Luke 12:32-40 – Don’t Be Afraid to Give

The Good Shepherd by He Qi

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near, and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (New International Version)

The most oft repeated command in all of Holy Scripture is, “Do not be afraid.” The Lord says it 365 times. It seems like we are meant to be reminded of this every day of the year.

The particular stating of the phrase by Jesus is in the context of money and possessions. Christ is telling his disciples to not fear about personal resources. Since we have a kingdom inheritance, we ought to freely give what we have to the poor without fear of being in need ourselves.

And it isn’t something we ought to procrastinate about – because the Lord could return at any time; and he doesn’t want to have to go looking for us underneath a pile of money and possessions in order to find us.

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

Dale Carnegie

Fear is a real thing. Fear, at its core, is being afraid of losing what we have and getting hurt. Fear can be a helpful emotion, meant to protect us and keep us safe from harm. The problem, however, is that our fears can lead us to some unhealthy behaviors such as:

  • Vilifying another, afraid that others I don’t know or who are different from me might harm me, my family, or my community.
  • Hiding my emotions, afraid my weaknesses or failures will be exposed or exploited.
  • Serving others compulsively, afraid that I won’t have worth, meaning, or purpose without helping.
  • Achieving or winning, afraid that I will be irrelevant or unwanted, if I lose.
  • Smiling and being upbeat, afraid of facing and feeling the deep sadness within me.
  • Procrastinating projects, tasks, or conversations, afraid of being disliked or rejected.

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

Yoda

All of those unhealthy practices keeps us at arm’s distance from the poor and needy. Getting close to poor folk creates fear with some people, that is, being afraid they might hurt me, or afraid that they will get my money.

“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Faith is the opposite of fear. Faith tethers itself to the promises of God and frees us to be generous. And faith allows us to confidently minister and build relationships with all kinds of people, especially the poor and needy.

One of the great preachers in church history, St. John Chrysostom (the fourth century Bishop of Constantinople) lived in a large city full of both rich and poor. He lamented the large class difference between them. He said this about poverty and wealth:   

“To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others.  By this we are taught then when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal.  For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it.  If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. 

This is why God has allowed you to have more, not for you to waste on… indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need….  If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give account of the funds which were entrusted to you… for you obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.”

“Whenever you see anyone longing for many things, esteem him of all persons the poorest, even though he possess all manner of wealth; again, when you see one who does not wish for many things, judge him to be of all persons most affluent, even if he possess nothing. For by the condition of our mind and spirit, not by the quantity of our material wealth, should it be our custom to distinguish between poverty and affluence.”

The point that Jesus makes of selling possessions and giving to the poor is not to elevate poverty over wealth – or the poor over the rich – but rather to lift generosity as a significant mark of the Christian life.

In the same way, the watchfulness Jesus commands is not an anxious hand-wringing anticipation of the apocalypse. Instead, it is an eager expectation of God’s final act of doing away with all injustice forever.

In other words, Jesus is extoling a faith that frees us to be generous; enables us to leave fear, worry, and anxiety behind; and that creates in us confidence about how the future is all going to shake-out in the end.

The Lord’s Table is meant to remind us that God is hospitable and generous.

Communion together is meant to show us that we are not alone in faith.

And the Eucharist allows us to celebrate a future we know is coming, that as often as we eat and drink the elements of bread and cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he returns to judge the living and the dead.

Like the feeding of the 5,000, there is plenty of bread for all – and the cup will never run dry. That’s because the Lord we serve is a God of abundance. And when we are near to such a generous God, we feel safe and secure, and are able to freely share what we have with others – without fear and without panicking that there isn’t enough. There’s always enough because God is enough.

Generous and gracious God, You came to honor the least, the forgotten, the overlooked and the misjudged. You came to give first place to the last, those left behind, and those who are misunderstood and undervalued. You came to give a warm welcome to the lost, the abandoned, and the destitute.

Help us to be your ears to listen to their cries. Help us to be your voice speaking out love and acceptance. Help us to be your feet walking beside those in need. Help us to be your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them. You came for the least, the lost and last of this world. Lord, hear our prayer. Amen.

Luke 12:13-21 – The Parable of the Rich Fool

The angel of death surprises a rich man by Jim Janknegt

A man in a crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to give me my share of what our father left us when he died.”

Jesus answered, “Who gave me the right to settle arguments between you and your brother?”

Then he said to the crowd, “Don’t be greedy! Owning a lot of things won’t make your life safe.”

So, Jesus told them this story:

A rich man’s farm produced a big crop, and he said to himself, “What can I do? I don’t have a place large enough to store everything.”

Later, he said, “Now I know what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, where I can store all my grain and other goods. Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You have stored up enough good things to last for years to come. Live it up! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.’ ”

But God said to him, “You fool! Tonight, you will die. Then who will get what you have stored up?”

“This is what happens to people who store up everything for themselves but are poor in the sight of God.” (Contemporary English Version)

Let’s be honest before God because there’s no way we are going to fool him. The truth is, we all worry. 

And the more stuff we accumulate, the more worried we get. And the more worried we get, the stingier we become – to the point where we encase ourselves around more stuff, which requires bigger places to store all our stuff.

Here’s a bit of a reality check: We are not self-sufficient independent automatons who are meant to function by themselves without ever needing help.

The Rich Fool by Rembrandt, 1627

If we have some success in this independence venture, we then expect that others ought to be able to do it, too. Such thinking leads to a lack of generosity, believing that others just need to work harder or smarter or better. They’re lazy, we may reason. So, I’ve got no responsibility to share any of my largess with slackers.

We seek after whatever it is we desire. If we seek the kingdom of God, we will pursue the Lord Jesus and aim our love toward knowing him. But if we seek materialism, wealth, and the accumulation of stuff, we will never have enough because worry and fear shall always overwhelm the voice of God. 

I make it sound easy, as if the choice were so clear. On one level it is, but, like most things, it’s complicated because we are all a weird hybrid of competing loves and desires.

So, let’s make a few distinctions that might help us clarify our kingdom calling. Materialism is not the same thing as hard work. 

Materialism:

  • Is a shield we lug around to protect us from failure and poverty
  • Puts us on a performance treadmill, and is tied to our self-worth
  • Is a never-ending quest for security and protection
  • Seeks to avoid the criticism of others by seeking their approval with stuff
  • Believes that money will take away feelings of hurt, pain, and discomfort

Whereas hard work:

  • Is about healthy achievement and a patient growth of assets
  • Seeks to improve and is satisfied with a job well done
  • Takes away fear and worry 
  • Brings gratitude and joy

Any worldly fool can make money; but the wise and righteous person is able to manage resources in a way that glorifies God, builds up the church, and blesses the world. 

And it all begins with knowing the difference between depending on God versus depending on self and stuff.

The rich farmer in Christ’s story is a fool not because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future, but because he lives only for himself, and because he believes he can secure his life with his abundant possessions.

In the parable, the rich guy only talks to himself – not to anyone else. The man doesn’t express any gratitude to God. There is neither any thanking the workers who have helped him plant and harvest this bumper crop, nor any sharing his wealth through giving them a bonus.

The farmer has more than he could ever hope to use, yet he seems to have no thought of sharing it. And there is clearly no thought of what God might require of him. The rich man is outright blind to the fact that his life is not his own to secure, that his life belongs to God, and that God can demand it back at any time.

The Rich Fool by Bertram Poole

No amount of wealth can give any of us what we need most in life: healthy relationships, the love and enjoyment of friends and family, or eternal life. Nobody can buy their way into heaven or eternal bliss. What’s more, money cannot provide protection from disease and disaster.

Here’s another reality check: The rich and the poor all die, just the same. And the one who is wealthy cannot take a bit of it with him.

At issue here, for Jesus, is neither saving for retirement or for future needs, nor enjoying the good things in life. In fact, that’s wisdom.

The issue, for Jesus, is about what’s most important to God. It’s about priorities. God cares deeply about how we invest our lives and use the gifts given us. The Lord is vested in us, so he cares about how we love God and neighbor. God wants us to orient our lives toward the divine mission to bless and redeem the world.

In other words, God cares about whether we care, or not, about others.

As a hospital chaplain, I’ve seen my share of death. And I have never once heard anyone say, “Gosh, chaplain, I sure wish I hadn’t given so much money and stuff away. I wish I had kept more for myself.” But I’ve sure heard plenty of the opposite.

A spiritual reality check: We, and our resources, all belong to God.

We are merely stewards of everything we own. God gave it to us. God can take it away. Including our life.

The good news is that, since we, and everything we have, belongs to God, our future is secure in Christ.

Merciful God, thank you for giving me everything I need for life and godliness in this present world. Forgive me for ever doubting your goodness and ability to provide for me. Let my life bless the name of Jesus, and may I steward all that you have given me with care and compassion. Amen.

Mark 10:17-22 – Jesus Intervenes

Eastern Orthodox mural of Jesus and the rich man

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth. (New International Version)

We are all addicts. 

We all have our own sin addictions which keep us stuck in guilt and shame.

We may not all struggle with the same sin. Yet we all have some besetting sin(s) that we must be weaned off of. The most pervasive addiction found in Holy Scripture is neither substance abuse nor alcohol – it is the addiction to wealth and money.

Maybe your initial response was of someone else, besides yourself: “I don’t have as much money as____” or, “So-and-so has a real problem with that!” Those statements are what we call, in terms of addiction, denial. 

In truth, all of us are in some sort of denial about how much we really trust in paychecks, bank accounts, investments, and owning material stuff. I’m no exception. I own more books than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime, and yet, I tend to believe I don’t have enough of them.

Even the poor can have an addiction wealth and money by thinking about it and wishing for it to an unhealthy degree, as if wealth is the thing that will ultimately make them happy.

People in denial rarely have any idea how much they are hurting others, themselves, and God.  In fact, the consistent witness of the early church fathers is that the sheer accumulation of stuff is the same as stealing from the poor. 

Because of denial, people need an intervention. They need to be jolted back to their senses. Intervention is a gift. Someone cares enough about the person to intervene. Yet, interventions don’t always work. The person can choose to walk away and refuse to change.

Jesus did a gracious intervention with a rich young man. The man was addicted to wealth and money, but he didn’t see it. In fact, he thought he was quite godly and spiritual. It’s a sad story because the man walks away untransformed by his encounter with Jesus and did not accept the gracious invitation to follow the Lord. 

Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man, 1879

The man simply did not see himself as hopeless and desperately needing to change. He held to his denial.

The man approached Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Whereas I would probably get all excited about being asked a question like this and launch into some long-winded gospel answer, Jesus immediately picked up on the attitude and the need behind the question. 

What must I do to get? It’s almost as if the man wants to acquire eternal life like he would acquire wealth. “I am a successful businessman with plenty of money, and a respected citizen with lots of wealth – now I want to be a success with God, as well.” 

The question may have been sincere, yet it was misguided. Eternal life is not spiritual real estate for an upwardly mobile person to acquire and possess. The man seems to believe he can purchase eternal life, as if everyone has their price, even God. “After all,” he may have been reasoning, “I have gotten everything else in life, so why not obtain eternal life?”

Jesus questioned the question. He went after the underlying assumption of doing something good to obtain eternal life. The fact of the matter is that the man cannot do anything. He can’t because only God is good. Jesus points him to God by changing the action from getting to entering. And he changed the language from a market acquisition to entering into a journey.

Jesus was inviting the man to walk with him.

Eternal life is a journey of faith in the God who is good, and not a transaction to get it. And, we too, must be careful not to treat eternal life as if it were a transaction, as if we must get a person to sign on the dotted line through a “sinner’s prayer” or some other formula that will seal the deal for eternal life. 

Instead, eternal life is a walk of obedience with God and his commands.

Jesus responded to the rich man with the Ten Commandments, specifically the ones which focus on human relationships. Jesus wanted him to realize that the path into the kingdom of God and eternal life goes through and not around how we treat our fellow human beings.

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann, 1889

The Lord sought to expose the impossibility of continuing in life on the rich man’s terms. The guy just could not imagine what he might be lacking. So, Jesus helped him out. Christ gave him some major interventional language…. Sell. Give. Follow.

Sell everything. Give to the poor. Come, follow me.

One cannot simply add Jesus to their life, like adding a new car or a new fishing rod. Rather, one’s heart must change in order to accommodate real, genuine eternal life. 

Jesus offered the rich man someone to be, rather than something to get

It’s one thing to give from what you have; it’s another thing to surrender your life and all you have. 

In the New Testament Gospels, there are no easy conversations with Jesus. He gets personal in every encounter and gets under everybody’s skin. Christ doesn’t settle with superficial small talk when there are people whose hearts are little more than idol factories. 

Jesus never leaves us alone, because there is always the invitation to “Come, follow me.”

Christ exposed the wealthy man’s divided loyalties – he was trying to serve both God and money. But he would have to choose between the two. 

And that is our choice, as well. 

The question for us is not, “Am I completely devoted to money?” Instead, the question from our Gospel story today is, “Am I trying to serve God while maintaining a moonlighting job with the world?” 

God wants from us an undivided heart; the Lord desires absolute allegiance.

Jesus is looking for those who are poor in spirit, who recognize their great need for God – instead of believing that they are okay and just need to add a little Jesus to their lives. 

God is looking for spiritual beggars who understand their desperate situation and don’t practice denial by sugar-coating their actual spiritual state.

Like a drunkard who won’t give up his vodka; like a sex addict who won’t give up strip clubs or emotional affairs; or like a workaholic who just can’t come home; the rich man would not give up his disordered love for money and possessions. 

So, Jesus did an intervention. 

The Lord Jesus didn’t ask everybody to do exactly as he called the rich man to do. He didn’t ask the very wealthy Zacchaeus to do it, and he didn’t tell Peter to sell his fishing business. 

But Jesus does tell us to do something which seems impossible. Yet, where the impossible exists, so exists grace.

Blessed Lord, you have taught us that all our doings without loving generosity are worth nothing. Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Amos 8:1-12 – A Prophet’s Perspective on Power and Poverty

Miners’ wives carrying sacks of coal by Vincent Van Gogh, 1881

This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: a basket of ripe fruit. “What do you see, Amos?” he asked.

“A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered.

Then the Lord said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.

“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “the songs in the temple will turn to wailing. Many, many bodies—flung everywhere! Silence!”

Hear this, you who trample the needy
    and do away with the poor of the land,

saying,

“When will the New Moon be over
    that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
    that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
    boosting the price
    and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
    and the needy for a pair of sandals,
    selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.

“Will not the land tremble for this,
    and all who live in it mourn?
The whole land will rise like the Nile;
    it will be stirred up and then sink
    like the river of Egypt.

“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord,

“I will make the sun go down at noon
    and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your religious festivals into mourning
    and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
    and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
    and the end of it like a bitter day.

“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
    “when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
    but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
People will stagger from sea to sea
    and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the Lord,
    but they will not find it. (New International Version)

I’ve been in the church most of my life. I have listened to thousands of sermons, as well as preaching thousands of them myself. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve heard a sermon from one of the twelve minor prophets in the Bible. Although I personally have preached on them more times than that, it still pales in comparison with how many sermons I’ve preached from the New Testament gospels or epistles.

This, I believe, is an indictment on us, especially those with privilege and power. If you add the major prophets, we have sixteen books contained in Holy Scripture calling out powerful and influential people’s oppression of others. To overlook such a girth of text is to stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to listen to God.

Those with power, position, and privilege must continually be vigilant to use such influence for the benefit of all persons – not just themselves or people just like them.

The books of the prophets make it very clear that God cares about justice. God will uphold the needy. The Lord will stand with the oppressed. If we fail to share a divine sense of justice and injustice, there will be hell to pay.

God is longsuffering. The Lord patiently awaits us to pay attention. Yet, eventually, that patience will run its course. A prophet will be sent to voice God’s concerns. Like a basket of ripe fruit now finally ready to be eaten, so God’s justice is ripe and ready for action.

The prophet Amos delivered a scathing message to the ancient Israelites about their total disregard for the poor and needy in the land. The people in positions of authority and power only looked on the less fortunate as commodities – as pawns to be taken advantage of for the rich merchants. 

Because the wealthy never took the time to listen to the poor, God would not listen to them. Judgment was coming, and it would not go so well for the power brokers of society who only thought of their business and squeezing others for more money.      

Peasants planting potatoes by Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

Few people rush to have poor folk as their friends. Those in poverty are often overlooked and disregarded. Either they are ignored altogether or are given hand-outs and services without ever having any significant human contact. Even when there is help, it comes from a distance.

In other words, those in authority rarely take the time to listen and get to know the real face of poverty. If there isn’t a photo opportunity, then encounters with the poor are not likely to happen with politicians, or anyone else. After all, so many are busy making money, checking stock portfolios, and considering how to get bigger market shares…. 

Perhaps we have an answer as to why there is no revival in the land. God shows such solidarity with the poor that to ignore them is to ignore him.  No matter our financial picture and outlook, every one of us can grace the poor with the gift of time and listening.  For in doing so we might just be listening to the voice of God.

Justice is the responsibility of everyone, not just a few.

God identifies closely with the poor, the distressed, the underprivileged, and the needy. The Lord listens to the lowly. So, we as God’s people, are to share this same concern. It is a theme throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture.

From the Old Testament:

God will rescue the needy person who cries for help
and the oppressed person who has no one’s help.
He will have pity on the poor and needy
and will save the lives of the needy. (Psalm 73:12-13, GW)

Those who mock the poor insult their Maker; those who rejoice at the misfortune of others will be punished. (Proverbs 17:5, NLT)

Those who are gracious to the poor lend to the Lord, and the Lord will fully repay them. (Proverbs 19:17, CEB)

If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.

Proverbs 21:13, NRSV

Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who turn a blind eye will be greatly cursed. (Proverbs 28:27, CEB)

Give your food to the hungry
    and care for the homeless.
Then your light will shine
    in the dark;
your darkest hour will be
    like the noonday sun. (Isaiah 58:10, CEV)

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1, NIV)

From the New Testament:

“If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven.”

Jesus (Matthew 19:21, CEB)

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. (1 Timothy 6:17-18, NIV)

 If we are rich and see others in need, yet close our hearts against them, how can we claim that we love God? My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action. (1 John 3:17-18, GNT)

Poverty is not only an issue in some far away place; the poor are found everywhere, and they are always among us.

I believe an honest hearing of the prophet Amos would change the world. I’m not talking about angry ranting which works people into a frenzy of fear and suspicion. I am referring to giving Amos a serious hearing, just like we give the Apostle Paul our focused attention.

Just because poverty has always been with us, doesn’t mean we ought to only shrug our shoulders and say, “Meh, what’s a guy to do?” Instead, we can determine to address the issues which create a large class of poor people to begin with – including malevolence and materialism.

The moral compass of many of the earth’s nations is askew, even broken. It needs to be recalibrated to the true north of biblical justice. Back in the prophet’s day, bullying, bribery, and backstabbing were tools used for malevolent purposes. Those same implements are still being used by some today.

You must not pervert justice or show favor. Do not take a bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and distort the words of the righteous. (Deuteronomy 16:19, NET)

Those who plant injustice will harvest disaster,
    and their reign of terror will come to an end. (Proverbs 22:8, NLT)

But why would people be so unjust to other people? What would motivate someone to purposefully harm another in this way?… Materialism would.

Whenever people have an exorbitant amount of stuff, generosity is typically not their first impulse (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Rather, the extremely rich among us have an equally extreme temptation to hold on tight to their wealth – so much so that money and acquiring more stuff becomes their religion. That’s why Scripture is replete with warnings about money.

In short, poverty must be tackled, from a biblical perspective, on both the personal and systemic level. Individuals, families, churches, faith communities, organizations, corporations, and governments must all remove the obstacles which keep people in poverty. This is an appropriate use of power and authority.

What will you and I do?…

Gracious God, you are found everywhere – both the halls of power, and the back alleys of slums. As we seek you more and more, help us to see the face of Jesus in everyone we encounter, whether rich or poor, so that we might share the gift of life with them, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.