Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 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, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
22 He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. (Luke 12:13-23, NRSV)
In the ancient Greco-Roman world Plutus was the god of wealth. In statues he was nearly always depicted holding a cornucopia, or horn of plenty, a symbol of the abundance he possessed. It was believed that Zeus had made Plutus blind so that his wealth would fall indiscriminately on both deserving and undeserving alike. This helped to explain why some evil and cruel people were very rich while some good and kind people were very poor. Plutus was also lame, which meant he was often slow to arrive. Since he had wings, however, he typically left much faster than he came. This helped explain why wealth, which sometimes takes years to acquire, can completely vanish in an instant. In spite of his fickle nature, Plutus was nonetheless a god who was widely worshipped in those days. It was once said, “Mortals might get tired of love, bread, music, honors, cakes, battles, ambition, military advancement, or lentil soup, but of Plutus they never tire.” Who among us would not like to be rich?
As we go through this sermon series on idols it will not surprise you to see I’ve included the idol of money and wealth. I’m sure we all agree there are many greedy people in this world who orient their lives around wealth. I’m not sure, however, that any of us include ourselves in that number. As one contemporary writer puts it, “Nobody thinks they are greedy and this is why greed is such a dangerous idol.” How many of you would say, “Yes, greed is a problem for me. I have an unhealthy appetite for worshipping money and wealth?” My guess is that few if any of us would say that. And yet if we look at Jesus’ teaching we find that Jesus talked about the problem of greed and the love of wealth nearly more than anything else. So who was he talking to? Is this only a problem for other people at other times in other places?
You see, the problem with greed is that it hides itself and blinds the heart of its victim. Consider the fact that by historical and global standards we now live in an extraordinarily affluent community. Few people in the history of the world have had as many educational, entertainment, recreational, vocational, and economic choices as you and I now have. And yet, do you consider yourself rich? Probably not. Why is that? Because you’re comparing yourself to people right around you, plenty of whom have more far money than you do. Most Americans consider themselves middle class and only 2% of us think of ourselves as upper class even though that is, by the world’s standards, exactly what we are.
Here’s what I want to ask you. Are you at least open to the idea that Plutus might be a god you have worshipped in your life? Can you at least be willing to explore with me the possibility that you have looked to material wealth to provide for you things that only God, ultimately, can provide for you? If so, you might find God ready to set you free from a bondage you never realized has been enslaving you all along.
Jesus was teaching one day to a crowd filled with people who, like us, worshipped at the altar of Plutus without realizing what they were doing. One of them, however, spoke up and, in doing so, revealed the true affection of his heart. “Teacher,” he called out, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Now, chances are this man was referring to land that had been in his family for generations. For the Jewish people, both then and now, land was such a vital symbol of identity that to lose possession of your land was to lose your very identity. Likely, this man is a younger brother who, because of his lesser position in the household, got the short end of the stick after his father died and he and his older brother had a falling out. When wealth is your god you will sacrifice even family at its altar.
Jesus refuses the man’s request. Maybe the man has a right to the land and maybe he doesn’t. That’s not the point for Jesus because Jesus knows this man’s main problem is not a battle with his brother over the possession of land but a battle with wealth over the possession of his heart.
Sensing a profound teachable moment, Jesus turns to the crowd, as he now turns even to us, and warns, ““Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Jesus acknowledges here what I already told you is true. Greed is sneaky. It’s subtle and seductive. Many people in this world, many of us, are worshipping at the altar of Plutus and we don’t even know it.
Patrick Morris was a reclusive 43-year-old man living in the Bronx in a 10-by-10 foot room where he compulsively saved newspapers, magazines, books, catalogs and junk mail. Two days before Christmas some years ago it all came crashing down on him – literally. An avalanche of his stuff, which had taken years to accumulate, instantly fell and trapped him, standing up, in his room for two days before neighbors heard his moaning and called the fire department. It took the firefighters an hour to haul out enough garbage bags of his stuff before they could set him free.
If we are not careful, the worship of wealth and financial security will slowly build up in our heart until one day it consumes us. Don’t let it, Jesus says. Be careful because your life, in no way, consists in the abundance of your possessions. Your life is not defined by what you possess or don’t possess. Money and wealth are good things, of course. Never once does the Bible tell us that they are not. People think the Bible teaches that money is the root of all evil. It doesn’t. I Timothy 6:10 states instead, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Wealth in and of itself is a good thing and only becomes an idol when we make that good thing into an ultimate thing. Only God is to be the source of our identity, our security and our meaning in life. When we allow wealth to take that place in our hearts we make it an ultimate thing and we ask of it things which it can never deliver. To make that very point, Jesus tells a story.
“The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” Notice how Jesus begins. It was not the rich man who produced abundance but it was the land of the rich man which produced abundance. In some ways the Greeks and the Romans had it right. Wealth is dispersed indiscriminately. We like to think that those who have more deserve to have more and those who have less deserve to have less but that’s not really how it works. In many ways wealth is blind.
Think about it this way. Take the wealthiest man in the history of the world and stand him next to the poorest man in the history of the world. Can we really say that the wealthy man can take credit for his wealth when most of what he has is a gift? Think about it, had the rich man been born in the poor man’s place, in his time in history, in his nation with his economy, with his upbringing and education, with his intellect, with his opportunities, would he still end up with great wealth? No, it’s hard to imagine that he would.
If you had been born in desperate poverty in the slums of Nairobi where would you be today? Do you think people living today in the slums of Nairobi work any less hard than people born in the suburbs of Sacramento? Trust me, they do not. The term self-made man is a fictitious term. If it were not for the circumstances of your life, given to you either by fate or by God depending on your world view, you could take very little if any credit for anything you now possess.
The land gives this man great wealth. And in response what does he do? He asks a question. Well, he asks himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” It’s a good question. It’s the right question. Give the guy some credit because he asks a question that we often fail to ask. I believe we should be asking it because, just like this fortunate man in Jesus’ story, most every person in this room has more wealth in their hands than they need. Every day Americans buy 3,972,603 movie tickets, 1,683,835 songs and albums online, 568,764 Titleist golf balls, 443,650 large French fries at Burger King, 160,968 bottles of Absolut Vodka, and 7,500 Samsung LCD TVs. Most of us ought to constantly be asking the same question this man is asking, “What should I do with the overabundance that has fallen into my hands?”
The rich farmer asks the right question but tragically comes up with the wrong answer. And he comes up with the wrong answer because he asks the right question to the wrong person. Did you notice who he asks? Instead of seeking the counsel of the One who placed all this wealth in his hands in the first place, he looks to his own heart and his own heart betrays him, as the human heart always does. He seeks to secure himself and his future without reference to God. He puts his faith in the gift rather than the Giver of that gift, turns a good thing into an ultimate thing.
Specifically, here is the wrong answer he gives himself. “I should build more barns so that I can keep all I have and then be able to say to my soul, ‘Soul, have more than enough for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry!’” You see, it’s not just money this man is after but what he believes money can bring him – identity, security, meaning in life. The answer he gives to his very soul is that wealth can bring him the ultimate satisfaction that only God was meant to bring to us. He is telling himself that the God-shaped vacuum in his soul can be filled by material wealth. And as we’re about to see, this wrong answer to the right question comes with tragic consequences.
This is the perilous place in which we all find ourselves in relation to the idol of wealth. It’s why Jesus tells us all to take care and be on guard. Remember, just like this man you have been given more wealth than you need or deserve. In response, I hope you are asking the right question: What am I to do with all this wealth? When you do ask that question, however, do you ask it to yourself? Do you ask, “How can I use my money to gain security for myself?”, or “How can I use my money to make myself completely comfortable?”, or “How can I use my money to buy the things I see others possess which I want to possess as well?” Do you ask yourself the question or do you pose the question to God, saying, “Lord, how do you want me to use this wealth which you, by your grace, have put into my hands because I know that ultimately you, and not wealth, are the source of my security, my identity and my purpose in this life?” That is the right question asked to the right person and it will always lead to the right answer.
The man in the parable fails to ask God and Jesus calls him a fool for it. That very night his life was to be demanded of him and all those treasures he founded his life upon will vanish. Remember Plutus. Because he’s lame he comes to us slowly. Because he has wings, however, he leaves us in an instant. That is, by the way, how most of us will lose our worldly wealth. A few people lose it along the way. Most of us, however, will lose it all at once at the very second our heart stops beating. This man is a fool because he doesn’t keep that in mind. Greed has tricked him into thinking that wealth will give him the ultimate things that only God can give him.
Whenever I watch television with my kids I annoy them. I annoy them at others times, of course, but I’m especially good at it when we watch TV because during the commercials I am constantly telling my kids, “They’re lying to you, you know. Life doesn’t really go better with Coke. Energizer batteries don’t actually keep going, and going, and going, and going. Disneyland is actually not the happiest place on earth. Most expensive place maybe, most contagious place maybe, but not the happiest!” Sometimes I challenge my kids to spot the lie in the commercial, which isn’t always easy. The folks on Madison Avenue are brilliant at making us really believe that if use this particular deodorant our lives really will reach a level of fulfillment we had never known was possible before. We are lied to so often in our culture about the idol of wealth and material things that it’s no wonder that most of us eventually give in and believe the lie.
Of course, if I asked how many of you believe that money and wealth bring ultimate happiness and security I bet not a single one of you would raise your hand. Because of course we don’t believe that. And yet, how many of us worry about money – worry that we won’t have enough, worry about retirement, worry about college, worry about debt? How many of us find ourselves forever chasing the new thing, the latest edition, the most recent upgrade? Honestly, if you lost everything you had today, everything except the minimum required to meet your most basic material needs, do you really believe that you would be as content, as happy, as secure as you feel today? If not, then you need to consider the possibility that you, like the man in Jesus’ story, have been trusting wealth to deliver to you more than it can ever deliver. And if that’s true, then also like the man in the story there will come a day when you will be sorely disappointed.
After Jesus finishes the story he turns away from the crowd and towards his disciples and he says to them, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” Notice something. Jesus doesn’t tell them to give all their money away. Yes, in many places Jesus teaches us to live simply and generously towards others, especially the poor, but he typically doesn’t tell us to give all our wealth away because wealth, in and of itself, is a good thing. What he tells us instead is to make sure we remember that life is much more than wealth and that since God, and not wealth, is our ultimate source of all that really matters we don’t ever have to worry about wealth, about having too much or about having too little.
This last March I traveled with a team from our church to visit our World Vision partnership in Abaya, Ethiopia. As most of you know, we are helping with efforts in this region of extreme poverty, sponsoring kids, building schools and health clinics, digging wells. Though this was my third trip to Ethiopia I still found myself profoundly moved by the poverty, poverty which may seem foreign to us in America but which is far more the global norm than the affluence we know here in our very rich corner of the globe. At one point, after a visit to our sponsored child’s home, I made myself a promise. Daniel is an orphan who lives with his older brothers and their families in one small hut in a remote part of that region. They have only a handful of worldly possessions. They wear the same clothes every day. If it doesn’t rain their crops don’t grow and they don’t eat. Still, he and his family have a level of joy and peace about them that transcends their circumstances. So as we drove away from their village that day I made myself a promise. I will never again worry about not having enough. If they are joyful with so little, how can I worry with so much?
Sadly, it is a promise I have not since kept. I’ve tried and failed. The idol of wealth is just too seductive. I know in my head that God is my ultimate security but the lies around me in this world sneak into my heart and seduce me into living as if this were not true. In Ethiopia I was asking the right question. Back home I’ve been stunned by how easily I start giving myself the wrong answer.
Andrew Carnegie, the great steel tycoon, was one of the wealthiest men of his time. Early on in his life, after he’d already made a great fortune, Carnegie took a ruthless evaluation of his own life which led him to ask the right question. He wrote at that time,
Man must have an idol. The amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry. No idol is more debasing than the worship of money. Whatever I engage in I must push inordinately therefore should I be careful to choose the life which will be the most elevating in character. To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery.
Realizing how he had been long deceived, Andrew Carnegie made himself a promise.
I will resign business at thirty-five, but during the ensuing two years, I wish to spend the afternoons in securing instruction, and in reading systematically.
Basically, Andrew Carnegie promised to spend two years figuring out how he could live the rest of his life free from the idol of wealth. Tragically, he never kept his promise. While he did use his money to do some good things, Carnegie spent most of the remainder of his life in pursuit of money and did so at the expense of thousands of steel workers who suffered in unimaginable working conditions and died, most of them, from accidents or disease by their forties. He asked the right question but the seduction of Plutus led him ultimately to the wrong answer.
He’s not alone. And so I ask, how do people like us who are so easily seduced by the idol of wealth not only ask the right question but ultimately get the right answer? How do we learn to be humbly grateful for the wealth we have received but to hold on to it loosely, knowing that it can never do for us what the world tells us it will do for us?
Let me answer that question with a story.
In Luke 19 we read the story of a tax collector by the name of Zacchaeus. As many of you know, tax collectors were the most hated members of Jewish society in Jesus’ time. Not only had these men betrayed their fellow Jews by collecting unjust taxes for the enemy Roman occupiers, when they collected these taxes they regularly took more than was required to line their own pockets with great wealth. Zacchaeus was no different. For the sake of wealth Zacchaeus gave up his reputation, his community, his friendships, his family, his honor, and his integrity. Wealth was his god and he did for his god what you always do for your god, he gave up everything for it. And it worked. He was the richest man in town. The most hated, but the richest.
Then one day Jesus came to Jericho, to the town where Zacchaeus spent his life cheating his neighbors. By this time Jesus was a celebrity. His teaching and miracles were well known and he drew a crowd everywhere he went. Zacchaeus was curious so he went along with everybody else to see this famous rabbi. But because he was a short man he couldn’t see over the crowd. And a crowd that hated him wasn’t about to let him push to the front for the best seat. So Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree so that he could at least get a glimpse of Jesus as he passed by. It was an act in those days that would have invited enormous ridicule. Zacchaeus didn’t care. For some reason, he was desperate to connect with Jesus.
That’s when something crazy happened. Jesus walks by, stops, looks up in the tree, and calls out to the most hated man in town, “Zacchaeus, come down from there at once; for I must stay at your house today.” In those days eating with somebody in their home was a great sign of friendship. This wasn’t Zacchaeus choosing Jesus as a friend; this was Jesus choosing Zacchaeus as a friend.
Everybody within earshot would have been stunned, nobody more than Zacchaeus. Nobody ever chose Zacchaeus for anything, and rightly so. The crowd couldn’t believe it. “How could Jesus go to stay in the home of such a sinner?” They only ask the question, however, because they don’t know Jesus. This is what Jesus does. He chooses to go and live in the homes, in the very hearts, of the most undeserving among us as long as we are willing to let him come. Zacchaeus did let him come and when he did it changed, for him, absolutely everything.
Some of you remember what happened next. This man whose whole life had been given to the worship of wealth and all he thought wealth could give him, this man who’d been answering the right question with the wrong answer his whole life, stood there in front of his new friend Jesus that day and finally got the answer right. “This day,” he announced, “I give half my possessions to the poor and if I have cheated anybody in the past, I will pay that person back four times as much.” In response, Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this man’s house.”
Let me put this simply. You can never free yourself of the seductive power of the idol of wealth. It’s too persistently pervasive and too deviously subtle. Some of you don’t even know the extent to which it has a grip on your heart. As we talked about a few weeks ago, the only way for the heart to cast out an impure affection is to embrace a pure one. Specifically, when a person finally comes to see what it is that Jesus is offering, then that person is finally free to give up worshipping whatever empty thing they were worshipping before. Jesus replaced money as Zacchaeus’s savior and so money went back to being merely that, just money.
Our lives don’t change in order to be chosen by God. Our lives change because we have been chosen by God. Now that the One who is over all, the very One to whom belongs the world itself, has called us friend, we are set free to hold on loosely to everything else in life. To the extent that you are looking to material wealth to bring you security or identity or meaning in life is the very extent to which you have not yet understood the fact that in Jesus Christ you have been graciously and freely offered all these things for all time and beyond.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Let’s begin with a very pertinent question. Are you a greedy person? How do you know?
Read Luke 12:13-23. What do you notice first?
The man who speaks up in the crowd has seen his family divided over wealth. Have you ever seen this happen? How is it possible for money to come between loved ones?
Jesus tells a story. What do you think is the main point of Jesus’ story? What is the important truth he is trying to teach us here?
Do you see your material wealth as a gift or as something you have earned or deserved?
By nature of being an American, you have more material wealth than you need. Do you regularly ask yourself, along with the man in Jesus’ story, “What should I do with this abundance?” To whom do you ask that question? What answer do you receive?
Can you identify how material wealth has become for you an idol, how you look to it for security, identity or meaning in life?
Read the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. What does the story about this once-greedy man have to teach us about how we can get rid of the idol of wealth in our lives?
 Paraphrase from Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods (New York: Riverhead, 2009), 52.
 Keller was very helpful on these points.
 Cited in Leadership Magazine, Summer 2004, p. 77.
 NRSV. Italics mine.
 Cited in Leadership Magazine, Spring 2008, p. 62.
 In fact, Jesus only ever said that to one person, a rich young ruler, and he did so because he realized that he was a man so addicted to a love of money that only a radical solution like complete poverty would ever cure him. Read this story in Mark 19:16-22.
 Cited by Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods, 69.
 Luke 19:1-10
 Tim Keller’s words here, Counterfeit God, 63-64.