Temptation from an unexpected source - Luke 12:13-21
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Men who trap animals in Africa for zoos in America say that one of the hardest animals to catch is the ring-tailed monkey. For the Zulus of that continent, however, it's simple. They've been catching this agile little animal with ease for years. The method the Zulus use is based on knowledge of the animal. Their trap is nothing more than a melon growing on a vine. The seeds of this melon are a favourite of the monkey. Knowing this, the Zulus simply cut a hole in the melon, just large enough for the monkey to insert his little paw to reach the seeds inside. The monkey will stick his paw in, grab as many seeds as he can, then start to withdraw it. But he cannot get his paw, clutching so many seeds out of the hole. His fist is now larger than the hole. The monkey will pull and tug, screech and fight the melon for hours. But he can't get free of the trap unless he gives up the seeds, which he refuses to do. Meanwhile, the Zulus sneak up and nab him. It's the monkey's greed you see which catches him out in the end.
Now when we come to our passage for this evening, Luke 12 vv 13-21, we find that Jesus' main theme is greed. Verse 15: "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."
Jesus is in the middle of a teaching session with his disciples, when he is interrupted by a man who wants to settle a difficult dispute with his brother. As is often the case, it involves money, but Jesus will not be drawn, and instead he uses this question as an opportunity to teach his disciples about the dangers of greed. But this section of teaching is part of a chapter where Jesus' concern is that his disciples be counter cultural in their actions and attitudes. And in order to understand our passage correctly we need to understand the context.
You see at this point in Jesus' ministry there were two problems. First, there was opposition from the religious leaders. Turn back to chapter 11 verse 53-54: "When Jesus left there, the Pharisees, [that's the religious leaders] and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say." Jesus and his disciples were beginning to come under pressure, partly because Jesus has just berated the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. But whatever the reason, it cannot have been easy to bear. And you can imagine that one or two of the disciples may have been tempted to give up at this stage. But a second problem was popular acclaim for Jesus from the crowd. Chapter 12 v 1: "Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples." Thousands were following Jesus. And this time the temptation for the disciples was to lap up the crowds' favour, to enjoy and pander to the crowds, perhaps to sign the odd autograph, to be taken in by popularity and acclaim. And at the heart of both problems, persecution and popular acclaim, there is the same temptation- fear of man, wanting to be a man pleaser, wanting to have the love and support of the crowd. In the face of persecution, it was fear of man that would drive them to quit. In the face of popular acclaim it was fear of man that would drive them to pander to the crowds and play to them. So it's at this point that Jesus addresses his disciples and warns them not to fall into that trap which was the Pharisees' trap. Because the Pharisees were men pleasers. They were sham religious hypocrites who just played to the crowd, verse 1: "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees which is hypocrisyDon't be a man pleaser he's saying. Instead verse 5: "Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has the power to throw you into hell." Fear God, not men. Don't seek man's approval, seek God's. That's how a disciple of Jesus should act. And he puts it in a slightly different way in verse 31: "Seek God's kingdom, and all these things will be given to you as well." Disciples of Jesus should fear God and seek first his kingdom. We should be counter cultural.
Now given that that is the context, it becomes easier to see why Jesus answers the questioner in verse 13 in the way that he does. Jesus spots in this man a weakness which his disciples must not succumb to. Greed. For disciples of Jesus are to be rich not to themselves, but to God. So he says in verse 15: "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." Greed is to be totally alien to the Christian because he or she fears God first of all and seeks first his kingdom. As Jesus says in verse 21, we are to be rich towards God first and foremost. And whilst Jesus' primary application is to possessions, yet greed affects many areas of life. So as we look at this passage this evening, we need to examine ourselves honestly again. Are we truly being rich towards God, as Jesus will challenge us, are we being counter cultural in this area of our lives, or have we fallen prey to this temptation of greed. Because if we fall short in this area, then God's verdict on us on judgement day will be "you fool". And that is not a verdict any of us wish to hear. So three temptations then which Jesus warns us against in this passage which are all driven by greed.
1) We're Get Centred Rather than Give Centred
2) We're Self Centred Rather than God Centred
3) We're Now Centred Rather than Future Centred
1) We're Get Centred Rather than Give Centred
So the first temptation Jesus tackles is the temptation to be get centred rather than give centred, or to put it another way, greed affects our attitude to others. Look at verse 13: "Someone in the crowd said to him, 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.' Jesus replied, 'Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?' Then he said to them, 'Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.'" Now at first sight we might think that there is nothing wrong with this man who asks the question. It was the norm for people to ask rabbis like Jesus for help in settling family disputes. But Jesus is no ordinary rabbi. He's not going to be drawn into a domestic. And one reason is that there is something far more important to be worried about, which this man has not understood. Because Jesus sees something in this man which leads him to take him to task and to warn him publicly. For a start, the man butts into Jesus' teaching session without a care in the world. He's totally out of sync with what Jesus has just been saying. Jesus has been impressing upon his hearers the need to fear God rather than men. But this oaf buts in and says: "Sort out my domestic Jesus!" And in fact that's the tone. He doesn't say: "Jesus can you possibly give us a little help on this one please." He says: "Tell my brother to divide the inheritance." But Jesus sees inside the heart to show that the man's real problem was not the injustice of being wronged, but the evil of greed. "Watch out, be on your guard against all kinds of greed," he says. Why? Because: "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions". It's not wealth that is the problem necessarily. It's the abundance of them, having far more than you need. And a greedy person always wants more and more, far beyond what they need. And when you a greedy for more, then you will do anything to get. And that was the problem for this man. He will do anything, it seems, to get hold of his share of the cash, even to the extent of climbing all over his brother to do so. For greed ruins relationships. It seriously affects our attitude to others. This man is more get centred than give centred. And it seems the more you have the more you want.
That was certainly the case for one wealthy woman. She was a billionaire who owned a string of hotels, and at one time the Empire State Building. Yet, in September 1989 Leona Mindy Rosenthal Helmsley was convicted of 33 counts of tax evasion, for which she faced the possibility of being sent to prison for 100 years. According to Time magazine, she emerged as a penny-pinching tyrant who tried to get money out of just about everybody. No amount of money was too small to fight over. After the sudden death of her only son at age 40 in 1982, she sued and won the lion's share of his estate, $149,000, leaving his four children with $432 each and his widow with $2,171.
And what does Jesus say to us? Watch out. Beware of all types of greed. Greed simply uses and abuses people to get what we want. And it's so easy to fall into that trap isn't it? Even in the smallest ways we use and abuse people, often those we profess to love, to get what we want and to have it our way. Even Christians are prone to squabble over the inheritance from a relative. Even Christians will make sure that they get their dues to the extent that they will bite, and kick and punch their way, metaphorically, to get it. But Jesus says that is wrong. And it's not just material greed he's talking about here. He says to us, "Watch out for all types of greed." Where are your weakness when it comes to greed? Greedy for power, perhaps a promotion at work to the detriment of others and your Christian witness. Greedy for a member of the opposite sex perhaps. Paul uses this word a number of times in his writings and he often uses it in the context of sex. Is that your weakness? Sexual greed? Using your boyfriend or girlfriend to satisfy your own greedy appetites to their cost? Greedy perhaps for someone you want but cannot have? Greed is so destructive is it? It destroys relationships. No wonder Jesus warns us against it. And it's at this point that he warns his disciples to be counter cultural, because then when Christians go against the grain of popular culture in their contentment with their material possessions, their contentment with their lot, then it makes an impact on the watching world around us.
Many of us will perhaps remember Derek and Jane French our mission partners in Spain. This week I spoke to Derek about Jane's father's death, and he gave some very moving words of how Tom's family had been so counter cultural in that hospital those final days. They were committed Christians with a wonderful assurance that Tom, Jane's father, was going to heaven. And Derek said that this quiet confidence and love affected the staff on the ward very deeply. One of the staff members came up to Derek and said: "You know it really surprises me the level of love and concern they are showing for Tom. That's not normal." And Derek went on to say that the reason she said that was because most families are spending hours pouring out their regrets or squabbling over the inheritance that will soon be theirs. Counter cultural Christians do make an impact. Christians are to be people far more interested in giving than getting. And Jesus commands us to be counter cultural in regard to greed of all sorts. For it destroys relationships. And the temptation for us is to be get centred rather than give centred.
2) We're Self Centred Rather than God Centred
But there is second temptation that Jesus highlights, and that is to be self centred rather than God centred or to put it another way, greed affects our relationship to God. Because Jesus goes on to tell a parable to explain his main point which is that a man's life does not consists in the abundance of his possessions. For Jesus recognised a much deeper spiritual problem in this man's life which was that his greed affected his attitude to God. He was far more interested in himself than God. Let me read to you the story again from verse 16: "And Jesus told them this parable: 'The ground of a certain rich man produced a crop. He thought to himself, "What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops." Then he said: "This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." Let's see how this man would like in the 21st century. He'd probably have had a modest education, and always worked hard. He'd done his O Levels or GCSE's and then done his degree. He'd got his first job as a junior clerk in a big company, and then gradually worked his way up the corporate ladder. Oh, it had taken time, and it had taken it's toll. More than one broken relationship on the way. But now at the age of 53, he was on top of the world. He'd bought a lovely house in one of the Wolds villages which had 2 acres of land. He had bought a small yacht recently which he sailed from time to time off the South coast. His two children were loving their schools. His daughter in particular was getting used to her new horse, and the son was mastering the ins and outs of expensive and dangerous new sports. And his wife loved the Country Club. His new gleaming Jaguar was sitting in the drive. Everything was going well, even his wise new investments in Chelsea Football Club. In fact so well, he would soon be investing some more money in more shares. And to cap it all he has decided to retire early. "Oh, you're so wise," they said at the retirement party. "Get out of the rat race, put your feet up. Live off the fat of the land." And now, the guests have gone, the party is over, and as he lies back in the pool, the sun setting behind the imported Japanese pagoda, the man sips champagne, and thinks to himself: "You, are very lucky. You have everything you have ever dreamed of. You've made it. Now all you need to do is take life easy, eat, drink andSuddenly there is a searing pain in his chest. And he's dead before the ambulance could get to the house.
Now to us, this man looks like the complete self made man. He is a success in every sense of the word. OK, he's had a few blips on the way, but by and large, he's a success. But what does God say? Verse 20: "You fool." He's not wise at all. He's a fool. Why? Well it's not because he's wealthy. The Bible isn't against wealth as such. It's not even because he saved up and put some things aside. The Bible encourages us to be prudent and wise with our possessions and money. It's not because he's taken early retirement. Nothing wrong with that necessarily. The reason he's a fool is because he hasn't given God a second look. His world revolved around himself. And he thought that his life consisted in the abundance of his wealth. His motto was: "The man with the most toys wins." Just notice how self centred this man was. Did you notice how many times the word 'I' or 'me' or 'mine' comes in the passage? Ten times, and he spends all his time talking to himself. In fact, he's even looking forward to the time when he'll be able to talk to himself in verse 19. His world revolved around him. Now, we don't know what he was like. He may have been a nice person, he could even have been a religious person who believed in God. But his life told a different story. He was self centred rather than God centred. And he'd failed to see that even his wealth was God given. Notice what Jesus says in verse 16: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop." It's as if Jesus is subtly reminding us that for all our hard work, we are totally dependant on God's grace to make things grow and to feed us. We deserve none of the credit. God alone gives us wealth and food and clothing. And yet this man totally failed to see it. And God's verdict? "You fool!" And so Jesus concludes in verse 21: "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."
Jesus' point is very simple. He is warning us that there is far more to life than getting as much as you can. Life has a different, far more important purpose, and that is to be rich towards God. Human beings were made and designed for relationship with God, to enjoy and delight in him forever. And if you are not doing that, then you have missed out on the most important part of life, in fact, you've missed the entire point. You might be very successful personally, doing well in your job or studies, a model son or daughter, the sort of person everyone likes, with all the world's credentials attached to your name, but if your life has no room for God, then you are a total fool. That's not my verdict that's God's and that's the one that counts. And it's not that God hasn't done amazing things for you. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to bring you back into relationship with himself. We are natural rebels against God facing an eternity without him. But God in his love sent his Son to die for you so that you could be right with God again. He became poor so that we could be truly rich, not having more toys than anyone else, but able to be rich towards God. And if you are ignoring God at the moment, then Jesus says you're a fool.
Imagine that when you die you are brought before the pearly gates of heaven, and God asks you why did you ignore me? And you say: "Well I didn't think it mattered very much!" And he'll say: "Mattered? Why do you think I sent my Son to die for you? Of course it matters!" Then he'll ask you another question: "Why should I let you in to my heaven?" And you'll reply: "Well I've led a decent life." And again he replies in astonishment: "A decent life? Then why on earth did my Son die for you." You see, the cross shows us that our response to God matters. This isn't a personal preference. It's about life and death. The cross is God's way of declaring us rich in God's eyes, forgiven and set free. And if you ignore that gift, if you say, "Oh it doesn't matter," or "oh, I'll get there my own way," then God will say to you: "Fool!" Why didn't you accept my offer. There is no other way. We cannot get to heaven on our own merits because we're not good enough, nor will we ever be. And a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. It's about something far more important." So have you received God's gift yet? Or are you more concerned to get as much as you can in this life? If you do, then God's verdict will be: "You fool!"
But before we move on, just remember the context. Who is Jesus speaking to? His disciples. He's warning his disciples to be counter cultural, remember? And in this area of putting self before God, then us who would profess to be Christians need to hear the challenge too. We can't get off Jesus' hook on this one. Because quite frankly, more often than not we are rich towards self rather than God aren't we? Even if we have made that decision to accept God's gift of forgiveness and a fresh start, the temptation to put self first and God second is so strong. Greed has a nasty habit of getting in the way of our relationship with God, doesn't it? What does it mean for us to be rich towards God? Well Jesus' primary application in this chapter is to our wealth. He'll go on in the rest of the chapter to explain what it means to be rich towards God. It'll mean not worrying about our material wealth and trusting God. It'll mean using our wealth for God's kingdom and his purposes. We've been thinking a lot about that as a result of our Thanksgiving Days. But I want to offer up another challenge this evening, particularly to us younger members of the church family who have the best years of our lives ahead of us, Mark 2, students, TNT. What will it mean for you and me to be rich towards God? The problem for us is the world around us screams at us do what you want with your life, get the GSCE's, get the A Levels, get the Degree, get the job and get the mortgage, none of which are bad in themselves. And so the first question we often ask is "What shall I do with my life" and not "what does God want me to do with my life that he's given me?" The default is self, rather than God. But the God centred Christian will instead ask: "How can I use my gifts and time and energy and life for God's kingdom?" Maybe it's in giving yourself full time to God's work. The default for many Christians is to not think about it, rather than to think about it. God's harvest field needs more workers, and each one of us has unique gifts and talents to offer. Have you given that serious thought? Maybe it will mean taking a job in a city where you know a church is being planted. It might mean a less well paid job, it might mean a more basic lifestyle, but it will mean your time and energy can be devoted to that important gospel initiative. No it's not glamorous, no our families might not like it, and yes our non Christian friends will think us mad. But that's what it means to be rich towards God. It means putting God and his kingdom first. Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you. We need to be thinking gospel first and foremost, not self. That's what it means to be rich towards God. The default setting on our thinking and priorities should be the kingdom of God. But the overwhelming tide of our culture tells us young people think self first and foremost, and we swallow it hook line and sinker 99% of the time. I don't mean to make us feel guilty. Rather I want us to see that the counter cultural thing for the Christian to do is to think gospel first and foremost. Think God's agenda first. That should be the default setting in our hearts and minds. What is best for the gospel's sake? Not my personal comfort and plans. And it will be different for each of us. But at the very least let's get into the pattern of thinking and acting that way. Because too much is at stake. Put self second and God first. For that's what it means to be rich towards God. But all too often the temptation is to do the other. To be self centred rather than God centred. And God's verdict on us is "You fool!"
3) We're Now Centred Rather than Future Centred
But finally and very briefly, the last temptation is to be now centred rather than future centred, or to put it another way, greed affects our relationship to time. This man in the parable was a fool not only because he forgot about his relationship with God, but also because he thought he had all the time in the world. He thought he'd live to enjoy his hard earned cash. But the reality was very different. Verse 20: "But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'" There he was just planning the rest of his life away, when in reality he had only a few hours to live. And that is why Jesus is so urgent in this parable. He knows the reality and fragility of life. We are like flowers in the field, here today, gone tomorrow. But too many of us, non Christians and Christians, live as if we were in charge of our destinies, as if we know exactly what we will happen. We are far too now centred rather than future centred. We forget that the most important event in our lives will not be the GSCE's in the summer, not the degree to come, not even getting married or having kids. It's the great final exam before God, judgement day. That's the one we really need to be ready for. And if we have invested all our time in this world present world without a thought for what happens next, then we are total fools according to Jesus.
One of the excuses I often hear for people to postpone thinking about Christianity is "I've got all the time in the world." And yet Jesus is warning us: "No, you do not." We don't even know what will happen later this evening, let alone in thirty years time. When I was at university, there were two tragedies which affected students in a huge way. The first was the death of a friend of mine. She was just eighteen and was killed over the Easter holidays in a freak accident. No-one could have predicted what had happened. She was a First year student with much to offer and a full life ahead of her. The second tragedy was a young man who was part of the rowing squad in the Oxford and Cambridge boat crew. He was fit, popular and again had a great future ahead of him. One day as he was getting out of the boat with his fellow crewmen, he had a massive heart attack and died on the riverside. Again completely unexpected. Both events sent shock waves through the university. But let me tell you the greater tragedy. Only one of those young people was ready to face their maker. Both were before God that day, and only one was prepared. One was a fool, the other wise.
Friends, Jesus wishes not to brow beat us into the kingdom or to badger us to serve him faithfully. He means us simply to be clear what the stakes are. And there are challenges to all of us here this evening. To the non Christian, then, you must make your mind up about Jesus Christ. Get your relationship with God sorted out sooner rather than later. Come to a course, or chat with someone as soon as you can. Don't leave it, or it could be too late. Don't be like the fool who thought that life consisted in the abundance of his wealth and was not rich towards God. And for the Christian. Life for us too is short. So will you live for the present or the future. Will you be rich towards yourself or God? The joy of the world to come should be a spur to us to serve God joyfully and faithfully knowing that every minute counts for God when you invest in heaven. So will you use every day, every hour for the glory of God? Or will greed in all its forms hamstring your Christian life so that you become more get centred than give centred, more self centred than God centred, more present centred than future centred. That's the choice we all face. Hear the Word of the Lord, and may God give us grace to obey.
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