Helmut Thielicke tells the story about a child who “had shoved his hand into the opening of a very expensive Chinese vase and then couldn't pull it out again. Parents and neighbors tugged with might and main on the child's arm, with the poor creature howling out loud all the while. Finally there was nothing left to do but to break the beautiful, expensive vase. And then as the mournful heap of shards lay there, it became clear why the child had been so hopelessly stuck. His little fist grasped a penny which he had spied in the bottom of the vase and which he, in his childish ignorance, would not let go.”
Is that what we are doing with our lives? Are we holding on to what is to us a treasure but which is in comparison worthless?
“Jesus talked much about money. Sixteen of the thirty-eight parables were concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing one out of ten verses (288 in all) deal directly with the subject of money. The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions.”(Howard L. Dayton, Jr.) Do you ever wonder why so much?
As we continue our study of Luke, we come to a passage which invites us to consider where our treasure is. Please turn to Luke 12:13-34 and let us see what Jesus had to say about our treasure.
The occasion to talk about treasure is provided for Jesus by a man who had a justice issue to discuss. Why did he come to Jesus? Well, Jesus had talked about justice as being a significant concern. In Luke 11:42 he accused the Pharisees of neglecting “justice and the love of God.” Jesus was sometimes called “Rabbi” which means teacher and it was not uncommon to ask rabbi’s to make judgements and decide difficult issues.
The answer of Jesus to the man’s question may seem somewhat insensitive to us. The man probably had a legitimate reason for making this request. His brother may have refused to give him his share. These kind of things happen, in fact when it comes to inheritance issues, a lot of strange things happen in sibling relationships. For Jesus to refuse to help him seems unfeeling.
Perhaps Jesus did not address his concern because that was not why he came to this earth. Jesus said to him, “who appointed me a judge between you?” But then as Jesus turned to the crowd, we see that Jesus had a deeper concern. He drove his words straight to the heart of the matter, and straight to our hearts.
He warned the man, the crowd and us against greed. What is interesting, however, is his definition of greed. He does not define greed as we would suspect. He does not define greed as an unreasonable desire for money which causes people to grasp for it in immoral and illegal ways. That is greed in its grossest form. He rather defines greed as the belief, the value that our life consists of our possessions. He says “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” With that statement, he got right to the heart of what greed is. It is not only doing something illegal, or something which hurts others, it is the belief that unless we have more, we will not be able to live. Jesus directly attacks what is our societies assumption of what is normal. U.S. News & World Report revealed a survey that indicated that the percentage of college freshmen who said they considered it an important goal to "become wealthy" was 74. Those who said it was important to "develop a philosophy of life" was 43. The man who came to Jesus made getting the inheritance his first priority. Getting stuff was the first priority of many people in Jesus day and nothing has changed for our day. Instead of finding value in life, relationships or God, most people find money to be their highest value. God’s judgement on that is revealed in Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5 which both identify greed as idolatry.
That this value should be revealed in the situation of an inheritance is not surprising. I have heard of many situations in which major family conflicts have occurred because of inheritance. I know of one situation in which a parent was in the old folks home. One of the siblings went to visit the father on a regular basis and over a period of time was able to persuade her father to give her money to buy a car. Later, when the father died and the inheritance was divided, that same person tried to get a larger portion of the inheritance. Needless to say, family relationships were completely broken.
As we listen to Jesus talk to the man, we are invited to evaluate our own hearts and ask, “where is my treasure?”
The parable that Jesus told applies this question to one side of the situation. The man described in the parable, was already a rich man. One year, this already rich man had a bumper crop. The yield was great, the quality was there, the price was good and the input costs had been low. I mean, he was thrilled that everything had worked out. In fact, for once, his crop was so good that he was considering the possibility that he would never have to work again. In terms we might use today, “he had arrived.” The only problem he had to deal with was adequate storage so that the elements would not destroy all his abundance. If he had adequate storage, he could simply live off the abundance and really enjoy life.
We might be tempted to think, “what’s the problem?” When we have, we want to make good investments. Why? Is it not so that we can “store up in barns and take life easy?” What is wrong with this? I do not think that Jesus was saying that it is wrong to have. I do not think that Jesus was saying that it is wrong to invest. I do not think that Jesus was saying that it is wrong to take good care of our investments. Then what is the problem?
In 1929 when the stock market crashed, many people lost a lot of money. We hear about people who committed suicide because of that crash. Why did they do that? They did it because their whole life, their security, their confidence was entirely wrapped up in their possessions. We fall prey to the same temptation very easily. There are commercials on television which talk about “Freedom 55.” The implication is that, if you invest wisely, by the time you are 55 years old you will have enough to live on securely for the rest of your life so that you will never again have to worry. What is the problem with that kind of thinking? It is the same kind of thinking that caused the devastation for people who experienced the crash of 1929. They relied on their money.
I started work when I was 25 and immediately I began to be part of a pension plan. Each year, I would get a report of how my pension plan was doing and most of the time I just put the papers in a file. One year, the plan performed particularly well and the investment gain was far more than the contributions I had made. That was the year I also realized how much money I already had in that account. Do you know what I thought at that point? I thought, “because I have a good pension plan, I will be OK when I retire.”
How easy it is for us to get to the place where our treasure is in the things we have. When that happens, we begin to have faith in our investments, bank account, pension plan or insurance company. Then we have made the same mistake as the man who wanted Jesus to divide the inheritance. We have made the mistake of thinking that our life consists in the abundance of our possessions.
The folly of such thinking is pointed out by Jesus in the parable. The rich man who thought “Take life easy for many years” did not realize that he had come to the end of his life. All his abundance which he so rejoiced about for his personal security would be distributed to all kinds of people who had not worked for it. He himself would not enjoy one part of it. His life was over.
Such is the folly of those who store up things for themselves and rely on them. The precious clothing we must have gets a stain that can’t be removed. We invest heavily in recreational equipment that we look forward to using for many years and develop injuries which prevent us from using it. We say to our soul, “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry” but then we die.
It is a serious question which we must ask ourselves if we have much. Are the things I have my treasure? Do I rely on them? Is my life wrapped up in them? What would happen if I would lose them? What will happen when I can’t enjoy the fruits of them anymore?
Now as soon as we have, we face the temptation to rely on what we have. How can we overcome that temptation? The solution to the temptation to placing our confidence in the abundance of our possessions is implied in verse 21 when it talks about being “rich toward God.”
But before we look at the solution, let us look at things from the other side.
Not everyone has so much that they are susceptible to the temptation to rely on possessions. For many people there is the exact opposite problem. For many people, they don’t know if they will have enough for the next meal, or the rent next month or enough to have a comfortable lifestyle in retirement. In that condition, the temptation becomes to worry.
The root of the problem is the same, but it comes at us from the other side. Instead of relying on wealth because we have it, we desire wealth so that we can rely on it. Since we don’t have that security, we are worried. If we worry, what does that say about where our faith lies? Once again, Jesus uses the same phrase as in verse 15. There he said, “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. Here, in verse 23, he says, “Life is more than food and the body more than clothes.” What does it mean that our life is more than possessions, more than what we eat and drink? When our worry is focused on food and drink, or enough possessions, things begin to take precedence over God and people. The material grabs our attention and we forget that there is more to life. As a result, we are willing to grasp at our brother’s inheritance because we don’t care about destroying the relationship we have with him. We are willing to take advantage of someone not thinking that our action will destroy our witness. How many people have turned away from Christ because they have met Mennonites who have made shrewd business deals and forgotten the soul of the people they have taken advantage of. Furthermore, life is much more than possessions because it is lived in the full view of God. When we focus on our possessions, we forget about God. What Jesus was doing here was inviting us to depend on God instead of on what we have. Life is more than what we see, life is about a relationship to God who, as Jesus goes on to say, will take care of us.
We are afraid to stop depending on what we have because we are afraid that if we don’t worry about it, who will. Jesus assures us that God will. Twice Jesus gives us the promise of his provision. First of all, he points to the ravens. Now it is interesting that he uses a raven as an illustration, because ravens were unclean birds. This useless bird, on the economic scale, despised by God as unclean, is nevertheless provided with food by God. If this lowest of the birds is cared for by God, what makes us think that we will not be cared for by God. It becomes an issue of faith. Do we believe that God is caring for us.
A similar illustration occurs in the next paragraph. Look at the lilies of the field. They spend little time providing for their beautiful look. There are several interesting things to note. This isn’t about survival, it is about clothing, not just clothing to have something to cover ourselves, but clothing that looks good. We know this because he refers to a lily. A lily has little value to produce anything. It’s greatest value is simply that it looks good. Furthermore, its value is extremely temporary. It blooms for a little while and then it is destroyed. If God creates such things as flowers and arrays them in ways that are more attractive than the best clothing that the richest man in the world has ever worn, won’t he look after more than just our survival needs, but also bless us with the those things we need to make life a good thing?
So there is no need to worry, because God provides. But there is another reason why we do not need to worry. In verses 25, 26 the other reason is explained. Can you worry your life one inch longer? Why do we worry? We know very well that worry never adds to life. In fact, worry actually robs our life of time. One of the causes of heart disease is stress. What is stress? It is worry under pressure. How useless this is! There is nothing more useless than worry. Not only does it not increase our life, which is our ultimate concern in engaging in it, it actually robs us of what we are trying to prolong.
Therefore, if our treasure is what we don’t have and feel we need, our temptation is worry. Jesus assures us that if we trust in God, we don’t need to worry.
The problem is similar. Whether we have or don’t have we face the powerful temptation to let our possessions be our treasure. So the question we need to ask ourselves is, “where is my treasure?” If we rely on our possessions or if we worry, then our possessions are our treasure.
How do we overcome this temptation? Already in verse 21 the solution was stated. In verses 31-34 it is explained.
The answer is to be generous towards God. That means first of all that God needs to be our treasure. This is perfectly clear from many parts of the text, however, in verse 31 it is explicit when it says, “But seek first his kingdom.” In verse 34 it says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We know that our hearts must be focused on God, that seeking him is the true treasure which will satisfy every need and give us riches in eternity.
We know this and agree with it, but all of us also at the same time confess that we struggle either with relying on our possessions or worrying that we don’t have enough. We need a practical way in which to live the truth of seeking God and being rich towards God and having Him as the treasure of our heart.
The answer to this, the way to focus our treasure is generosity.
Why is generosity so important? It is important because each time we engage in a generous act, it helps us think through whether or not we trust God. If we trust God, then the confidence in God’s loving provision frees us to be generous.
Think about this. All of us put money away for the future. Perhaps in a savings account, in investments, in RRSP’s or in Pension Plans. We understand the value of doing without now so that we can have something later. But what will happen to that money? Perhaps we will never get to use it? Perhaps our children will inherit it and squander it? Perhaps investments will fall even further and the next thing you know we will have too little to live on. There is no guarantee that we will ever enjoy these investments.
Now, if we could find an investment that would guarantee that it would be there when we need it, that would guarantee a rate of return that could not be rivalled elsewhere, that would promise for certain that we would be able to use all of it fully and that would not be eroded by anything, how many of us would not put as much as we possibly could into that investment?
There is such an investment. It promises that nothing will erode it, it will not be destroyed, it will not wear out, well let us read about it in Luke 12:33 in The Message, “Get yourselves a bank that can’t go bankrupt, a bank in heaven far from bank robbers, safe from embezzlers, a bank you can bank on.”
How do we invest in that bank? Generosity! Luke says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven.” When it speaks of generosity, I do not think it is only generosity in giving alms. I think it is talking about a whole life generosity. Yes it is a generosity that gives to the poor, like the time I saw a needy person filling up the car with gas, and someone else spontaneously paid for it. But it goes beyond that and includes a generosity that is willing to say to other family members when the inheritance is divided, “you take what you want first.” It means a generosity that is willing to say, “I am willing to pay the price you ask so that you can stay in business.”
By living with that kind of generosity, what do we do? It looks like money lost, it looks like investment decline, it looks like there is less in our wallet, but it is not. It is putting money in the bank in heaven. It is investing in God Incorporated. The other thing that happens is that when we make investments in that heavenly bank, where is our treasure and where is our heart? Our heart is no longer focused on relying on our possessions, nor on worrying about whether we will have enough. Our heart is focused on God because He is holding our treasure. As a result, “The person whose treasure is in heaven can hold loosely to whatever treasures God has given him or her in this world.”
In the financial world, we frequently hear about audits. If you would do an audit of your life, your spending habits, your spiritual disciplines. What would that audit reveal about where your treasure is? As we consider a personal audit, let us remember that in the end, there will be a final audit of our life. What will that audit reveal?