What would Jesus say about the current economic meltdown?
It’s an important question for any Christian. But it’s hard to answer with any great degree of certainty. But one thing’s for certain, he’d warn us about greed. At least that’s what he did when he was confronted by a man in Luke 12.
Jesus’ warning seems to come out of left field. But it was triggered by an incident involving an angry man who had issues! Luke tells us, ‘Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me”. The man thought he was the victim of injustice. And it got under his skin. He was convinced that his brother had robbed him of his rightful inheritance. Mercifully Luke spares us the finer details of what would undoubtly become a bitter legal battle. But what started out as an appeal for justice ended up in a discussion about covetousness. Because Jesus responded, ‘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.”’ Jesus knew better than to get embroiled in a family argument. Anyway it doesn’t appear that the man is looking for wise counsel, just a lawyer! He’d already decided what was right and just wanted someone to argue his case. Who better than Jesus! But with extraordinary perception Jesus nailed the man’s real motivation. It wasn’t justice but greed. Behind his protestations about injustice lurked rampant covetousness.
But Jesus also knew this wasn’t an isolated incident. And so he took the opportunity to warn the man, the crowd who listened in at the time and those of us prepared to listen to him centuries later. He warned us of our need for constant vigilance in the face of an ongoing threat from our constant craving for more. For many of us the good life is the life with things, house, car, experiences and holidays. But according to Jesus, life’s not about having lots of possessions. And deep down we know that’s the case. But we just struggle to believe it. I know I’m not alone in flicking through the catalogues that come through the letterbox, browsing the internet or window shopping in the high street wondering what to add to my collection of furniture, electrical goods or clothes. And because we’re so slow to understand that life’s not about acquiring things, Jesus told a story. It’s a story about a farmer, his crops and a premature end. It’s got quite a punch. In the story the farmer makes three mistakes.
His first mistake was to invest selfishly with his unexpected wealth
Luke tell us, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 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. The farmer was already very wealthy. And God gave him more. But this man’s problem wasn’t his great wealth. After all there’s nothing inherently sinful in wealth. The Bible insists that wealth is a blessing entrusted to people by God. The farmer may well have known that he was dependent upon God. After all even with the advent of GM crops most farmers know that they’re reliant on the weather for productivity. His problem wasn’t his business practice. There’s no indication of him acquiring his wealth through unscrupulous methods. He prudently embarked on a rebuilding project; knocking down his old barns to create extra capacity in order to store the vast amounts that God brought his way. My rudimentary grasp of economic principles suggests that this is sound business practice. The problem wasn’t the decisions he made but philosophy that underpinned them. The man’s problem was his selfishness. Jesus deliberately emphasised the man’s sinful independence through the needless and excessive use of the first person singular personal pronoun! Jesus said, ‘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. This man was thinking about no one else but himself. He invested selfishly with his fortune. He demonstrated an unrelenting, self-centred determination to accumulate surplus goods with no thought to anyone else but himself.
But is he that different to us? What would we do with unexpected wealth? What would we do if we were to receive an unexpected bonus at the end of the financial year, a cheque back from the inland revenue or an inheritance from a distant relative? Impulsively we’d be mentally spending the windfall before the ink on the cheque had dried, wouldn’t we? I wonder whether we’re really selfless with the resources God has entrusted to our care? We need to be very careful.
His second mistake was to comfort himself with thoughts of retirement
The rich man did a quick mental calculation to quantify his assets, ‘And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’. He was confident that early retirement was a real option. He planned to ditch the daily grind of working. He thought he could live comfortably on what he’d amassed. He’d live off the proceeds of his investments. Nice! That’s not necessarily sinful. But his mistake was to think that the future lay in his hands. Fuelled by his great wealth he became convinced that he was the major player in the events of his life. His wealth had blinded him to the fact that he inhabited a world where his decisions aren’t the only thing influencing the outcome of his life. But he was an idiot. He’d forgotten God. Money can do that. Not always; but often.
But is he that different to us? His ambitions are our ambitions, aren’t they? Few of us would turn down the opportunity to stop work, put our feet up and enjoy a state of financial security. There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to retirement. His mistake was to do so thinking that he could plan his own life without reference to God. If the credit crisis has done one thing perhaps it’s to unmask the unreliability of trusting money for the future.
His third mistake was to neglect to consider the judgement of God
The rich man amassed a fortune and enjoyed wealth beyond his wildest dreams. He went to bed dreaming of houses and holidays but he woke up before the judgement seat of God. One night God demanded his soul and suddenly his immense wealth counted for nothing. Jesus tells us, ‘But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ From the perspective of death his accumulation of material goods must have seemed utterly pointless. He wasn’t able to take it with him and whatever was left in his bank balance was simply redistributed by the taxman and the lawyers. However, the situation was even worse than perhaps he’d first realised. It’s not only that he’d left his riches behind. He found himself in abject poverty before the judgement seat of God. If he were living today we’d call him a captain of industry, attend his seminars and read his autobiography. God calls him a fool. In all his thinking about the future, in all his planning for what lay ahead he hadn’t reckoned on finding himself before the one who really is at the centre of the universe. He found himself in a situation where his wealth was of no assistance whatsoever. He may have deceived himself that he was self-sufficient but at that moment his stupidity was unmistakable. Standing before God on the night his soul was demanded of him, he realised his wealth was powerless. But how did it happen? Greed dragged him away from contemplating life, death, heaven and hell. The possessions and comfort he craved led him to neglect the pursuit of God. He spent his life ignoring God and was seduced into thinking only about this world. But one night totally out of the blue God demanded his soul. He rejected the opportunity of relationship with God in this life and he would not enjoy a relationship with him in the world to come. This was a tragic end for the rich farmer and will be for any human being. All the more so because it’s avoidable.
But is he that different to us? Few of us are prepared to think about what lies beyond the grave. Many of us hold sincerely to the belief that life ends at the grave. That’s why we live only for possessions and this world. It’s a nice idea but it’s wrong. Jesus said so.
Although Jesus told a distressing story about a farmer, Jesus meant us to understand that the farmer is representative. He represents every human being seduced into thinking that this life is all that there is and the good life consists in the abundance of our possessions. And so he spelt out the implications when he said, ‘So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God’. If we live like the man, we’ll end up like the man. If we lay up treasures for ourselves in this world and don’t lay up treasure with God for the next, our destiny will be the same. But there is an alternative.
Jesus commands us to be rich towards God. But what does that mean? He’s not suggesting that God can to be turned by money nor indeed by anything else that we could present before him. If we could live a life worthy of acceptance before God he would not have needed to come to earth in Jesus Christ and die upon the cross. To be rich toward God is to live a life of value from God’s perspective. We’re not to live a life of independent self sufficiency. This is worthless in God’s eyes. We’re to live a life in friendship with God in humble dependency, looking forward not to early retirement but eternal relationship, a life not seeking security in this world but security in the world to come. It’s to live life as a follower of Jesus Christ. That’s a life of value as God sees it. If we understand this it’ll transform our attitude to work and wealth. We won’t let it dominate our lives because we’ll realise we don’t need as much as we think we do. We’ll work hard enough to provide for the necessities, but we’ll leave the future in God’s hands. We’ll stop short of making work a means of securing our lives against all possible calamities.
But we need to hear the warning. Living and working in London is really dangerous. At least that’s Jesus’ take on things. Not primarily because of urban crime, pollution or stress. But because of greed. This is a dangerous place to live because so few people are troubled by covetousness. It’s perhaps those starting out in their working lives that face this danger most acutely. So much of their time and energy is expended in paying off years of accumulated student debt and scrambling onto the bottom rung of the property ladder. But the preoccupation with things and the desire for more is not an attitude that’s limited to those in their twenties. None of us is immune to the danger of acquisitiveness. Jesus told the parable of the because he thinks we’re in great danger. We must be wary of greed seducing us from our commitment to Christ.
So what will we pursue in life? Will we chase after possessions, a better lifestyle and wealth? Will we be convinced that greed is right or will we chase after a life with value as God sees it? Because one day our souls will be demanded of us and if we’ve spent our lives pursuing things and not God we’ll look very foolish. But by then it will be too late.
Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the rich man and face the same tragic end. Instead let’s listen to Jesus Christ’s words of warning that a preoccupation with possessions could one day be eternally catastrophic.