What does the Bible say about greed? How do we avoid greed? Brian Watson preached this message on July 26, 2020.
When I was growing up, my family would occasionally go to a restaurant in Salem called Roosevelt’s. I don’t know why, but the restaurant was named after Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), the twenty-sixth president of the United States (1901–1909). I remember two things about the restaurant’s menu. I remember that they had a list of soups. On the menu, it said “New England Clam Chowder,” with a description and a price. Then, it said, “Manhattan Clam Chowder.” There was no price, and the description was something like this: “Drive 250 miles south on I-95.” I thought that was funny.
The other thing I remember about the menu at Roosevelt’s was that there were quotes by Teddy on it. There was one long quote, taken from a speech that he gave in Paris in 1910. The whole speech was titled “Citizenship in a Republic,” but the quote is better known as “The Man in the Arena.” Here it is:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
I appreciated it when I was young, and I’ve appreciated it every time I’ve seen it. I even saw it framed in Graceland, Elvis’s home in Memphis. The idea is that the person that counts is the one who gets in the arena and tries, even if he fails; the one who gets off the sideline and into the game; the one doesn’t simply criticize, but who gets his hands dirty. There are many people who make a living from being a critic. Think of all the talking heads on sports shows. People likely won’t remember them, but they will remember the athletes they criticize, even the ones who failed. People still remember Bill Buckner, who at the end of a long and very solid baseball career, made an error that will live in infamy, helping the Boston Red Sox lose game 6 of the 1986 World Series. But who remembers the names of all the talking heads who criticized Billy Buck?
Who is the man who counts? Who is the woman who matters? Roosevelt said it was the one who tried, the one “who spends himself in a worthy cause.” Who do you think are the people that matter the most?
We know what the world would think. The other day, I saw that someone had posed a question on Facebook: If you could invite five people, dead or living, to dinner, who would you invite? She put down musicians. Who would you choose? We would all probably choose famous names. A lot of us would put Jesus. Certainly, I would. I might also invite Paul, Augustine, C. S. Lewis, and perhaps a wild card, a non-Christian like Winston Churchill. Maybe an artist like Vincent Van Gogh. I don’t know. But we all tend to think of the big names, that these are the people that matter most in history.
But what if we’re wrong? What if the people that matter most are the ones who are quietly faithful to God? What if the ones who humbly give God their best portions, the ones who spend their lives for the worthiest of causes, are the people that matter most? To know whether a life has been spent for a worthy cause, we need an evaluator. Roosevelt wasn’t afraid to evaluate. But I doubt Roosevelt had perfect judgment. To know what matters most and who matters most, we need to hear from the Great Evaluator, God himself. And God has spoken on the matter. More specifically, God the Son, Jesus Christ, evaluated people. And he has told us how to spend our lives for that worthiest of causes.
This morning, we’re going to look at two short passages that are right next to each other in the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells the story of Jesus, focusing mostly on the last years of his life—or, to be more specific, his pre-resurrection life, because Jesus still lives. In the passage that we’re going to read, Jesus is in Jerusalem. It’s three days before he will be executed. Over the last few weeks, we have seen that his opponents, mostly the religious leaders of his day, have questioned him, trying to get him to say the wrong thing so that they could have him killed. But Jesus didn’t fall into their traps. Now, as the day of his death approaches, he criticizes the Jewish leaders. But he praises one unlikely person. And I think Luke wants us to see that though the religious leaders of his day were hypocrites, not everyone in Jerusalem was.
So, let’s now turn to Luke 20:45–47:
45 And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, 46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 47 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Jesus is in the temple complex in Jerusalem with his disciples. He’s in the religious center of Judaism, and he publicly calls out some of the religious leaders of his day for their hypocrisy. Specifically, he mentions the scribes, which in other translations are sometimes called “teachers of the law” (NIV). They were experts of the law that God gave to Israel, generally what we call the Old Testament. They’re often associated with the chief priests and other religious leaders of Jesus’ day. When Jesus first predicted his death, he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). They were among the people who wanted to “destroy” Jesus (Luke 19:47).
Here, Jesus says that the scribes are the kind of people who like to be seen as being very religious and very honorable. They like to walk around in their robes, which would signal to everyone that that they were “men of the cloth.” They loved to be greeted in marketplaces. I assume Jesus doesn’t just mean they like hearing “hello.” He means that they liked being referred to as an expert in Scripture, the way that some religious leaders insist on being called Pastor So-and-So, or Father Such-and-Such. When they attend feasts, they want the best seats, next to the host. If they attended a wedding, they want to be seated near the bridal party, not by the bathrooms. They also like to make long, showy prayers. In Matthew 6:5, part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
In other words, what the scribes like to do is make a public impression. They want to be viewed as “holier than thou.” In our society, religious leaders aren’t very well respected by the general public. But that wasn’t the case in Judaism in first-century Palestine. The Jewish people were inherently religious. Outside of political leaders, the religious leaders were probably the closest thing to a celebrity that this society knew. They held the most favorable positions in this culture. And these scribes, like the Pharisees, loved getting the attention that came along with that.
All of the charges that I’ve singled out so far could simply be called pride. Pride is one of the roots of many sins. It’s an overinflated view of the self. Instead of humbly recognizing one’s true position in the world, before God and among one’s fellow men, it leads people to think they are great, more important than others, worthy of being exalted. It’s singled out in the book of Proverbs as a particularly bad sin. Proverbs 8:13 says,
The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.
Pride and arrogance and the way of evil
and perverted speech I hate.
And Proverbs 16:18 says,
Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.
Pride is bad. But notice that Jesus includes another very serious charge in his condemnation of the scribes. He says that they “devour widows’ houses.” What does this mean? Somehow, the scribes are making widows poor, taking away their livelihood. In his commentary on Luke, Darrell Bock writes, “They take from the group most in need and leave them devastated.” Then he lists four possibilities of how the scribes did this, which are mentioned in non-biblical Jewish texts. There were widows dedicated to the temple, and the temple authorities managed their property, taking advantage of the widows. The scribes took advantage of the widows’ hospitality. They “took homes as pledges of debts they knew could not be repaid.” Or they took fees for legal advice.
While we don’t know exactly how the scribes were taking advantage of widows, we know that they did, and we know that this is wrong. Throughout the Bible, God says that his people should take care of widows (and orphans) because they were particularly vulnerable. There wasn’t anything like social security or insurance policies to help them. Women worked, but often didn’t make enough money to support themselves. They relied upon men for provision. A younger widow would need to remarry. An older widow would have to rely upon a son or other family members. The community was supposed to help widows, and God clearly denounces those who would take advantage of them. When they failed to do this, and did the very opposite, taking advantage of widows, God threatened judgment.
Listen to one passage from the Old Testament. This is Zechariah 7:8–14:
8 And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, 9 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, 10 do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” 11 But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. 12 They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the Lord of hosts. 13 “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear,” says the Lord of hosts, 14 “and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and the pleasant land was made desolate.”
God takes sin very seriously. Oppressing other people, who are also made in the image of God, is a serious crime against not only other people, but against their Creator. Notice that God also takes it very seriously when people “devise evil against another in [their] heart.” We may not all actively take advantage of the widow and the orphan, but we have all had evil thoughts against other people. We may not have the same pride of the scribes and the other religious leaders of Jesus’ day, but we do all have some pride. We tend to put ourselves first. So, we shouldn’t think that Jesus’ words could only apply to religious leaders.
Still, religious leaders do fall into particular temptations. Many do succumb to pride. This happens in our celebrity age. The celebrity Christian is someone who is in danger of great temptations. We have celebrity pastors and celebrity Christian musicians and celebrity Christian authors and even comedians. And many of them have fallen and will continue to fall. Some fall into sexual sin, into affairs and sexual abuse. They think that their position of authority somehow gives them license to take advantage of women or, even worse, children. Some fall because of arrogance and pride, refusing to take wise counsel, acting like bullies. Some fall because of money issues. There’s something about celebrity, about fame, that leads people to think they are greater than they are. It leads people to think that they are above the law. And with religious leaders, it can lead them to think they are above the law that they teach.
And there’s a history of religious leaders using their positions to get rich. This often happens by taking advantage of the poor and gullible. Today, preachers of the prosperity gospel do this. The prosperity gospel is the message that says that if you’re faithful to God, if you really believe in God’s power and promises, you will receive God’s favor, usually in the form of wealth or happiness or a good family or health or friends, or something along those lines. In other words, if you’re a good Christian and you really trust in God, then he will make your life abundant in some obvious way right now. It’s the message taught by Joel Osteen and Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar and many others. It’s sometimes called the “word of faith” theology. If you say something and really believe it, it will come to pass. That’s why it’s called “name it and claim it” or “blab it and grab it” theology.
I saw one example of this recently. Donald Trump appointed Paula White to be the head of his administration’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative. The next day, Paula White sent an email to her ministry supporters, asking them to give $3,600 to her to receive God’s blessings. She made a video in which she claims that God is ready to perform “a suddenly”—that’s what she calls God’s sudden activity of bringing blessings to his people. She quotes a lot of Scripture quickly in a way that might fool people who don’t understand what the Bible says in context. She says that people should give her $3,600, or $300, or $70. This is supposedly based on numbers of animals given to God in 2 Chronicles 29:32–33. She writes to her email list: “GOD IS PREPARED TO SHIFT YOUR SEASON TO A SUDDENLY! This is time sensitive. I ask you to act NOW! And as you act I declare by Apostolic authority that over the next three months your SUDDENLY season will arrive. . . . The heavens will move as you move.” Give to Paula and God will give to you—that’s what she’s saying.
This theology isn’t just nonsense, it’s evil. It takes advantage of the gullible, who think that if they make a sacrificial financial gift to these people, God will later reward them. I’ve heard prosperity gospel preachers say that people who can’t afford to give should in faith put their donations on a credit card, trusting that God will bring finances into their life that they don’t currently have so that they can later pay off their credit card balance. I’m sure some people have responded. After all, these prosperity gospel teachers are wealthy, which means some people must be supporting them. Getting rich by telling lies in the name of God is an evil thing.
The scribes are described as hypocrites, people who put on a public show of being holy in order to achieve fame and fortune. And Jesus says such people will be condemned by God—assuming that they don’t humble themselves, confess their sins to God, and turn to him in faith. These scribes may fool other people, but there’s no fooling God.
But Jesus doesn’t just condemn religious hypocrisy. He also praises those who are sincerely religious. And we see this in the next few verses. Before we read them, I want to make a general comment about reading the Bible. The chapter and verse numbers that we have in our Bibles are not part of the original text of the Bible. Chapter numbers were created in the thirteenth century and verse numbers were created in the sixteenth century. They are very helpful in many ways. We can all find the same passage quickly even if we have different translations and editions of the Bible. But sometimes chapter numbers create divisions where there shouldn’t be any. That’s the case in this passage. I think we’re supposed to read the end of chapter 20 and the beginning of chapter 21 together. With that being said, let’s read Luke 21:1–4:
1 Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, 2 and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. 4 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
In the temple complex in Jerusalem, there were thirteen receptacles into which people could make offerings that were used to support worship at the temple. Jesus looks at the rich making their offerings. In Mark 12:41, we’re told, “And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums.” Perhaps the number and weight of the coins they put into these receptacles made a loud sound, publicly announcing how very generous they were.
But there’s also a poor widow who makes an offering. She puts into two copper coins, two leptons, which in today’s currency might be equivalent to two dollars, perhaps even less. Jesus says that this widow has actually given more than the rich, because “they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Rich people sometimes are quite generous with their money. It’s not uncommon to hear of millionaires giving large gifts to some charity or non-profit institution. But a millionaire can easily afford to give tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Billionaires can easily give millions of dollars. But for someone who is barely surviving to give their last two dollars is a greater sacrifice. In giving whatever money she had, this widow had to trust that God would provide for her. She would have to pray to God what Jesus told his disciples to pray: “Give us each day our daily bread” (Luke 11:3). She would have to hope that other people, whether family members or neighbors, would have to give her more money or food, so that she could continue to live.
She wasn’t giving this money because she was manipulated by a religious authority. She wasn’t giving this money so that she could meet the needs of some law. She wasn’t giving sacrificially to achieve her “best life now,” in response to some prosperity gospel teacher. She gave because she loved God, because she thought that worship of God at the temple was more important than anything else. She realized that everything she had was from God, and she wanted to give back to God what he had given to her. And Jesus commends her.
Last week, I talked about the importance of living life with an eternal perspective. If we think this life is what matters most, we will tend to be greedy and selfish. We will want to experience all of the world’s pleasures right now. But if we realize that this life is brief, and that the greatest pleasures will be found by spending eternity with God, we can give generously. We can also obey knowing that God isn’t withholding anything good from us. Likewise, we can give generously now, knowing we’ll be rich in eternity.
Jesus said, earlier in Luke, “Blessed are who you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Jesus doesn’t mean that every poor person is automatically part of God’s kingdom. That would go against much of what he taught elsewhere. To be part of God’s kingdom, one must be born again of the Holy Spirit, transformed by God to be a new kind of person (John 3:3–8). One must believe in Jesus, the Son of God, as the world’s only Savior (John 6:27–29). But poor Christians can be comforted by knowing that in eternity, they will be rich. That doesn’t mean that in the new creation, every Christian will have a mansion and a sports car, or whatever your “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” or “MTV Cribs” fantasy is. But in eternity, there will be no suffering for Christians, and all who have put their faith in Jesus will have equal access to the one true God, the greatest treasure there is.
What we do we learn from this? First, we should learn from the negative example of the hypocritical scribes. We shouldn’t put on an air of religiosity, appearing holy in order to make a public impression. We should never use religion to manipulate God, because God can’t be manipulated. He knows our motivations—he knows them better than we do! If we don’t truly trust and love God, we shouldn’t obey him in order to get what we really want, which is money or health or a nice life. If you do trust and love Jesus, don’t make a show of what you do. Don’t do things, whether giving or praying or anything else, in order to be seen.
Second, we should learn positively from the example of this widow. She gave generously in faith. I’m sure that all of us could give more to the church, more to missionaries, more to organizations that translate the Bible. We could all give more to the poor, to charities that help orphans and widows and the homeless. When it comes to giving, we should do so according to our ability to give. The apostle Paul gave instructions to church in Corinth for their giving. In 1 Corinthians, he said, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.” (1 Cor. 16:2). In other words, give according to how God has prospered you. But giving super-abundantly and sacrificially is commended. In 2 Corinthians, he commended the church in Macedonia, because “their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord” (2 Cor. 8:2–3).
Paul goes on to say that our giving shouldn’t be done “reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Cor. 9:7). Our giving should be done from a heart that has been changed by God, a heart that is thankful, a heart that recognizes how much God has done for us in Jesus.
And we see a hint of that in this passage. We’re told that this widow “out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Literally, the original Greek says that she gave πάντα τὸν βίον, which could mean “her whole life.” “Bio” can mean one’s living, meaning one’s possessions, but it refers to life more generally. Biology is the study of life. Biography is something written about a life. This woman gave more than the rich because she gave her whole life to God. And what does that have to do with Jesus? Jesus gave his whole life to bring us back to God.
That’s the story of Christianity. God made us to know him, love him, trust him, worship him, serve him, and obey him. But from the beginning, humans haven’t done that. We’ve rejected God. We don’t treasure him. We don’t trust that his words are good for us. So, we shut him up and go our own way. While we don’t always do great evils in the world’s eyes, to ignore the One we are made for is a great evil. We were made to spend our lives for the worthiest cause, which is to know God, to love him, and to live for him. But we don’t do that. We sin. And God cannot dwell with sin. He can’t have sin tearing apart his creation. He is patient now, but one day he will condemn sinners and cast them out of his creation forever.
But God is merciful and gracious, and he sent his Son to become a man. Jesus left his home in heaven, a home full of glorious riches, to live on Earth. That didn’t mean that he stopped being God. It meant that as a human, he had to deal with the things we all experience: hunger, thirst, fatigue, and pain. But he endured more: he was rejected and betrayed, laughed at and mocked, tortured, and even killed. He was the only person who ever lived a sinless, perfect life, yet he was executed like a criminal. This was the greatest act of evil. But it was also God’s plan to punish sin without destroying all sinners. Jesus took the penalty that we deserve, which is death and hell. And he rose from the grave, showing that he paid that penalty in full, and that he has power over sin and death. All who come to him in faith are forgiven of even the worst of their crimes, the greatest of their sins. They will live with Jesus forever in a perfect world. But those who come to faith will be changed. They will live differently.
When the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians about giving, he urged them to give generously. The reason why they should give was the example of Jesus. Paul writes this:
8 I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:8–9).
I think Paul would want us to do more than give financially. After all, Jesus didn’t literally give money. By becoming a man and dying for sinners, Jesus became poor. He gave his life for us. What should we give him in return? Our whole lives. That means we will give money generously, but we should also give our time, our minds, our hearts, and our obedience to Jesus.
What would it look like for you to give a bit more to Jesus? Some of us might need to give our lives to him. We haven’t put our faith in him. We still think that we’re the king of our worlds, so we refuse to acknowledge that Jesus is the true King. We fail to see how we’ve rejected God, so we don’t see sin as a big deal. If that’s you, I urge you to turn to Jesus now.
Some of us might need to make a greater commitment to Jesus. We might need to read our Bibles more and pray more. We might need to commit to a church, becoming members—committing to the church is committing to the body of Christ. There’s no such thing as Lone Ranger Christians who do the Christian life on their terms, apart from the authority of the church. Real Christians recognize the church as God’s plan for his people. Some of us might need to give more—not just money, but also time and effort. What would it look like for you to give more of your life to Jesus? Jesus paid it all. All to him we owe. Get in the arena and spend your life in the worthiest cause.
- Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena,” Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson University, https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Learn-About-TR/TR-Encyclopedia/Culture-and-Society/Man-in-the-Arena.aspx. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996), 1643. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Nicole A. Menzie, “Paula White Joins White House, Asks Ministry Supporters for $3,600 in Return for God’s Favor,” Medium, November 1, 2019, https://medium.com/@namenzie/paula-white-joins-white-house-asks-ministry-supporters-for-3-600-in-return-for-gods-favor-30242ade0c90. ↑
- You can see the video of Paula White here: https://paulawhite.org/videos/Suddenly2015_Pgm2_Seg1_EmailVersion.mp4?inf_contact_key=cb4a9a3cf858c34aa45bc7971fc4f85ea61f15688044e0df333a256a7a7fd2ca. ↑
Jesus condemns the hypocritical, supposedly religious scribes and commends a faithful widow. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 20:45-21:4 on November 10, 2019.
Several months ago, as I was scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed, I saw a meme that a friend of mine, someone I took a couple of seminary classes with, had posted. I’m sure many of us know what a “meme” is, but in case you don’t, a meme is something that is copied and shared. It’s often a picture with a quote or some caption that is funny or pointed. This meme said at the top of the picture: “A LIST OF THINGS THE CHURCH CAN LEARN FROM THE WORLD.” The picture was of a blank piece of paper. The point was that the church can learn nothing from the world. If you’re not familiar with the Bible and Christianese, the “world” is often used to describe the prevailing non-Christian culture, the culture that, as we see it, is opposed to God. So, the meme was saying that Christians can’t learn anything from non-Christians.
But that’s wrong. It’s wrong because even non-Christians know many true and valuable things. Your doctor doesn’t need to be a Christian for you to learn something from him or her about your health. Your mechanic doesn’t need to be a Christian for you to learn that something in your car needs fixing. We learn from non-Christian scholars, teachers, authors, friends, and neighbors. And the reason this is so is because of something we call “common grace,” that God gives gifts even to those who don’t seek him and love him.
But the other reason we know that the church can learn from the world is because Jesus says so. We’re going to see that today in a bit of an odd parable found in Luke 16. If you haven’t been with us recently, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke, one of the four Gospels found in the Bible. Each Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. They’re theological biographies. And like different biographies written today, each Gospel has its own themes, its own particular perspectives on Jesus that are developed in unique ways. They all tell the same basic story, emphasizing different points. Of the four Gospels, Luke shares the most of Jesus’ parables, little stories that are designed to teach powerful truths. Luke also gives us a great deal of Jesus’ teaching son money. We’ll see all of that today in Luke 16:1–15.
So, without further ado, let’s look at Luke 16:1–9:
1 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
The story itself, from verses 1–7, is pretty clear, but I’ll explain it a bit. A wealthy man had entrusted his estate to a servant, a manager who was responsible for his business affairs. In fact, the servant could be a slave. Slavery existed in Israel and the Greco-Roman world, and while slavery is never a great thing, it was very different in that ancient world than it was in America prior to the Civil War. Slaves could have professions, they could own property, and they had the ability to earn or buy their freedom. At any rate, this steward or manager was the one who took care of another person’s wealth.
The wealthy man finds out that manager was wasting his possessions. Last week, we looked at Luke 15, which includes the famous parable of the prodigal son. The verb translated here as “wasted” is the same verb used to describe how the prodigal son “squandered” his inheritance (Luke 15:13). We’re not told how this manager wasted his master’s wealth, but we can assume it was done unethically in some manner. What’s important is that the manager is about to lose his possession. The wealthy man tells the manager to turn in the financial records of his estate.
The manager knows he’s in trouble. He claims that he is not strong enough to dig. Perhaps he’s older, or perhaps he’s been so accustomed to non-physical labor that he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. And, as opposed to the Temptations and the Rolling Stones, he is too proud to beg. So, how is he going to make money? How will he survive?
The manager then has a light-bulb moment. “Aha,” he thinks, “I know what I can do to get a new position. I’ll tell the people who owe my master that they owe him less, and that way, they’ll be grateful to me and they’ll take care of me. They’ll ‘receive me into their houses.’” So, he meets with the people who owe his master.
We’re told about two representative people who owed the master olive oil and wheat. The wealthy man probably loaned them money in exchange for future goods. The person who owed the master olive oil owed him one hundred baths, or approximately 900 gallons. That’s a lot of oil. In that economy, that could be about three years’ worth of wages. It’s a significant sum. The manager asks this person how much they owed the master. He already had the financial records, so he knew, but he wants to make sure the debtor knows what the manager is doing. So, he asks, and when told the amount, he says, “Let’s change the figure. Now you owe fifty measures,” which would have been about 450 gallons of oil, a fifty percent savings. He does something similar with the person who owed the master wheat. This person owed one hundred measures, or cors, of wheat. One cor was equivalent to 10–12 bushels. One hundred measures could have been worth anywhere between one to ten years’ worth of wages. Again, it’s a large sum. This time, the manager only knocks the debt down twenty percent.
It’s debated what this manager is actually doing. Is he cheating his master? If these people owed the master a certain sum and he’s cooking the books so that they pay the master less, he’s doing the master a disservice. Of course, he’s doing that to curry favor from these debtors. If that’s the case, he’s been very dishonest, robbing money from one rich man to get into the good graces of others. But some commentators think that perhaps he’s helping his master while also helping himself. Perhaps the people owed the master what they thought they owed, but the manager is trying to make the master look gracious, forgiving part of the loan. Others think that the master had loaned money to these debtors at interest, which was against Jewish law (Exod. 22:25; Lev. 25:35–37; Deut. 15:7–8, 23:19–20). In this case, the master had acted wrongly, and the servant was righting this wrong while also making himself look good. Finally, some other commentators believe that the manager had originally added a commission to what the debtors actually owed the master. The first debtor actually owed fifty measures of oil to the master, but he didn’t know that. The manager told him he owed one hundred, and he was planning to pocket the difference. Now, he erases his own commission so that he could have a financial security in the future.
It seems like the most likely scenario is that the manager is cheating the master, though that last option is possible. Perhaps he was adding to the figures of what people owed in order to make himself rich. Perhaps that’s part of why he was getting fired in the first place. At any rate, this manager is shrewd. He knows that if he doesn’t do something clever, he’s going to be out of luck in the future. So, he takes the opportunity to do something to secure himself a better future.
So, in verse 8, we’re told, “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” This is another part of the parable that’s debated. Is the master the wealthy man of the parable? If so, and depending on what the manager was actually doing, he finds out about what has happened, and he commends the manager for his cleverness. But “the master” might refer to Jesus. The Greek word translated as “master” is usually translated as “Lord” and it usually refers to Jesus, the true Master and King. So, perhaps here Jesus is commending the manager of the story. In either event, Jesus does commend the manager, because he says, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”
Now, if the manager was being dishonest, cheating the master out of the money he was owed, Jesus is not commending the man’s dishonesty. Jesus does not say that the ends justify the means, so do whatever you can to improve your life. The Bible does not teach us to be dishonest and underhanded in any kind of way. God does not want us to cheat and lie and steal to survive. There may be very exceptional cases in which telling a lie is better than telling the truth, like if you were living in Europe eighty years ago and Nazis come to your door to ask you if you’re harboring any Jews. But most of us won’t ever be in those situations. This manager wasn’t. So, Jesus is not commending the manager’s dishonesty. But he is commending his cleverness. The man was in trouble and he took the opportunity that he had to provide for his future.
Jesus says that “the sons of this world” are better at doing this thing than the “sons of light” are. As I said earlier, “the world” when used in the Bible often refers to humanity apart from God. The truth is that there is a great chasm that separates people from God. That’s how we all start out in life, as sons and daughters of the “world,” the fallen, sinful realm of humans who are rebels against God. Ever since the first humans walked the earth, people have rejected God. God made us to love him and live life on his terms, to have good lives full of responsibility and authority but also service to God. He made us to come under his authority, to obey him and his commands because he is good, because he designed life to function in a certain way, and he knows better than we do. Yet we don’t trust that God is good. We don’t seek after him. We don’t love him the way we should. We ignore him at best; at worst, we know what he wants of us and we knowingly disobey his commands. We don’t start out as children of God, children of the kingdom of light and life.
But there are people who become “sons [and daughters] of light” (John 12:36; Eph. 5:8; 1 Thess. 5:5). God loved the world so much that he sent his one and only true Son, who has always existed with God the Father in the realm of light. He left that heavenly world of light to enter into a dark, fallen world. When the Son of God became a human being, he was known as Jesus of Nazareth. And he alone lived a perfect life. He alone loved his heavenly Father as we should. He alone always worshiped God, always obeyed God, always loved other people. He wasn’t greedy, scheming, lying, selfish, or any of the other qualities that we often find in ourselves. And though he lived a perfect life, he was rejected, treated like the worst of criminals, and put to death. This wasn’t just because people are evil. Ultimately, it was God’s plan. Jesus lived the perfect life that we don’t live so that all who come to him and trust him as God and King, as Savior, can be credited with that perfect life. When God looks at Christians, it’s as if he’s looking at Christ, regarding Jesus’ perfection instead of our mess. And Jesus came to die to bear God’s wrath. He came to pay the penalty that we deserve for our sins. If we come to trust Jesus, to put our faith in him and have a right relationship with him marked by love and obedience, then we have already had our rebellion against God forgiven. We’ve been transferred from a kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light (Col. 1:13–14).
Yet Jesus says that the children of light can learn from the children of the world. People who aren’t Christians often work harder to provide for themselves a decent future in this life. Non-Christians hustle. They use whatever opportunities they have, whatever gifts God has given to them, to secure a future that ultimately won’t last. I can think of lots of examples. There are all kinds of people who hustle online to make money. I just read a story about an 18-year-old young woman who already has eight million subscribers on YouTube. She has millions of followers on Instagram, she has a podcast that his hugely popular, and she’s making perhaps as much as two million dollars a year. I watched parts of a couple of her YouTube videos and couldn’t figure out why she’s popular. But apparently people with little talent and a bit of personality can be millionaires online by hustling. She’s out there selling her product, working hard to build an audience.
We can think of many people who exploit whatever talent and resources they have to make money, so they can achieve fame and fortune in this life. And they often outwork us. I saw a video of Tom Brady running a 40 yard-dash this week. He’s never been fast, but the story was that he ran the 40 faster this year than he ran in 2000, when he was drafted by the Patriots. Not many 42 year-olds can outrun their 22-year-old selves, but Brady is still working hard, even after six Super Bowl rings. He’s working for fame and fortune that won’t last.
But what about Christians? What are we doing? We have a future that is eternal. Jesus promises us true, eternal riches. Jesus promises us the only notoriety that really matters, having a good name in God’s eyes. And yet Christians often don’t work hard. We aren’t as clever as non-Christians in leveraging what God has given to us to help the cause of God’s kingdom. Jesus tells us we should work for things that last. And we should use our financial resources to help build up God’s kingdom.
That’s why Jesus says, in verse 9, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” It’s a bit of an odd saying, for several reasons. Is Jesus telling us to buy friends? Why is wealth called “unrighteous”? Can we really use money to buy a home in “eternal dwellings,” in heaven?
Jesus isn’t saying that we can buy friends. But he is telling us to use our money wisely. The reason why wealth here is called “unrighteous” is not because money or possessions are inherently evil. The Bible does not say the money or wealth is a root of all evil. It actually says, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10). When we put our trust in money, it’s wrong. We often trust money because we’re led to believe that money can provide us with security and comfort. That’s even reflected in the word translated as “wealth.” If you are familiar with the old King James Version, you might know the word “mammon.” This is an Aramaic word. It’s probably related to a Hebrew word that means “to trust.” In other words, what’s unrighteous is putting so much trust in money. Because money will fail us. Money can’t buy us everything. It can extend our lives a little bit, but it can’t buy off the Grim Reaper. Money can’t erase our sins. It can’t forgive us and bring us into the kingdom of light.
And it can’t really buy us friends. But—and this is really important—we can use our money, as well as our time, our energy, and whatever resources we have, to help others. We can use what God has given to us to care for other people, to help comfort them and to help ease their suffering. And if we really care about comforting others and helping them avoid suffering, if we really love them, and if we really love bringing glory to God, we will use whatever resources we have to tell people the good news about Jesus. We will tell them there is a way to be reconciled to God, to have forgiveness of all that we’ve done wrong, to be adopted into God’s family, and to live in God’s kingdom of love, light, and life forever.
There are many ways that we can help advance the gospel. Telling others personally is the best way. But we can use our money to support the church, to support missionaries, to buy Christian books and Bibles for friends, to support translation of the Bible into languages that don’t yet have a Bible translation. We can use our time to tell people about Jesus, to offer to read the Bible with them. We can use our online platforms to tell people about God and invite them to church. I have asked people to like and share the church’s Facebook posts and only a handful of us have ever done that. Are we really using what God has given us to advance the gospel? The world outhustles us. They are more clever at using every opportunity to sell a product, to turn the conversation to something that is infinitely of less value than the message of Christianity.
I’m reminded of another example of how the world uses every opportunity to advance their goals. Years ago, I used to watch more television than I do now. Usually, I tuned into late-night talk shows. I remember watching an episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He was interviewing Jim Belushi, the younger brother of John Belushi. John Belushi was the one who was on Saturday Night Live, the one who starred in the movies Animal House and The Blues Brothers. John Belushi also died at the age of 33, due to a drug overdose. Jim, John’s brother, appeared in several movies and, at the time of this interview, was on his own sitcom, According to Jim. At one point in the interview, Conan O’Brien asked Jim about his friendship with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who recently became governor of California. Jim and Arnold appeared in a movie together called Red Heat. Jim said he learned a lot from Arnold, including marketing. Conan was curious about this. He learned marketing from Arnold Schwarzenegger? Jim said Arnold was great at marketing movies and he taught him how to turn every question into an opportunity to sell his movie. Arnold asked Jim what question he hated the most when he was being interviewed. Jim said interviewers would often ask him if he missed his brother John. So, Arnold says, “Ask me that question and I’ll show you how to answer.” So, Jim, acting as a reporter, says, “Do you miss your brother John?” And Arnold, acting as Jim, says, “Yes, of course I miss my brother . . . but not as much as he’s going to miss my new movie, Red Heat.” We Christians could learn from the world how to turn our conversations into gospel conversations. Remember what the apostle Peter says about why God makes Christians his people: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
Jesus’ point is that we should use what we have in this life to make sure that other people can join us in the next life. And we should use our money that way. The things that we pour our money into won’t last. Our houses, our clothes, our gadgets, the experiences that we get from vacations and going out to eat won’t last. It’s not wrong to have those things, but we should consider putting less into those things and more into supporting the church, supporting evangelism and discipleship and Bible translation and anything that helps people understand God better. If we do that, perhaps we’ll be greeted in heaven by people who will say, “Thank you for helping me get here.”
Jesus goes on to say that if we’re faithful with how we use even the little things that God has given to us, he will entrust more to us. And he warns us that our loyalties cannot be divided between our love of money and our love for God. Let’s read verses 10–13:
10 “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
We may wish that we would have more money, or a better job, or something else along those lines. But we should ask ourselves, “Am I faithfully using what God has already given to me to serve him?” If we’re not being faithful with a little, why would God give us more? If we’re not faithfully using whatever God has given to us, why would he give us eternal responsibilities in the new creation, in which we rule and reign with him forever? All that we have is a gift from God. Our talents, our abilities, and, yes, our money are entrusted to us by God. God has given us all of those things to manage for him. Are we going to waste these gifts or will we use them shrewdly?
What often keeps us from using our money for God’s glory is our love of money and the love of all that money gives us. Because we believe money will give us comfort, we spend it on entertainment and pleasures. Because we think money will bring us security, we surround ourselves with possessions and things we think will make us feel safer and more secure. Where we spend our money reveals where we have placed our treasure. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t treasure God and treasure our stuff. We can’t serve God and serve money. Which will you put your trust in?
When Jesus was teaching these things, he was still in front of not only his followers, but also the religious leaders of his day. When they heard what Jesus said, they didn’t follow his advice. Instead, they made fun of him because they loved money more than God. Take a look at verses 14 and 15:
14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. 15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
I’ll probably read these verses again next time I preach. But I read them now because I want you to see how not to respond to Jesus’ message. It would be easy to dismiss what Jesus says here. It would be easy to say, “I’ll spend my money, my time, and my energy how I want, thank you very much.” But if we do that, we’re just showing what we truly love, what we truly trust and obey. The Pharisees, a group of Jewish religious leaders, loved money more than God, so they rejected Jesus. The tried to justify themselves, to make themselves right, in the eyes of other people. They didn’t care what matters most, which is being right in God’s sight. They exalted themselves, and their pride and greed were an “abomination” in the sight of God.
The children of the world exalt themselves. And this is where they aren’t so clever. All the social media stars and so many of the rich and famous are trying to make themselves great. I suppose a few are Christians and use their platforms to honor God. But most are in it to make themselves great. And this is foolish. Their fame and money won’t endure. It will last for a short time, and it will then be gone. They will have to stand before God in judgment and given an account for their lives. And I’m sure God will ask why they didn’t use what he had given to them to honor him.
Today, I urge us all to think about eternity. Everything you have is from God. How will you use it for things that matter for eternity? How will you glorify God with your money? How will you help others know God with the way you use your money? How can you use what you have to make room for friends, for brothers and sisters, in the eternal dwellings?
Imagine what it will be like to go to heaven and to live in the new creation with God forever. We won’t just see Jesus face-to-face. We will also see a multitude of other children of light, people who have been redeemed. And if we are faithful with what God has given to us, imagine the reception we will have from others who might say something like this: “Thank you for giving to that church, who helped me come to know Jesus. Thank you for helping support missionaries. That missionary that your church supported told me about Jesus. Thank you for taking time to share the gospel with me. I know you thought I would never come to faith, but I did many years later. Thank you for giving to that ministry that translates the Bible; because you gave, I could finally read God’s word in my own language.” Friends, if you’re not a Christian, turn to Jesus now. Everything else will fail you. Christian friends, use your money and everything else you have so that others can know Jesus, too.
As Charles Studd wrote:
Only one life ’twill soon be past.
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Taylor Lorenz, “Emma Chamberlain Is the Most Important YouTuber Today,” The Atlantic, July 3, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/07/emma-chamberlain-and-rise-relatable-influencer/593230.↑
- The interview can be seen here: https://youtu.be/BnLYwe_qZR8. I changed the wording of the dialogue to make the point clearer—and funnier. ↑
- Studd’s poem can be found at http://cavaliersonly.com/poetry_by_christian_poets_of_the_past/only_one_life_twill_soon_be_past_-_poem_by_ct_studd.↑
Jesus says that Christians can learn something from the world: we can learn to be more shrewd with what God has given to us. We should use our money (and everything else) to honor God, to love others, and to point other people to Christ, so that they would enter his kingdom. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 16:1-15 on July 14, 2019.
About exactly ten years ago, Kathy and I took a vacation to California. We flew from Seattle to San Francisco, spent a couple of days there, drove down to San Diego to visit one friend, and then later drove to Palm Springs to visit another friend. Finally, we drove through Los Angeles and then drove back to San Francisco along the coast. On the way back, we stopped at San Simeon to see the Hearst Castle. This is the property developed by William Randolph Heart, the millionaire newspaper publisher. The 40,000 acres of property on which Heart’s “castle” is situated were purchased by his father in 1865. After Hearst inherited the property in 1919, he started building it up so that it would include exquisite gardens, tennis courts, a mansion, a luxurious indoor swimming pool, and several guest houses. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hearst hosted parties for the rich and famous, and several movie stars like Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, and Clark Gable stayed there, as did other famous people like Winston Churchill and Charles Lindbergh.
Hearst Castle is impressive. All of it is ornate. Some of it is beautiful. Some of it is eclectic and eccentric. Perhaps some of it is just gaudy. Hearst spent millions of dollars to build up the place over nearly three decades. We were able to tour the estate, seeing the various buildings in their ostentatious glory.
Do you know who lives in Hearst Castle? As far as I know, no one does. But I can tell you who certainly doesn’t live there: William Randolph Hearst. He died in 1951. Hearst Castle is a monument to his wealth, but it also feels like a grand waste. I felt the same way when Kathy and I went to Newport a few years ago and toured the mansion called The Breakers, which has now become a museum of sorts, a museum of lavish amounts of money spent on one of the fanciest summer homes the world has ever known.
Homes like these are reminders of how people have spent extraordinary amounts of money on themselves. I’ve been a in few estates and castles like this, and I always get the same feeling: Though these places are impressive, they were built as monuments to the self, a self that long since died, a soul who now is either with God for eternity or, perhaps more likely, is apart from God for eternity. These places feel like memorials to lives that were wasted.
Today, as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to encounter some hard words from Jesus about wealth and possessions. As we read these words, let’s not think that they apply only to the fabulously rich. By the world’s standards, we are very rich. Let us hear from Jesus, and let’s not be defensive. Let’s consider how we could better use all that God has given to us, so that we wouldn’t build monuments to waste. Instead, let us consider how we could be better stewards of God’s wealth.
We’re going to read Luke 12:13–34 today. If you haven’t been with us, the Gospel of Luke is a biography of Jesus. Most of Luke’s Gospel concerns the years before Jesus’ death, and a good chunk of the Gospel details Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, when he was crucified and then rose from the grave. We’re now in a section of the Gospel where Jesus is doing a lot of teaching.
So, let’s go ahead and read verses 13–21:
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
Jesus has been teaching and someone interrupts him. This man wants Jesus to arbitrate an inheritance dispute between him and his brother. It’s probably more likely that this man wants Jesus to settle the dispute in his favor. He may have been a younger brother whose older brother refused to divide the family’s inheritance. We don’t know. But we do know that in Israel’s law, there are passages that deal with inheritance issues (Num. 27:10–11; 36:2–10; Deut. 21:15–17). Since Jesus is regarded as a religious teacher, it makes sense for someone to ask him to help. But Jesus did not come to settle family squabbles, and Jesus cannot be manipulated or used to do our selfish bidding.
So, Jesus refused to get involved. Jesus is a judge, and people will stand before him in judgment one day, but he had better things to do than mediate this family issue.
Jesus tells his followers to be on guard against greed and covetousness, because life is more than possessions. Then, Jesus tells a parable, which are so common in Luke’s Gospel. A parable is a little story, probably fictional, that teaches theological truths in colorful and memorable ways.
The parable is quite easy to understand. There’s a rich man whose land has produced a great deal of crops. He looks around and sees that he has so much that he can’t store it all. So, he decides to build new storehouses. And when he’s done, he thinks he can “relax, eat, drink, [and] be merry.” This man is living the American dream in first-century Palestine.
In reality, the Bible teaches that it is God that causes crops to grow (Ps. 104:14). But this man isn’t thinking about God; he’s thinking about himself. In his little soliloquy, there are six first-person verbs—“I will do this” and “I will do that”—and there are five occurrences of “my”—my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul. But the fact is that God is the owner of all. Psalm 24:1 says,
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein.
In Psalm 50, God says that he doesn’t need sacrifices. He doesn’t need the Israelites, who had been offering up sacrifices in bad faith, to present animals such as bulls to him. God then gives the reason why in verses 10–12:
10 For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
12 If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
God owns everything. But this man couldn’t see that. All he thought was, “I, me, mine.”
And there was something else the man couldn’t see: his own expiration date. He thought he could sit back and enjoy all his stuff for years. He didn’t realize that death can come at any time. As the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes: “No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death” (Eccl. 8:8). Death will come for us all, and death doesn’t give us a warning.
The man’s failure to realize all this is why he’s called a fool. In the Bible, “fool” isn’t just an insult. The Bible says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Pss. 14:1; 53:1). A fool may not actually say that God doesn’t exist, but he certainly lives like it. He doesn’t fear God. Last week, we read the beginning of Luke 12, in which Jesus says that we should fear God, because our eternal destination is in his hands. This man was thinking only about himself. He didn’t realize that things would not go according to plan. His materialistic dream turned into a terrible tragedy. We have no indication that he would be with God for eternity. It’s just the opposite: this man is surely cut off from God, for there’s no indication that he had a right relationship with him.
And Jesus warns us in verse 21: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” Everyone who acts like this man will experience a similar fate. We will either realize that all we have is a gift from God, and we will use it accordingly, or we will act like everything is ours, and we will build our little castles and say, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” to use a phrase we’ll encounter next week (1 Cor. 15:32). While it may seem wise to pamper ourselves, to spare no comfort or joy that money can afford, we would be foolish to do that. We would be foolish because such a way of living doesn’t think of God. It doesn’t recognize that God has given us everything we have. It doesn’t ask, “God, what do you want me to do with all that you’ve given me?” It doesn’t spend precious resources on the things that God cares about. It’s a waste. Also, it’s foolish because we can’t take it with us when we die. And the Bible acknowledges that after we die, our possessions will be left to others, and in some cases, they’ll forget about us and use that inheritance unwisely (Pss. 39:6; 49:10; Eccl. 2:20–23).
This parable raises some important questions. Is it wrong to save for the future? I don’t think so. I think we can read some of the Proverbs as saying that it’s wise to work hard when you can so that you will have food later (Prov. 6:6–8; 10:4–5; 28:19). The reality is that we only have so much time to work, and then later there will be a time when we can’t work, or at least not as hard. So, it’s wise to save while we can so that we will have some later to live on. But there are many Proverbs that warn about greed. Consider these:
One gives freely, yet grows all the richer;
another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.
Whoever trusts in his riches will fall,
but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf.
Do not toil to acquire wealth;
be discerning enough to desist.
A stingy man hastens after wealth
and does not know that poverty will come upon him.
There is clearly a line between being greedy and being prosperous and being generous. If God has given you abilities to work hard and talents that allow you to have a good job, there’s nothing wrong with making a lot of money. The question is what we do with that money. Do we hoard it, or do we give generously to advance the kingdom of God and to give to those who are needy?
Perhaps the best thing is to be neither too rich nor too poor, but somewhere in the middle. That idea, too, comes from Proverbs. This is what Proverbs 30:7–9 says:
7 Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:
8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
9 lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.
Being poor might lead us to be angry with God, or to do something unethical to get what we need to survive. But the bigger warning is against being rich and complacent. If all our material needs are met, we might deny God and say, “Who is the Lord?” We might not literally say that, but it’s easy to be slack in our dependence on God when we have everything we think we need. That certainly happened in Israel’s history (Moses saw it coming in Deut. 31:20). And we see it today, too.
Part of the reason why riches are so dangerous is that money can be an idol. The apostle Paul says that greed and covetousness is an idol (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). He also says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). He doesn’t say money or wealth is necessarily a root of evil, but it’s the love of those things. And if you hoard those things, you love them, or you’re at least putting your faith in those things.
It may be strange to think of money, wealth, and our love of these things as idols. Aren’t idols little statues that primitive and ignorant people worshiped? Well, not necessarily. Anything can be an idol. Tim Keller, a pastor and author, has written a great little book on idolatry called Counterfeit Gods. In it, he writes: “What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” He says that an idol is the thing that we think we can’t live without. It’s the kind of thing that dominates our life. If we lose it, we think our life is not worth living. It’s what we daydream about, what we think the most about, what consumes are time and energy. Perhaps it’s what we don’t yet have, something we’re desperate to acquire, because we think it will give our lives meaning. In short, an idol is whatever takes the place that God should have in our lives. God made us for himself. God should be at the center of our lives, but an idol removes God from his throne, at least in our hearts, and usurps his place. An idol is whatever we love the most, trust the most, and obey the most.
Keller says that we can have “surface idols,” like money, a career, a relationship, sex, entertainment, or all kinds of things. But those surface idols are built on the “deep idols” of power, approval, comfort, and security. Think about why we want money. We think it will give us the power to do or to have what we want. If we have enough money, we can control our lives. We can improve our health, improve our looks, improve our social status. If we have enough money, we’ll get approval. People will love us, they’ll want to be with us. If we have enough money, we can have all the comfort this world can give us. And if we have enough money, we can have security, or so we think. We can have a retirement plan. If an accident occurs, we’ll be ready. “Money answers everything”—that’s what the Preacher in Ecclesiastes thought (Eccl. 10:19), but it seems that he didn’t think of life from an eternal perspective.
But nothing can give us ultimate security. Only God can do that. Houses can burn down. Riches can be stolen or lost. Investments can tank. Another Proverb says that wealth can “suddenly . . . sprout wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven” (Prov. 23:5). Money cannot give us power over death. It cannot give us the comfort of a right relationship with God, of being at peace with our Maker. Money certainly can’t buy his approval. Money is a gift, but it’s meant to be used in the way the Giver wants us to use it.
We’ll think a bit more about the right use of wealth. But let’s now turn to rest of today’s passage. Here is Luke 12:22–34:
22 And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29 And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30 For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.
32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Here, Jesus tells us not to worry so much about money. God will take care of his people. Again, Jesus says that life is more than stuff, even more than basic things like food and clothing. God takes care of ravens, which were regarded as unclean animals, animals that the Israelites couldn’t eat (Lev. 11:15; Deut. 14:14). Perhaps the reference to ravens is a reminder that God used ravens to feed the prophet Elijah during a time of famine (1 Kgs. 17:4, 6). If God can take care of birds, who don’t plant and harvest, won’t he take care of human beings? If God makes sure that lilies, which are alive today and dead tomorrow, are clothed in beauty, won’t he make sure that his people are clothed?
Jesus’ point is to trust God for basic provisions. That’s why he teaches his followers to pray for their daily bread (Luke 11:3). Every day, we should rely upon God. Imagine how Jesus’ initial audience had to rely on God. They lived in a culture in which people had to work hard almost every day just to survive. They relied on each season’s crop, which meant they relied on the weather, which only God can control. The lived hand to mouth, and they had to live with the reminder that God causes rain to fall and crops to grow. In the west, we tend to forget all about this. Our prosperity causes us to think we’re self-reliant instead of God-reliant.
Jesus tells us to trust that our Father in heaven is good and will supply all our needs. Therefore, we don’t need to worry. The Gentiles, those apart from God, worry. But one sign of a Christian is that he or she knows God will provide. So, instead of worrying about money and food and clothing and shelter, we should first seek the kingdom of God. Seek the King. Worship him. Praise him. Live life on his terms. And ask him to provide what you need.
We should do that because God gives his children himself. God gives his children his kingdom. God has given us his own Son. If God did not spare his own precious Son, how much more will he give us little things like food and clothing!
Jesus ends this section of teaching by telling his followers to sell their possessions, to give to the needy, and to make their treasure in heaven, for that treasure cannot be lost or stolen, neither will it decay. What we treasure most is an indication of what we love the most. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Again, the issue really comes down to what we’re worshiping. If we worship God, he will be our treasure, and we won’t worry so much about how much money we have. But if we’re always thinking about money, if we’re always motivated by money, then we have a problem. Money has become our real treasure, our idol. And that is the greatest sin.
So, what do we do with this passage? One temptation would be to think that this passage is directed only at the “1 percent,” the über-rich. But let’s not make that mistake. Jesus was talking to a group of people who weren’t terribly wealthy. In fact, by our standards, they were quite poor.
The first thing we should do is have a biblical view of money and possessions. Everything we have comes from God. Even the ability to work hard, to have lucrative skills, comes from God (Deut. 8:17–18). Every good gift comes from his hand (James 1:17). And God has called us to trust that he will provide. He has called us to manage what he has given to us wisely. He has called us to give to others.
At the end of Paul’s first letter to his younger associate, Timothy, he tells Timothy that some people think that godliness is a way to become wealthy. There were people who believed the prosperity gospel then, just as there are people who believe that now. You know that message: “If you really believe in God, he will give you wealth.” People somehow think that God can be manipulated, like a celestial genie, or a heavenly ATM. So, Paul tells Timothy this in 1 Timothy 6:6–10:
6 But godliness with contentment is great gain, 7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8 But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. 9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
Then, a few verses later, Paul adds this (1 Tim. 6:17–19):
17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
God gives us good things to enjoy, but he gives us those things also to be rich in good works, to be generous to those who are needy. Elsewhere, we’re told to give to people in ministry, too, which is why we give to the church (1 Tim. 5:17–18, also 1 Cor. 9:4–14; Gal. 6:6). If we use our resources in the way that God wants us to, we’re showing that God is our true treasure. We’re storing up treasure for ourselves, a treasure that gives us true life.
Does this mean that we have to sell all our possessions and give them away? I don’t think so. Jesus doesn’t tell us to sell all our possessions. And, if we think about it, he might just be saying, “Give your money away.” In those days, there weren’t banks and investments, at least not the way we have banks and stocks and bonds today. I’m guessing that most people didn’t have a lot of coins in their possession. Most of their wealth would be stored in what they owned: their house, their clothing, perhaps some jewelry, quite often animals. The wealthier might have had some precious metals or stones. So, for them to give money away, they would first have to sell their possessions. At any rate, Jesus is certainly calling us to give generously, but that doesn’t mean we must give everything away. Later in Luke’s Gospel, we’ll encounter Zacchaeus, a tax collector who meets Jesus and is changed. Zacchaeus gives away half of his wealth and he is lifted up as an example (Luke 19:1–10).
A couple of weeks ago, I said that every generation has its blind spots. We have certain things in our lives that we don’t realize are sins. I wonder how future generations of Christians will look back at us. We can look back and say, “I can’t believe Christians owned slaves, or we’re racists,” or whatever. Future generations will look at us, I’m sure, and wonder how we could tolerate sexual sins, so much divorce, pornography, and abortion. I’m sure they’ll look at our society, with its triviality and entertainment, and wonder how we could be so shallow. But they’ll also look at our wealth and wonder why we didn’t give more. They’ll wonder whether we loved God or our money more. According to theologian Craig Blomberg, “It is arguable that materialism is the single biggest competitor with authentic Christianity for the hearts and souls of millions in our world today, including many in the visible church.”
There are always people and causes to give to. There is no shortage of poor people throughout the world. And we can give to Christian organizations who help the poor and the sick. You can sponsor a child through Compassion International or World Vision. Both organizations help with disaster relief, and other Christian agencies do that, too. The Voice of the Martyrs helps persecuted Christians, often with practical things like food, housing, and medicine. There are many ways to give to the poor. And we should remember that Jesus never says it’s the government’s job to take care of poverty. He doesn’t call for higher tax rates and more state-run welfare programs. He calls his followers to voluntarily give, and we can give to organizations that help the poor and tell others about Jesus.
Of course, churches, missionaries, and other Christian institutions need money. And we should give to them, and we should do so generously. Most of the things we spend our money on won’t last. But when we give to things that help advance God’s kingdom, our money is used for eternal causes. When we use our money to help other people get Bibles, or help other people hear the gospel, or help other people become better disciples, we’re spending our money on eternal matters.
And, above all, we should be thankful for all that God has given to us. When we’re greedy, we’re not content with what we have. And a failure to be content is a failure to thank God. Grace should lead to thanksgiving.
So, this week, think about your stuff. Do you own your stuff, or does your stuff own you? Will you let God control your life, including your possessions, or are you trying to control everything? Are you using your things wisely? Are there ways that you could be more generous? Could you literally sell something, whether a physical object or an investment, and give more money away? Think about the end of your life: Do you want to be known for building a castle full of toys, or for giving generously, particularly to eternal causes? Ask God to lead you in this. Think about it. And then act.
And let us be thankful. God has given us so much. God has given us his Son, Jesus. Though we all have idols, though we all have failed to love God and worship him and obey him and trust him, though we all have sinned, God has given us everything we need to be reconciled to him. And Jesus left his luxurious home in heaven to become a man, to live a righteous life for us and to die an atoning death for us. He did this because his true treasure was doing the will of his Father. If your life is built on the counterfeit god of money, or on any other idol, I urge you to smash that idol and to turn to Jesus. And let us all follow his example: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (New York: Dutton, 2009), xvii. ↑
- Ibid., xviii–xix ↑
- Ibid., xxi–xxii. ↑
- Ibid., 64–65 ↑
- Craig L. Blomberg, Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 132. ↑
Jesus warns his disciples not to store up treasures on earth and not to be greedy. Real life is far more than what we own. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message, on Luke 12:13-34, on April 14, 2019.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on giving to the church. He asks and answers the following questions: What does the Bible say about money? Why should we give to the church? How much should we give to the church? What is our motivation for giving?