4 August 2013Luke 12:13-21
"And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’" (v. 15)
"Your life isn't measured by the abundance of your possessions." It seems like an obvious statement. We know that life is more than the things we own. And yet never in human history have so many people needed to hear and take on board that message. We live in a world where hope-destroying, life-threatening poverty infects billions of people at one end of the spectrum, and where a similar number are striving for bigger homes, more cars, more luxurious and comfortable lives at the other end. In a Western context, so many have been taken in by the fallacy that possessions and money will bring happiness, that they devote their lives to increasing their 'quality of life', often at the expense of … real quality of life. Working lives can be so frantic that many in this generation won't reach the retirement they live for: their stressed-out bodies just won't last that long. If money is meant to bring happiness, why does it make you so miserable earning it? Gone are the days of living within your means; here is the era of permanent debt, abundant possessions, and the mortgaging of our sanity. Oh, and this attitude is most probably why our economic structures and systems are collapsing around us.
That's the context I find myself in. But what about our Bible passage?
This passage from Luke's Gospel takes place in a very different economic climate. At the start of chapter 12 (Luke 12:1) we read of crowds of thousands trampling one another to hear Jesus' words. They were hungry for the wisdom and healing he had to offer. They were mostly also (like so many societies today in parts of the world) living from day-to-day with just enough to survive, simple homes, nothing in the bank, one spare shirt at best, no social security, and the prospect of destitution hanging over them - if illness or injury were to fall on the main earner in the family. In addition, Jesus was supported by several wealthier benefactors, and there are several examples of richer and more influential people making themselves known to him and seeking his help. Such people would have been present in smaller number in this vibrant and diverse crowd, as well as the influential Pharisees looking to trip him up. Jesus had just been talking to those nearest to him about the value of human life in God's eyes - and instructing them not to be afraid even when his challenging kingdom-message reaches the ears of those who would threaten their lives (verses 4-7).
Out of the crowd stepped a man seeking justice in a family dispute over the inheritance of some land. For the Jewish people, land was a sacred thing, and an important part of what they saw as God's covenant relationship with them. It was also essential for economic security, where farming was the main source of income. We don't know the details of the dispute but (despite there being plenty about inheritance already given in the Jewish law) Rabbis were often brought in to adjudicate where there was controversy. Jesus gave an abrupt response - he doesn't see himself as a judge of petty property squabbles - but he also took the opportunity to engage the crowd further with a parable, lifting hearts and minds beyond the material to the eternal.
There was once a man who had lots of land and did well for himself. So well, in fact, that he couldn't use all the crops he produced, and had to build bigger barns to save it all up. This was his retirement fund. And like many who long for retirement, his motto was to be: "Put your feet up. Eat, drink and be merry." He thought he had it made, but he forgot that life itself is a gift of the Sovereign God. In his prosperity and selfishness (notice, it's "my" this and "I" that), he was not "rich toward God" (v. 21). Careful readers of Luke's Gospel would have spotted that, in his self-indulgence, the man was not "loving his neighbour" like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), nor was he relying on God for his "daily bread" as Jesus instructed us to pray (Luke 11:1-4).
So God comes into the story and informs the man that he's about to die. No long retirement after all. And God inquires: what will happen to all those stored-up possessions? Who will get them? The answer, Jesus is probably implying, is that they'll most likely be squabbled over by his children! The more you leave behind, the more there is for your descendants to argue about! Maybe the man in verse 13 would be better off finding out what Jesus is really there for.
- There is a powerful, life-changing message in Jesus' teaching on personal finances and economics. It is primarily about trusting in God, and not letting worry over material things destroy our happiness. How easy is it to ignore it, if the prevailing wind of society is so strong?
- John Wesley summarised his attitude toward money like this: "Gain all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can" (with the emphasis being on the latter, as the purpose behind the first two). How would you summarise the attitudes to money in your life, your family, or your society?
- What are you looking forward to about retirement? And (if you're already retired) is it as good as you thought it would be? What are the really important things in life, whether you're working or not?
- What do our churches have to offer those who are in serious economic hardship today?