Luke 12:13-15 “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ Jesus replied, ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?’ Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’”
He was preaching his heart out in the fields to a multitude of quietly listening people, and he had come to the climax of his sermon when he was pleading with men – in the light of what God has done for sinners – to turn from the sins that so easily beset them, to put their trust in Jesus Christ and find mercy in the Lord. How brief this life, how certain death, and after death there’s the judgment. There were even tears running down his face as he spoke, but then as he exhorted them he noticed on the edge of the crowd one man talking to another. He knew the man talking. He was a life insurance agent, and at that very moment he was trying to get the man next to him to buy an insurance policy from him – even as the preacher was preaching the gospel of the grace of God in sending his Son into the world to accomplish our redemption. “Take his forgiveness, it is free!” he was crying. “There’s nothing in your hand to bring; simply to Christ’s cross now cling.” And people were bowing their heads moved by the Christ who was rich yet for their sakes had become poor so that they through his poverty might become rich, but still this salesman was earnestly speaking to the other on the edge of the congregation, distracting him from the message of the gift of eternal life in order to get him to buy life insurance.
Keep that picture before you as you read the words of our text. Jesus has warned his followers that they could be facing suffering times, but they were not to worry for there was the immense help of the Spirit giving them words to say when they are put on trial. “The Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say” (v.12) said Jesus, and it was at that time that a shout came from a member of the congregation, from a man not taught by the Holy Spirit, not a man on trial, not even a disciple but a man angry about a financial dispute with his brother concerning money! “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (v. 13). Those were the words he shouted out so that everyone heard. He had been listening to this great sermon of the Lord Jesus in the midst of this quiet, attentive audience, but it had made no impact on him at all. The only thing that mattered to him was getting his rightful share of the money. He was utterly obsessed with it. He was listening to one of the greatest speeches ever heard on this planet, the Sermon on the Mount, mind-blowing inspirational oratory of the first order, but in fact he’d heard nothing at all. He had this bee in his bonnet and it buzzed and buzzed around his brain so that he could hear nothing but, “My brother is cheating me . . . my brother is taking what should be mine . . . when will someone prevent my brother from behaving like this . . . when will I get some justice?”
How often when I pray my full and thoughtful prayer at the very beginning of our service do I pray one particular petition whose frequency might be a weariness to you all, that we should be given grace to disentangle ourselves from all the distractions and cares that we have brought to this place on the Lord’s Day. There may be other people in the congregation and we are disaffiliated from them. There is tension and a grievance. There are worries about money. There is someone who is taking advantage of us, and the devil will remind us of things like that the moment we arrive here so that we struggle to hear Jesus speaking to us, and we’ve lost our focus on the God whose praise we are singing. The wonderful words of life, and forgiveness, and God supplying all our needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus mean nothing to us because of such concern. People may say to one another afterwards, “What a wonderful sermon!” but it was not like that for us. We heard everything and we heard nothing because the Mount Everest problem we think we have, that our money is being stolen from us, was not addressed.
What would you think of a sudden shout in the midst of the sermon, “What about the credit squeeze and the government’s announcement of cutbacks?” What would you think of such interruptions as “What’s the price of gold today?”? Wouldn’t we put such men out? They’d deserve to be put out for law-breaking if not for insensitivity to the purpose of our gathering. What are their priorities? How humiliating that they were so saturated with thoughts of money that they rubbished even the words of Jesus as idle and irrelevant!
I remember an amusing man who was an after dinner speaker at Westminster Seminary. He began his speech by taking a gold watch out of his waistcoat looking lovingly at it and saying, “My father on his deathbed . . . sold me this watch.” It was quite appropriate for such an informal occasion and he later got serious, but we all could see the point of his words. There are people for whom throughout their lives nothing has mattered but money, and at the very end of their lives nothing has changed, though death is coming nearer and nearer with no possibility of escape. Still their chief concern on their death beds is the price of gold that day.
So this man shouted out and it was an ill-judged and boorish distraction. Had he cracked under the pressure of his fraternal dispute? He was certainly taking advantage of a crowd to broadcast abroad his troubles. It was totally out of keeping with the occasion. It was insensitive and rude, and love is never rude.
JESUS’ WOULD REFUSE TO ADDRESS SOME ISSUES.
Jesus said to him, “Jesus replied, ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?’” (v.14). Why this response? We can think of many reasons I’m sure:
i] There were authorities and structures already in place to take care of disputes like that. There was no need of our Lord to pass judgment on a matter which would receive fair and judicious resolution from wise men in the world. This was not his mission nor his church’s mission. Israel had a legal system for settling small claims.
ii] Again, there were more important themes for our Lord to deal with, how men can know God and enter his kingdom and receive eternal life; how those who have entered his kingdom should behave in love to one another. There was a Welsh missionary to India named Morgan and he was making a visit to the town of Meerut about 45 miles from Delhi. Today the population of that area is the same as the whole of Wales and Meerut city itself has a million residents. It was not so in Morgan’s day, and two men came out to meet him before he entered the community. They knew he was coming; they had heard him and admired him and trusted him; they asked him if he would settle a dispute between them concerning the boundary between the land each of them owned. “No,” he said, he would not become the judge of that matter as he knew so little about the dispute, but he told them that he did have something to say to them that would greatly help them. It was about the grace of God. He explained the gospel to them, how the Son of God had humbled himself, and made himself of no reputation coming to the world as a man and taking the role of a servant. He laid aside all his rights to save us, and those who follow him have to do the same. They deem others better than themselves. They humble themselves and they bear one another’s burdens; they go the second mile, they overcome evil with good. They are actually prepared to be taken advantage of, even to be ripped off and God gives each one of them special, persona divine resources, mighty grace in order to live like that. The two men with the dispute had never heard anything like those words and were greatly touched by the gospel and its consequences for their lives. They shook hands with one another, and they walked back to Meerut talking affectionately. That is why our Lord came.
iii] Again, how could our Lord give a judgment with just one of those brothers present? Things must not only be done properly, they must be seen to be done righteously. If two men are both Christians then they may ask for help from wise men, elders, or some sensible, trustworthy Christian leaders. Let them give advice, and let the men take that advice very seriously. Let the members of a congregation refuse to be drawn into the tension, and pass judgment, and take sides and start to criticize the Christian member whose advice has been sought and so split the congregation over a matter concerning which there is very little counsel in the Bible.
iv] Again, Jesus did not pass a judgment because God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved. One day he would stand in judgment over everyone for everything we’ve done, but the day of judgment has not yet come. First, the judgment of God must be passed on Christ himself as he hung on Golgotha’s cross in our guilt and condemnation, in our place. Then after the gospel of grace had been preached through the whole world the books will be opened and he will evaluate every life and separate mankind as a shepherd separates his sheep from his goats. That is to come; now his mission was to declare the redeeming mercy of God by his gifted servants, not to set up branches of the Citizen’s Advice Bureau – however worthy and necessary such an organization might be.
So our Lord refused to get involved and the blunt way he questioned this loudmouth showed how resolute was his opposition: “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” (v.14). The man had been uncouth, impertinent, with a gross view of our Lord’s mission in the world and a carnal spirit. He himself was appointing Jesus to become the judge of this matter. Jesus would not keep the appointment. Would that the professing church realized that it had no appointment from God to pass judgment on most political, cultural and judicial issues – wind farms, retirement age for state pensions, the space race, the wages of football stars, urban foxes, daylight saving time, judging choir competitions, Botox – we have nothing to say that is remotely interesting let alone specifically Christian on such matters as those. Who appointed us to be the judges or arbiters between men who argue about such matters? It is a dark comment on the impotence of the church that when archbishops preach on Christmas Day or Good Friday or Easter Sunday they constantly fail to deal with what God has given us in Scripture. They don’t explain the wonderful message of the incarnation or the atonement or the resurrection and call on people to repent and believe it and trust in Jesus Christ, but they will speak out on some social issue like job cuts and the economy of which Christians have nothing unique to say. False prophets! Such preachers betray their calling and frequently irritate and confuse people. Little wonder people have stopped going to church.
2. JESUS PROCEEDED TO WARN THEM ALL, ‘GUARD AGAINST GREED.’
So that is the scene, while Jesus was preaching there was at least one man in their midst, somebody’s brother, and his life was being eaten up by greed, but Jesus turned this outburst to his own advantage. He addressed the whole crowd, shocked and angered by this shouting, and he really laid it on them, warning them of the spirit of this man, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” (v.15). Remember, Jesus’ response was not an example of the quick wittedness of a master orator. No, this was the fulfillment of what Jesus has just been talking about that, “the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say” (v.12). So it has been for all the most notable evangelists when they have been heckled and interrupted then God has often worked it for their good. I was reading in John Wesley’s Journal this week what happened in Bath on Tuesday 5th June 1739 early on in the great 18th century awakening. Many had gathered to hear Wesley, and there was intense speculation as to what the most famous man of the city, Beau Nash, was going to do and say to Wesley there. Wesley wrote in his Journal, “I was much entreated not to preach because no-one knew what might happen. But by this story I also gained a much larger audience, among whom were many of the rich and great. I preached to them plainly that the Scripture had concluded them all under sin; high and low, rich and poor, one with another.”
Then Beau Nash himself turned up in his carriage, stopped and addressed the little preacher. He told Wesley that he had no authority to be holding a meeting, “Besides,” he said, “your preaching frightens people out of their wits.” Wesley asked him, “Sir, did you ever hear me preach?” “No!” “How then can you judge what you’ve never heard?” “Sir, by common report!” “Common report is not enough,” said Wesley “Give me leave, Sir, to ask, isn’t your name Nash?” “My name is Nash.” “Sir, I dare not pass judgment on you by common report, I think that is not enough to judge by.” That silenced Nash; he paused a while, and, having recovered himself, he said, “I desire to know why this people come here.” Then a woman spoke up; “Mr. Wesley, leave him to me. Let an old woman answer. You, Mr. Nash, take care of your body. We take care of our souls, and for the food of our souls we come here!” Nash replied not a word, but went away. That was the ministry of the Holy Spirit to Wesley in that famous encounter.
So our Lord takes advantage of this man’s outburst to address the crowd immediately with a word of warning about this sin of greed, a sin they’d seen and heard in that man’s shout, a sin which had devastated their history as children of Israel. You remember King Ahab greedy to get the vineyard of Naboth, land that had been in Naboth’s family for generations, the inheritance of his fathers? Do you remember how the king went back to his palace that day sullen and angry at Naboth’s refusal, lying on his bed sulking and refusing to eat. That is greed. His wife Jezebel bribed two scoundrels to accuse Naboth of cursing God and the king. He was found guilty, taken out of the city and stoned to death and Ahab soon got the vineyard he had coveted. That is greed; it begins in covetousness, it develops into sullenness, anger and sulking, and it can end in murder. You remember another king, David, and how he became greedy for the wife of brave, young, loyal Uriah, a wife named Bathsheba. David already had wives but he coveted her too though the tenth commandment says, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.” David who wrote the 23rd Psalm would have her, and he would murder to have her. That is the fearful power of greed.
We have watched the spectacle of greed in our day in the scandal of the expenses of members of parliament, the very law makers of our nation, the people who address themselves as ‘honourable members.’ See the way they have claimed our money to pay for their plasma 50 inch TV screens, their dog food and their duck ponds and their chocolate biscuits. Sheer greed! It starts in a covetous heart and is no respecter of persons; it leads to deceit and theft and criminal proceedings. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” Jesus said. He mentioned “all kinds” because it is so variegated. It is the mother of many other sins. No generation and no income group are spared the effect of greed. You see it in children, the cry for “More . . . more . . . more . . . more.” There is the tugging at the apron or the trousers of their fathers . . . “more . . . more . . . more.” Soon it will be Christmas and many families will witness the desperate tearing open of presents and the envious looks at the gifts their brothers and sisters have received. “MORE!” We as parents are more sophisticated in covering our greed, but greed is there in every single life.
You can excuse it by pleading an earlier poverty and want. You can excuse it by saying that this is just how human beings are. Yes, it is how we are, but why are we like this? Think of it in terms of our first parents. If ever a person’s circumstances were ideal, Eve’s were. She had a God-given partner, and what is more, what none of the rest of us has had, a God-given partner in whom there were no flaws or faults! Everything she could possibly need was in the Garden. She couldn’t blame her environment or her companions for what she did. Her circumstances were all that could be desired. But what do we read? She saw that the fruit of the tree that it was good for food; she saw that it was a delight to the eyes; she thought that it was something to be desired to make her wise: she was greedy for it and finally she took it though God has said, “Don’t.” She was greedy for forbidden fruit, the sweet taste of danger. That was part of its attraction. This is part of the problem of human nature, and part of the explanation of much of the moral morass in which we’re in today.
Now please understand this, that when Jesus warns us to be on guard against all forms of greed he is not condemning desire itself. Contrary to Buddhism the teaching of Jesus is not that men can find liberty only in the death of desire. That attitude is simply not Christianity; it is in fact anti-Christian. Nor does this command encourage us to head for the hills and take up the Amish lifestyle and shun cars and tractors and reject all the conveniences of modern progress. I’m urging none of you to go and live in a teepee in the Teify valley. I wrote this sermon on a laptop; it has been printed on a photo-copier and then hundreds will also be reading it on line. A true Christian desires the blessings of God’s creation and the fruit of human labour, and yet I am saying this, don’t we know how modern advertising and entertainment heightens our greed for stuff? Think of the TV programmes about purchasing a house, or building a new house. Fascinating programmes that I can enjoy once in a while, but it is so easy to become restless with the house you have and start dreaming of a total make-over, or moving on to somewhere better. You hear it in a woman who’s just had a completely new front room and it looks lovely, the carpets, the curtains, the wallpaper and the lighting, and you complement her on how excellent the new room is. Immediately she responds, “Oh, you should see my bathroom.” She is not enjoying the room because it is showing up other rooms in her home, and even when the whole house is done she’s got a friend with a bigger and fancier house. There is this envy for what belongs to someone else. That is part of the greed that is mentioned here.
“Watch out!” warned Jesus. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” He is urging us to be alert, looking to the right and left, aware how in any circumstances and any relationships all kinds of greed – lust, covetousness, desires of the mind and flesh, restlessness, vain ambitions – can emerge and attack us. He is urging us to put them to death when they first appear – just like Joseph acted in Potiphar’s house. When Paul says to Timothy, “Flee also youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 2.22), it’s often assumed that he’s referring to sexual urges, but the Greek word for ‘lusts’ is the word for longings and desires which covers many human appetites though they are particularly strong in the young. They might well include sinful sexual desires, but ‘youthful lusts’ equally include ambition and possessions. Ambition becomes sinful greed when we long for something for ourselves, personal gratification; we must have our ‘space.’
We have to kill sinful greed and that duty can’t be shirked. The moment we stop fighting surges of greed for this or that we start to slip sliding away from the right path. In Galatians 5.24 Paul gives us a succinct definition of a Christian. He is a person who has “crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts”. That is a true believer; he has to put to death without mercy his greed, or again Paul defines a Christian as someone who has, “put off . . . the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.” (Ephs. 4:22). Take it off, like that coat you were wearing when you fell on your back in a farm yard and it is covered with manure. Remove that stinking garment! The old nature, the flesh in us, aches to dominate us once again, and he’ll never stop trying to bring us under the control of greed. We have to resist those siren voices, never for a moment giving way to them. Either you kill the greed or the greed will kill you. The old nature is very crafty, and, aided and abetted by the devil’s suggestions, it will keep up its relentless campaign to rekindle our longing for the things of this vain world. It can happen like this; there will be times of tranquility, when we enjoy great contentment with our church and our family and our job and we love our spiritual blessings and privileges, and then, suddenly perhaps, we are laid siege too. We find ourselves under attack. There is an army assaulting us with greed, envy, self-pity, and desire. They launch themselves at us. I remember an awful period like that which I had when I was about 40. My wife doesn’t let me forget it.
We must be aware of our vulnerability, and always be ready to say no to the electronic toys, and the unjustifiable extra quality or the alluring price-tag. Even if it is in a charity shop and a bargain – do I need another CD or another shirt? An old missionary in Brazil was telling me of his youngest boy, shaking his head and saying to me, “he likes nice things.” It is keeping such longings in check that is essential. In effect Paul is saying, “When you feed your day-dreams, and you’re at the centre of the stage, with the car, and the gear, and people admiring you, then watch out! Flee from those thoughts. Transfer your thinking to something else.” Stop scheming! Stop dreaming! Put up a tremendous fight against it.
But the negative warnings alone will never change you. You will never overcome greed without positive attitudes, I mean through a spirit of contentment with what God has given you. Let me refer you to a great section of the word of God that brings together contentment and desire. You will find it in the book of Proverbs chapter 30: “Two things I ask of you, O LORD; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.” (Provs. 30:7-9). Paul had learned to be content with whatever he had. Godliness with contentment is great gain.
Then another positive attitude as the counterpoise to greed is much, much, more desire. Seek the kingdom of God as a priority. What a beautiful glorious kingdom it is – righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Seek God’s righteousness as a priority. Seek it in first place. Long to be more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, gentle, faithful, meek and self-controlled. Ask God to make you a righteous person. Be greedy for the glory of God to be made known in this community. Be full of desire for the blessings of heaven. That is the balance to greed for the stuff that moth and rust corrupts and thieves can break into and steal.
JESUS TOLD THEM WHAT LIFE WAS NOT.
That is a great lesson, to learn without a shadow of a doubt what life is not, because you may be living for that. You may dream that that is what life consists of; then one day you went to church and the preacher read to you some words of the Lord of glory who cannot lie. Jesus said this to you, “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (v.15). He that hath ears to hear let him hear!
Remember the 1980s bumper sticker, ‘He who dies with the most toys wins.’ What does he win? Is heaven Toyland? Is Woody there? And Buzz? And Mr. Potato Head? Is death a journey to Toy Story? If you have accumulated all the gadgets and games and gizmos that money can buy what have you won? Is that collection the purpose of life? Jesus tells us, ‘No.’ Life is not having gained an abundance of possessions. It is not. There are many temporal advantages from having money, of course, but many have an abundance of possessions but they don’t have abundant life. That is why Jesus Christ, God the Son, came all the way from his Father’s throne to breathe his first breath in Bethlehem’s stable, that we might have life and have it more abundantly. Do you think that the 33 miners trapped for 70 days underground ever once longed for deliverance in order to get back to their toys? They never thought of them for a moment.
Two men called on a farmer to ask him for a gift for a charity and he gave them some money, and then he took them up a staircase to a kind of lighthouse, a cupola, and they had magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. “I came here as a boy,” he told them, “and I had nothing much but I worked and saved and finally bought this farm, and then I worked and bought that adjoining farm, and then that farm, and that farm . . .” and so on and on, pointing to land stretching away into the distance. He showed them his flocks and his herds, his horses and Charolais cattle. “I’ve got all that, and I am still expanding my business,” he said. “Once all I had was a haversack and a change of clothes; that was all, and now I have all this.” Then one of the men pointed up to heaven and he said, “How much treasure have you laid up there?” After a pause the farmer said, “I’m afraid I haven’t got much there.” “Isn’t that a big mistake,” the man replied, “a man of your gifts and skills and energy should spend your whole life laying up treasures for yourself in this world and not laying up treasures in heaven?” The farmer was convicted by the kindly spoken but searching questions. “It does look foolish, doesn’t it?” A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.
The Christian Institute has gathered a collection of salutary stories about lottery winners. A father-of-two who won millions on the National Lottery became so bored after giving up his job that he turned to booze and eventually drank himself to death. Keith and Louise Gough won £9 million in 2005, and like many others Mr Gough saw the win as the “answer to his dreams”. But the couple, who were married for 27 years, separated just two years later after Mr Gough gave up his job and began drinking out of boredom. Speaking last year Mr Gough lamented the devastating effect of the win on his life. He said: “Without routine in my life I started to spend, spend, spend. In the end I was just bored. “Before the win all I would drink was some wine with a meal. I used to be popular but I’ve driven away all my friends. I don’t trust anyone any more. When I see someone going in to a newsagent, I advise them not to buy a lottery ticket.” The 58-year-old suffered a fatal heart attack in March this year, brought on by drinking and stress.
At the time it was believed that Mr Gough had died penniless, but last week it emerged that he had left an estate worth almost £800,000. At the time of his death a friend said: “They were an ordinary couple with a decent but simple lifestyle. The money ruined that and killed Keith. It went to his head and he couldn’t handle it. The whole thing is a tragedy.” “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (v.15).
Since the start of the National Lottery a number of jackpot winners have admitted misery because of their windfall. Earlier this year one of Britain’s youngest lottery millionaires was found dead in his home. Stuart Donnelly, who was 17 when he won £2 million in 1997, had become a virtual recluse as he struggled to cope with his new found wealth – and the sudden death of his father in 2000. Mr Donnelly spent his winnings on many things including houses, one of which was for his mother, charitable donations to a hospital his brother was being treated at and an executive seat at Celtic Football Club.
But he reportedly struggled to deal with the pressure of winning the lottery, particularly at such a young age.
Again, Michael Carroll, a former dustman, won £9.7million in 2002 but claimed it had made him miserable. After he won the jackpot, his wife Sandra left him and took their baby daughter with her. Mr Carroll turned to cocaine, was jailed and was later served with two anti-social behaviour orders.
Again in 1999 Stephanie Powell won £7.2million, but her family life began to break down as a result. Her partner Wayne Lawrence walked out on her, claiming the stress of her riches as his reason.
In 1999 Phil Kitchen, a jobless carpenter, won £1.8 million but two years later was found dead in his £500,000 home after drinking himself to death. “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (v.15).
Doesn’t it look foolish, to miss the purpose of life? The one who rose from the dead was speaking in our text. The one the grave could not hold spoke these words, the one mightier than death. You say, “Ah, no one has ever come back to tell us what lies beyond death.” The Bible says, “The Lord Jesus has.” Matthew says it; Mark says it; Luke says it; John says it; Peter says it; Paul says it. They were there; they were eye-witnesses of his resurrection and they were prepared to lay down their lives for its truthfulness. Jesus rose from the dead after dying for our sins. He is seated at the right hand of God. Salvation comes from him; the mercy of God comes to us because of his death. We know this because God would not let him stay dead. He rose on the third day. Redemption was accomplished by Christ. The proof of that was the resurrection, and now he gives eternal life, the life of eternity, to those who entrust themselves into his keeping.
Trust in him and live for him. He will end the domination of stuff over your life. He will give you contentment, a peace that passes all understanding. He will give you grace to live with increased frailty. He will help you cope with the heartaches of life. He will give you a spirit of kindness and service; he will weaken the selfishness that spoils so many good things about your life. Until your work on this earth is done you are immortal, but when that work for Christ is complete you go to live with him and serve him in a new heavens and a new earth. In his presence is fulness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures for ever more. Take this Christ into your life by putting your trust in him, and then know the true freedom and satisfaction of serving him.
24th October 2010 GEOFF THOMAS