There are two ways that wealth and possessions can become a problem. So far we have thought about the first: the race to accumulate as much as you can. But there are also times when we worry that we will not have enough. Leon Morris expressed it like this:
Wealth can represent a danger to those who do not have it as well as to those who do.
Or, to put it another way, in the words of Greek scholar W.F. Arndt:
Greed can never get enough, worry is afraid it may not have enough.
Either way – whether you are being defined by your possessions and accumulating as much as you can, or whether you are being distracted by your lack of possessions – money has got you.
There are actually two applications of Jesus’ story about the rich farmer. We have looked at the first: it is a warning about greed.
It is easy to miss the second – if we stop at the end of the rich man’s story.
It is introduced by the word therefore in verse 22: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious….” Preachers used to say that whenever you see the word therefore you need to ask what it is there for! It is a linking word. Jesus has taught that a person’s life does not consist in having an abundance of things. He has reinforced and illustrated that point with his story. From verse 22 he spells out the implication of his teaching to his own disciples.
Since life consists of more than material things, he wants them to be free from anxiety about them, not to worry that they will not have enough.
It is important not to be glib about this. Issues of poverty and hunger are huge. We live at a time of global recession, rocketing population growth (we are about to welcome the seven billionth resident to the planet), displaced people and famine: too many people do not have enough. There are people for whom anxiety about material things does not mean wondering whether they might have to cut back on a second vacation next year if they are going to be able to afford to refit the kitchen and complete the extension; their concern is whether or not they will have enough to eat.
It would be wrong to talk “don’t worry about what you will eat” without acknowledging this problem. It is a problem which represents a major challenge to world governments, but Western followers of Jesus cannot simply dump the problem on the desks of government officials; we would do well to think these issues through, perhaps particularly from the perspective of the story of the Good Samaritan. We live in a global village. How many times do we choose to pass by on the other side of the street?
However in the context of Jesus’ story in Luke 12, his application is narrower. He is speaking to his disciples. their lives are to be focussed on seeking God’s kingdom (verse 31) and not on the accumulation of wealth. Unlike the rich farmer, they are to be rich towards God.
But what if being rich towards God means they end up not having enough for themselves? What will they eat? Where are they going to buy clothes? They too need to know that life is more than the material. If that realisation is meant to discourage greed, it is also meant to discourage anxiety. Greedy people leave God out because they are too busy defining themselves by what they can accumulate; anxious people leave God out because they do not trust him to take care of them.
In the era of supermarkets that never sleep whose aisles are loaded with a bewildering array of all that we need materially, from cabbages to computer accessories, it is easy to live without God. What we eat comes from the shop. Before it got to the shop there was someone in a factory busy processing and packaging what would eventually make its way to the shelves. Before that there was a farmer who planted and harvested. Most of us probably don’t think that far. How many of us stop long enough to the God without whom the farmer would have no harvest?
As Jesus said on the occasion of his temptation, quoting from the Old Testament,
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
We are not what we eat! There is more to us than food and clothes. There is more to life than what we have. Where the greedy person claims that it is material things that give life meaning, the anxious person cannot get beyond the idea that it is material things that make life possible. In actual fact it is God who makes life possible and it is God who gives life meaning.
There is a spiritual dimension because we live in a world that has been made by God and where God is sovereign.
Jesus points to ways in which a sovereign God takes care of his creation.
- You never see ravens building barns and storehouses, but God takes care of them.
- You never see a lily with a needle and thread, but when God clothes the lilies they are more stunningly magnificent than Solomon ever was.
The point is that if God does that for them, then the disciples need to trust him to take care of them. After all, they (and we) are worth more than many birds. Our value does not come from what we have; it comes from the fact that God cares for us.
Not only does God provide food for the ravens, on one occasion in the Old Testament he even used ravens to provide food for his prophet, Elijah. He may not use ravens today, but many people can testify to the fact that he still provides, sometimes in surprising ways.
Jesus then goes on to talk about the issue of anxiety. There is a place for legitimate concern. But there comes a point when legitimate concern crosses a line and becomes distracting anxiety. There are things that we can do nothing about; anxiety will not help us. Anxiety will not add an inch to our height or an hour to our life (it might take an inch from our height as we carry the world’s weight on our shoulders, and it might take an hour – or years – from our life as we put our systems under extra strain); and it will neither feed nor clothe us.
Jesus is not trying to encourage laziness. Even the ravens have to gather what they eat.
We have several trees in our garden. Birds flock to one of them where my wife has attached a supply of nuts and grains for them to eat. Under God, she is providing for them. But the birds have to come and fetch what is available. It does not drop out of the sky into their nests.
Similarly God has ordained work.
Jesus’ point is not to free us from the need to work, but to free us from the need to worry. As he calls his disciples to seek God’s kingdom, he knows that worry about material things could be a distraction. So he asks them to trust God. Materialism defines many people who do not know God; Jesus wants his followers to be different.
They are not only to be different in the way they trust God to provide for them because they know that life is not just material; they are different because instead of accumulating for themselves, they give to the needy (verse 33). This is the kind of investment that brings a guaranteed return in the kingdom.
The conclusion comes with this challenging statement:
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
There is a connection between treasure and the heart. Where are your attention and affection drawn? To the car parked in your garage? To your portfolio of shares? If that is where your heart is drawn, that is what you truly value.
Someone once said that when a biographer sets about the task of evaluating the character of the person he is writing about, once of the first things to be done is to examine the stubs of that person’s cheque book. How a person handles money and possessions says a great deal about what they really believe about life, about what really matters, about what has true value.
When the farmer faced his dilemma and wondered what to do, the way he answered his own question revealed what kind of man he was. He was a greedy man. He was isolated from and insulated against everyone else. He lived without any reference to the God who had given him everything.
The question is not so much about what possessions you hold, but whether those possessions (or even their lack) hold you.