READ : Luke 12:15
Then to the people he said, “Beware! Be on your guard against greed of every kind, for even when someone has more than enough, his possessions do not give him life.”
Luke 12:15 REB
The voice from the crowd was strident, demanding, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” That must have been jarring for Jesus to hear. He had just been telling the people how precious they were in God’s sight, how important it was to confess Him before men, and how the Holy Spirit would help them in their witness. This man in the crowd seems to have heard nothing of all that. He was concerned about something quite different: his family inheritance. He wanted his share. He told Jesus to get it for him. “Tell my brother to pay up!”
Maybe he was the younger brother when the whole patrimony went to the first born. He could still live on the family estate, still eat at the family table, but no part of it belonged to him. That galled him. He aimed to contest the will, forcing his brother to give him half. He wanted Jesus to be his lawyer, or better, a presiding judge.
The Lord declined to take the case. That was not His mission in the world. “Friend,” He replied, “who set Me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” As though to say, “Why are you asking this of Me?”
This man was not the last, I suppose, who tried to recruit Jesus for his own agenda, not the last who tried to make religion a means of gain. And he was surely not the last to be unhappy over an inheritance he didn’t get.
Now Jesus seizes the occasion to say something to the crowd, to all of us. Listen. I’m reading from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 12, verse 15,
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” (NRSV).
THE DRAGON OF GREED
The Lord sensed the danger to which this petitioner was vulnerable. He wanted to warn him and the rest of us about the dragon of greed, the consuming passion to get things for ourselves. And He used the moment to say something powerful about the meaning of life.
When are we really living? I met just last week the widow of a friend of mine. I knew him when I was a pastor in New Jersey. He was a man of the laboring class, full of faith. One day he and his partner went to do some work at a local estate. As they drove up the curving driveway, past acres of manicured lawn, by the tennis courts, the gardens, the stables and saw the gleaming limousines in front of the mansion, my friend’s associate offered wistfully, “That’s the life.” My friend said something in reply that I’ve remembered all these years. I’ll tell you about it later.
I guess that’s what the man in the crowd believed too. The people who are “really living” are the ones who have money enough to buy everything they want and have plenty left over. They can indulge every taste, sample any pleasure. They’re the folks who can own several homes. They can sail yachts, sell companies, buy professional sports teams. They really live, don’t they?
We may say a quick no to that. We may say that money can’t make people happy. But most of us would like a chance to find that out for ourselves, wouldn’t we? Something in all of us responds to this siren song: “Happiness means having it all.”
Isn’t that what most of the ads you see and hear are saying? “Smoke this and you’ll be cool.” “Drink this and you’ll be one of the boys.” “Wear this and you’ll be irresistibly appealing.” “Buy this and your life will be complete.” That’s the creed that also drives the monstrous machine of the lottery. If you can only win it big, you’re told, then you’ll start to live. And without really being aware of that mentality (because we’re so immersed in it, I suppose), we all begin to look at things in somewhat that kind of way.
Then we open our Bibles. Then some word like this one Jesus spoke goes like an arrow to our hearts. “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” There it is: having and happiness are not the same. You can’t get life from a lottery.
That ought to be obvious. Ask the super-rich if the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow turned out to be all they thought it would be. If you could really talk with them about their lives, they might tell you sobering, even saddening things. No one who pursues riches, expecting joy from them, ever gets what he’s after. That’s not to say that no rich people are happy. But those who are, usually are happy for other reasons than their wealth.
Here’s the simple truth, friends: Greed is always self-defeating. The more we crave, the less satisfaction we seem to find. If you’re looking for something to fill that big, empty place inside you, all the money in the mint won’t do it. We’re just not made that way. That’s not where we find real life.
THE TREASURE OF RELATIONSHIPS
Well, if that widely believed myth is not true, if our lives don’t consist in the abundance of our possessions, what do they consist in? What is our true life? Jesus doesn’t answer that directly here. But there are three hints in the passage that help me to grasp what real living is. First, it’s to have a strong, warm relationship with significant others, to be close to family and friends. Much of the richness of life lies in those primary human ties.
Remember that questioner in the crowd? He had a problem with his brother, and instead of working on it directly, he wanted some authority figure to intervene. Apparently, the matter of the inheritance had brought to light some distance and dissension within the family.
Have you noticed how often that happens in connection with the last will and testament of a deceased person? How we are remembered by a parent has enormous emotional power in our lives. In our eyes, that bequest brings to final expression how they really felt about us, how much we meant to them.
If another of the children, a more distant relative or an outsider, is remembered more generously than we, that’s hard to take, isn’t it? Sibling rivalries surface on those occasions. Old wounds are sometimes reopened. And the bond between family members can be seriously damaged.
Maybe one member of the family has been appointed as the “executor” or “personal representative” of the estate. He or she has to make decisions about matters not specifically covered in the will. Strong feelings of the various family members may be involved here. Each member has to decide which is more important: things or persons, riches or relationships. If we see only our personal wants and run roughshod over the feelings of others, we may end up with more, but be poorer people in the long run. Is it worth it to win a financial advantage and lose a brother? Jesus says no. He warns us: Watch out for greed because it can rob you of some of the greatest treasures in your life: other people.
LIVING AND GIVING
Here’s another clue to the life that is life indeed. It comes not so much with getting as with giving. Jesus followed up these words we’ve been thinking about today with a story. We call it “The parable of the rich fool.” Listen:
The land of a rich man produced abundantly, and he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops.” And he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years. Relax, eat, drink, be merry.” God said to him, “You fool, this very night your life is being demanded of you and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.
Now here is one of the very persons Jesus had been talking about. He has abundant possessions. But as so often happens, prosperity made his life more complex than it was before. Wealth forces various new decisions upon us. The questions usually circle around how we will preserve our new gains. That was this man’s situation, “He thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’” He already had barns, and they presumably were full. There was no more room in his silos, so this presented something of a problem. Here was the solution he came to: “I will do this, I will pull down my barns and build larger ones and there I will store all my grain and my goods.”
In one sense, we can’t argue with his logic. His business has become a much larger operation. The fruits of it are more abundant than they used to be. The common sense solution is to build more and bigger barns.
What is strikingly absent here is any thought for the needs of others. “What should I do for I have no place to store my crops?” And this is about food. This is an inwardly focused decision. The man never gets outside the circle of self concern. For him the new wealth brings with it no impulse to share. He’s good at getting and keeping, but has no skill apparently in giving things away.
That’s part of the reason, I think, that we call him “the rich fool.” He thought that this conservation policy would make him happy. “I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years. Relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” What he didn’t realize is that the greatest joy of having much is the power to give much.
I know some wealthy people who are radiantly happy persons. Their happiness has little to do with what their money has been able to buy. It has a great deal to do with the opportunity wealth has placed in their hands to bless the lives of others. They do that thoughtfully, creatively, lavishly. And that’s real living, isn’t it?
One of the tragedies of extreme poverty is the way it leaves people with so little to give. Is it even more tragic when those who could do so much, do so little? They haven’t learned the meaning of their abundance. They haven’t discovered what their wealth is for. They’ve missed a beautiful chance at real life.
THE LORD IS OUR LIFE
Here’s the final hint. Real living means finding our happiness and security in God.
The fact that the rich fool didn’t think about others was related to an even deeper failure. He gave no thought to God. He never pondered who made the good earth or sent the sunshine after the rain. He never explored how it came about that he had such power to get wealth. He didn’t think to ask God for wisdom about how to use it. And here’s the worst part: He told himself that his bulging granaries would make him happy and secure. He imagined for himself an ideal life of ease, abundance, and merriment. And he was sure that it would go on indefinitely.
Do we see how subtly and powerfully wealth can become an idol, a substitute god? What is a person’s “god”? Isn’t it what he or she regards as the highest of all goods? Ask yourself these two questions: “What am I depending on in my life to make me truly happy?” And, “What am I relying upon to make my future secure?” Track down the answers to those and you’ll find the real object of your worship. There’s the treasure and trust of your life. There, whatever it may be, is your god.
But if that turns out to be full barns or a swelling stock portfolio, we’re in real trouble. Why? Because so-called gods like that can’t deliver. They can’t do for us what they seem to promise. One day God (the real God) will say to us, “You fool, this very night your life is being demanded of you and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Yes, and where will be the happiness and security you thought they would bring you? “So it is,” Jesus goes on, “with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Isn’t that a great phrase, “rich toward God”? That describes what real living is. You’re rich toward God when you’re rich in loving relationships, when you’re rich in generous giving, when you’re rich in knowing God and taking Him into account in all of life.
Remember the friend of mine I was telling you about? When his partner at work gazed over that palatial estate, he said, you’ll remember, “That’s the life.” My friend, more ready and more bold by far than I would have been, took issue with that. “No,” he said, “Jesus Christ is the life!” And you know, he was right!