As we look into the Gospel of Luke we first need to understand that this book was written by a gentile to an audience of mostly gentile Christians who had been taught already the truths of Christianity, yet were now being provided a written account by Luke to give certainty to the things they have heard and been taught. Luke is laying out for his audience an explanation on how the gentiles inclusion into God's kingdom and the rejection of Christ by the Jew, was in accord with God's divine plan. Luke's style of writing brings to life the vivid details of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ, as he makes a point to maintain unity within the gospel on Christ's work to seek and save the lost.
The immediate context of our passage this morning is found within Christ's final journey to Jerusalem. It is at the ultimate conclusion of this journey that Christ will face the cross. However, between chapters 9, where the journey begins and 19 where we find the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Christ is faced with opportunity after opportunity to confront his enemies, teach his followers, and disciple his disciples. One such opportunity is presented in chapter 11, beginning in verse 37.
Christ is invited to dine in the house of a Pharisee and when he did not wash before eating the Pharisee in all of his self-righteousness, showed astonishment at Christ lack of concern for the law. Yet Christ responded to the teacher and leader of the Jewish people by showing him and his lawyer friends that their righteousness was simply an act put on for the people and that even though their actions portray them as men of integrity, they are instead, selfish, arrogant, and guilty of burdening the people with requirements set up for man's approval and not God's.
As the scene unfolds we see Jesus leaving the house of the Pharisee surrounded by scribes and other teachers of the law pushing him harder on subjects of there own concern, pressing him and provoking him to speak on many things trying to catch him in something he might say. As the Pharisees and scribes continue to pursue Jesus, a larger crowd begins to gather and push in to see and hear what is being discussed.
As usual, Jesus does not avoid controversy, but taking advantage of this opportunity to teach his disciples and the crowd that had gathered around, Christ begins, in chapter 12, his teaching with a focus on the people he was just talking with, the Pharisees. These teachings of Christ, which are laid out as warnings against various sins begin with a warning against the leaven of the Pharisees. The leaven refers to the self-righteous hypocrisy lived out by the Pharisees and others like them. Outwardly the Pharisee displayed a life which carried on a great show of piety and holiness, but inwardly, where it really counts, Jesus refers to them as a dirty cup and their lives of so called holiness and devotion are laid bare for being the bacteria that is really was.
Leaven which is a bacteria that at first is very small and almost unnoticeable but gradually increases and spreads itself, lies covered and is not easily discerned as it grows, nor is its influence and effects observed; but in time, it infects and corrupts the whole lump. Jesus is comparing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and their self-righteousness to that of this bacteria. A bacteria that infects and corrupts the whole of men's principles and practices, and puffs and swells them up with a vain opinion of themselves. However, much like the end result produced by leaven, the effects cannot be hidden and so the lies and hypocrisy will be exposed. How unfortunate for those who did not head the warning and gave themselves over to the works based salvation taught by the Pharisees, the leaven will have done its work and the dough will be ready for the fire.
Jesus continues; after warning against the internal threat of infection by the self-righteous Pharisees, he now warns against the external threat of those who bring harm against the body. This is not a warning against the threat of harm so much as it is a warning against the fear of those that bring the harm. Fear is a powerful element in the world and can lead anyone who succumbs to it to stray from their purpose. So starting in verse 4, Christ warns his followers by making a distinction between this life and the next. He has been communicating that his followers are to be concerned about the threats of hypocrisy and self-righteousness within this life and how that should affect the way they live and serve God. However, on the other hand, the concern for physical threats, specifically brought about to deter the communication of the Gospel, should not be seen as threats at all, since the external harm to the body can only effect the body, not the soul, which does not end in this life but continues into the next.
Fear for physical harm and more so the fear for the ones who bring it, should not deter the follower of Christ, since those who bring harm have no effect over the hope of the believer, which is eternity with Him in heaven. So Christ's warning against fear is even more so a charge made to his followers to maintain a true perspective on what they should actually fear. Christ says in verse 5, "but I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who after killing has the authority to cast into hell." Thus making the distinction between the lack of power by those who bring physical harm and the endless power of him that controls eternity. Yet that endless power offers even more hope to the follower of Christ as Jesus explains in verses 6 and 7. The great and mighty God our Father has the authority over time and creation and yet still makes it his business to know the number of hairs on our head. He even gives specific attention to the small sparrows bought and sold in the market place for mere pennies. Yet Christ tells his followers, "Fear not, you are of more value." There is special attention given by God to man and it is offered here as hope to those who suffer for Christ and do not allow the distraction of physical harm and the fear it might bring to sway them from continuing their pursuits. Simply put, to fear God is to fear nothing else!
This is a key point to make as we continue up to our selected passage, since Christ makes an interesting and seemingly out of place statement in verses 8 through 12 about the consequences of acknowledging him or denying him. We can easily see that this statement is not out of place at all, but that Jesus knowing of the persecution he was going to face and also of the persecution of his followers, especially his disciples, makes a clarification of sorts on why his followers should not fear men. Knowing that they would one day have to make a stand for Him and face physical harm and even a similar death as he did, Jesus tells his disciples and the crowd that for them to deny him would result in him denying them. For them to curse the Holy Spirit, which most commentators agree refers to the denial of Christ as savior, could only result in the impending judgment coming due on a man guilty of sin. So Christ instructs the crowd that they should not fear men, but instead fear the consequences of denying him. And if you chose Christ, do not fear making that stand when persecution comes because, as already stated, you are valued by God and cared for by God and when that time comes for you to face your enemies and stand for your Savior, God will provide you with guidance on how to do so through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
- The Warning of Covetousness
So how does all this connect with our selected passage today? I propose to you this morning, the answer to that question is found in verse 20. God's opinion of the rich man is displayed to us in how he calls for his soul. There is no exclamation on a job well done, or a life well planed. God does not call the man by name or occupation, but simply calls him by "Fool!"
Christ has been laying out, up to this point, different warnings that the believer must show concern for as they have direct effects on how they should live their lives. The flow of the storyline so far has followed along the path of looking first at the immediate situation one might be involved in, such as dealing with the self-righteous ideology of the Pharisees, or the fear of harm that mortal man might bring, and then it moves out to look at the greater effect and consequence of not being aware of what is really going on. For example, to not be aware of the teachings and hypocrisy of the Pharisee is to follow it, by buying into their legalistic and works based salvation, and thus be lead straight into hell.
The warning of covetousness found here in our passage is no different. Although it starts off with what seems to be a simple request for help on the issues of an inheritance, it ends with the consequence of being deemed by God a fool! Christ, in this parable is drawing a comparison for his hearers between being rich with possessions, and being rich towards God.
The parable is introduced in vs. 13, after a man in the crowd requests Christ's help in dealing with the man's brother and their inheritance. The request by the man for help points to two issues, one is that the people did not see Christ as the messiah in the sense that he was, but instead as man who would fill the role of judge and arbitrator over the people similar to Moses' role over the Israelites. The second issue is the selfishness of the man who requested help. The request points towards a distinct selfishness on his part since it was customary at that time for the older son to receive a double portion of the inheritance, yet all sons would receive a part as well. This man was not content to receive his portion, but wanted more then what his inheritance would provide.
Christ responds to the man by first telling him, specifically, that he is not concerned with such issues. Then Christ turns to the people and gives them all a warning against covetousness, and against the idea that what you have defines who you are. So a warning against wanting as much as you can get and putting the wrong value on what you have.
As our parable unfolds, it reveals three points of reference in regard to the comparison between being rich with possessions, and being rich towards God.
- The Rich Man's Problem (vs. 17)
The first point of reference is the Rich Man's Problem found in verse 17 with the abundance in which the rich man had earned. He was obviously very good at what he did and was reaping the benefits of that job well done. There is nothing wrong with this! God gives each their gifts and abilities and expects us to use them the best we can. This man was no different. He had a skill and put it use and produced a crop that Christ calls, "plentiful." He was a success! He had goals and put his mind to it and reaped far more than he had expected.
However, he now had a problem. Since he had far exceeded his goals and expectations, the result of the crop he just reaped was also far beyond his ability to store it.
This is like those that might have their own garden! Friends of our have a small but plentiful garden in their backyard where they grow different vegetables. They produce more than they need so they are faced with an issues as to what to do with what they are not going to use. It’s a simple issue of what to do with the abundance one has.
The rich man was left with an amount he could not protect or in his mind immediately use and was perplexed as to what he should do with what his hands had produced.
Notice the absence of concern for what God had done or would want him to do.
- The Rich Man's Decision (vs. 18 & 19)
The second point of reference is the Rich Man's decision found in verses 18 and 19. The man was faced with an issue of over abundance, which of course is not in and of it self bad, although it could be argued as a sin, however, in this case, the amount he had was not the issue. We could even go as far as to say that his decision was not wrong either in his desire to build bigger barns to store the crop he had just reaped. The problem however, is one we cannot condone and one that Christ is drawing out to show a sinful mindset among men.
If the man had decided to build his barns to store his goods until he could sell them to others, that would be fine. If he was doing it so he was able to begin giving it away to those who needed it, even better. But as we can see in verse 19, his intentions were to keep it. But not only was he keeping it, he was putting all his faith in that abundance to fully satisfy life's needs. The rich man was making the decision to find comfort, peace, safety, protection, and continued care in material items which do not have the power or authority to do any of what he thought he found.
This brings to mind a commercial I saw the other night produced by the investment group ING. The commercial has everyone walking around carrying their investment balances almost like an accessory to what they are wearing that day. You see in this commercial all types of people involved in all types of situations but in the end they all give a little smile and a look at that balance and show a sign of relief, as they realized all their problems and responsibilities are not to be worried about because of their retirement account balance.
The rich man's 401k has been filled up and now he was ready to forget his calling and purpose in life, retire and give himself over to the laps of luxury and debauchery.
However, like all those people in that commercial, when the end comes, only then will the true value of their investments will be made clear.
- The Rich Man's Consequence
The third point of reference is the consequence of the Rich man's decision which we can see in verse 20. What is not implied here in this parable, is whether this man was destined for heaven or hell. However, it is clear that God did not consider what he did with his life to be the actions of a wise and God fearing man. This is again not a matter of having an abundance of something, but is instead a matter of what value is put on that abundance. God calls the man a "fool" because the man chose to put his possession in a place they didn't belong. He, like all of us, was given the opportunity to serve God with the riches he had been given, yet he horded them and in the end wasted them.
This is a hard thing to swallow for us since we live in such a materialistic society. Possession are important to us.
For example, my grandfather is phenomenal painter and to have one or more of his painting in our house is delight and absolute pleasure. Yet the joy that those paintings bring to our lives fail in comparison to what joy we could have by gaining what Christ calls in verse 21 richness toward God.
- A Wise Investment
Christ tells his listeners as he brings to conclusion the parable, that the ones who invests in this life with the sole purpose of making life easy or diverting the need to fulfill God's purpose are nothing more than a "fools." They have invested poorly!
To have possessions is not wrong just like having a retirement account is not a sin but having those things be what defines us, or drives us, or protects us is not only sinful, but robs us of the blessings we could reap from finding those things in God.
By way of application, we as Christian should naturally desire to be rich towards God. Yet how do we fulfill that desire?
I suggest this morning that to be rich towards God is to be poor towards self. We cannot find our purpose, our safety, our comfort or our future in what we have done or in what we own. We know that we are dependant on God for all things and we know all things come from him yet we fail at acting on it and fail at letting God show us his faithfulness.
To be rich towards God is acknowledge that who we are and what we have are to be used for one purpose, to serve Him. In giving ourselves over to be used of God we experience an investment made on our part by God and truly develop wealth that will last both in this life and in the next.