’t been generous like Jesus, or worse, they’ve been unintegral or corrupt. And that’s damaging because Jesus’ followers are meant to act above board, and grow in generosity. So there’s three good reasons never to talk about money in church. On the other hand, we’re all here because of Jesus, and Jesus talks about what we find in Luke chapter twelve, for example: money, worry and trust. And when we listen to Jesus we learn it’s healthy to be open about money and our hearts. Awkward, but healthy.
A couple of thoughts before we get into the passage. As a church we want to make sure to hear Jesus in scripture clearly and do our best not the muddy the water. What I mean is, our time in scripture is about formation and growth, and not about Living Water’s bottom line. Whenever a church muddies the water between what Jesus is saying, then leveraging that towards a motivation to give to that specific church, it’s not always wrong, but it has a tendency to go sideways. That said, any true Jesus community is a participatingcommunity, and it’s perfectly right to talk about financial participation in a local church, just as other ways we participate through serving one another. Church is not all consumption, it’s also contribution. If we didn’t contribute together, sharing our time, gifts, energy and even our financial resources, we wouldn’t be and couldn’t be a healthy community. So it’s also important to say that over the next few weeks we are taking time to share some resources and invitations, just while we’re on the subject. We’re opening a workshop to help deal with our finances as Christians; we’re going to hear an update from our treasurer about LWC’s financial best practices because when we give we want to be confident that our gifts are honoured and stewarded wisely, and we take that seriously; and we’re going to point toward more resources coming in the fall. We’re doing all that because a local church’s job, in part, is to equip us for life with Jesus in the real world. We don’t want to say “this is what Jesus has to say about money and worry and trust” and not make room for the very practical questions that draws out.
So, getting into our text today, returning to that thought about our psychological and physical needs and the connections between money and the heart. Maybe Jesus talks about money and worry and trust becausehe knows us deeply and what keeps us up and night. Or maybe, as in this passage, we’re so obsessed with money and possessions Jesus has to talk about it because we keep bringing it up!
Frist, it’s worth noting Jesus has just told his disciples to beware the hypocrisy of the religious elite, and as Rikk drew out before Easter, hypocrisy has it’s roots in fear. We’re hypocritical because we care about esteem, concerned more with human opinion than God’s opinion. So Jesus tells his disciples to always side with God and live with integrity, rather than worry about what others think, and if that is going to land them in hot water, to trust God will give them what they need when the going gets tough – the gift of his Holy Spirit. In a sense, trust God to give you what you need. That’s where we ended off before Holy Week. Right after, as we just heard, Luke turns our attention to Jesus’ interaction with this massive crowd. And the first demand on Jesus from the crowd is a question about money.
“Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me”. A couple of thoughts. It’s likely this inheritance question had something to do with real-estate, and that this question is coming from a Jewish person, for whom real-estate was desperately important in first century Palestine. That land was supposed to be promised land, the land God had given the Israelites. So what happens when you don’t get a slice of it? What happens if you can’t be buried on the land? What does that mean for God’s promise and your cultural history and future? These are still complex questions we’re facing in the Near East two millennia later – real-estate and religion – as in other places too. What does an inheritance matter? It matters because security matters. Culture, history, a sense of identity matters. Given those very high stakes, Jesus’ response is strange. “Man, who appointed me a judge or arbiter between you?” We could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus doesn’t sound all that interested in the question, because he can’t mean he has no right to speak to the matter (if he’s walking around forgiving sins then this problem should be a walk in the park). So it seems more like a lack of interest in being dragged into a financial family feud, and so he responds by speaking to the issue behind the issue. “Watch out! Be on your guard against every kind of greed…” Someone wants to talk about money and Jesus starts talking about motivation. It’s similar language we’ve just heard from Jesus to his disciples, to watch out for hypocrisy. So we have two consecutive stories of Jesus warning his disciples about hypocrisy (again, very connected to fear), and then a warning about the dangers of greed, which we’ll see later also have connections to fear.
Let’s pause for a moment. It’s important to note here that Jesus isn’t warning of the dangers of money, but of greed. And as we know greed can grow in poverty or affluence. So this is not a condemnation of the rich, but an insight about trust. This is about the orientation of human hearts. We cannot love God and money, Jesus says elsewhere, we can only serve one master. He adds here in this story, “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions”, or maybe you’ve heard the more clichéd version, “the best things in life aren’t things” (ironically stitched into a fifty-dollar pillow). Jesus moves on to one of his provocative stories.
Luke 12.16-21 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ “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?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
The story is simple but nuanced. A man does so well that he sits back on his mound of resources assuming he’s secure. The image of Scrooge McDuck comes to mind here. But the point is not just that the man has grown greedy, it’s that he feels set, acts self-sufficient, presumes he’s got years of comfort ahead of him. But he isn’t set. Turns out he hasn’t got years. No matter how much grain, no matter how much savings, his life and death are not entirely under his control – he will die. Just as, spoiler alert, everyone dies. So Jesus’ answer to the inheritance question about wanting a slice of the pie is that you can end up with more pies than you can count, and you’ll still have a death problem which you can’t solve.
Just thirty yards behind me are hundreds of graves. Death is literally just around the corner. Sometimes we’re forced to think about it, and sometimes we do everything we can to avoid thinking about it. The pharaohs built pyramids in the attempt to manifest immortality; monarchs colonized and controlled global trade; and today the billionaires build rocket ships and (probably) cryochambers. Everyone wants to feel secure. Everyone is scared spitless of death. Everyone is trying desperately to placate that fear by getting their hands on just enough to feel safe. But we’re not safe from death. I can circle all the toys in the catalogue, contribute to more RRSPs than I can count, but my mortality is an unavoidable reality that when ignored causes me problems, to put it mildly. That willing ignorance is not bliss, but an anxious and dangerous delusion.
In the story Jesus tells, notice what God calls man who thinks he can secure himself. Not evil or wicked. Foolish. When we pretend we can grab enough to galvanize our security, when we obsess about money and inevitably grow greedy, we’re living foolishly. The Bible’s wisdom literature is full of this language. Ecclesiastes for example says, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless…” (5.10). What’s also of note here is that if this question is asked from the perspective of a first century Jew, Jesus is saying something pretty controversial. He’s saying that human security is not ultimately tied up land or resources. It’s tied up with trust in the creator. If Israel has taken it’s eye off the ball and is trusting their control of their surroundings, rather than YHWH, the God who put them there, things won’t go well. Which is the story we hear over again in Israel’s scriptures.
It’s important to say again, it’s not that money is evil. It’s not that we shouldn’t earn or save or steward our financial picture – Jesus isn’t saying any of that. It’s just a reminder than none of that solves the problem of death, for us, or for those we pass our stuff down too. When someone goes, what do we have? We have questions and pain, and we just want to know that they’re safe and at peace. Yet all we’re told in scripture is that when children of God die, they are “with Jesus”, and that’s pretty much it. We’re asked to trust that everyone we lose are not lost to Jesus, and are safe in his hands. Because at the end of the day, that’s all any of us really have. If God is God, and we are merely a breath on the face earth, what’s the sense in letting our whole identity and life be shaped by the love of money and the delusion it will secure us? So when this man asks this question about inheritance, Jesus tells a story that takes it down to the bone. You want to talk about money worries? I know what really worries you, and you can’t buy or save your way out of the death problem. So don’t trust stuff.
So the nudge as we hear this today might be this: to relinquish the delusion of control of our surroundings, and instead to trust the designer and sustainer of our surroundings. Which, as it turns out, is very good news. It means Jesus’ people don’t have to scrap over land, and don’t drag one another into civil court to settle disputes. It means we can be generous with one another and our neighbours. Our security is tied up with Jesus, above and beyond, and that changes how we live and work and walk around in God’s good world. That doesn’t mean that financial crisis aren’t real, or that debt isn’t crippling, or that we’ll never worry about the balance of a bank account. We all live with those concerns. It just means that our humanity, our identity, our eternity isn’t defined by financial bottom lines. The stories in our society today are often opposite to that – that we’re defined by our financial security or prowess. Jesus says, rich or poor, that doesn’t define you.
So if our bottom line is looking pretty bad today, or looking pretty good – the invitation is not to consider ourselves overly secure or terribly insecure. The invitation is to let our attention on money take a back seat to that trust building relationship with the Creator of our entire material reality.
One of our core values at LWC is Generosity. Over the years what we’ve learned is that this value in the heart of our church makes a difference for those we give to as a church – people in need locally and globally. But it might make the biggest difference to us. We want to be generous because Jesus is generous and generosity takes trust. So our value of Generosity is about justice and practical need meeting, yes. But it’s just as much about discipleship to Jesus. It’s saying to him, “Jesus, I’m a bit of a damaged and worried human being. And I want to learn to trust you with the whole picture (including my hierarchy of needs).”
Jesus has so much more to say on this which we’ll be digging into over the few two weeks, especially about worry and anxiety and provision. These are really important words for us from Jesus. Worry can be crippling and so let’s stay open to what God has for us this next month. But for today, just one closing thought. If we find ourselves bent over the toy catalogue, drooling and lusting and obsessing, we’re only kidding ourselves. The pyramids are only a pile of rocks. Toys make terrible gods. Money is a bad master.
Coming back again to what we hear 1 John, “Little children, keep yourself from idols…”
Lord Jesus, we confess we often feel insecure.
We confess we worry and obsess over today and tomorrow.
Give us your Spirit, fill us from head to toe, and help us trust.
We hold open our money matters. Our past, our present, our future.
Heal our wounds. Help us out. Heap on the wisdom.
Remind us we are in your hands and give us peace.
In the generous name of Jesus, Amen.