Be on your guard against all kind of greed

Luke 12: 13-31 

St Andrews Indooroopilly August 2019 

Mervyn Thomas

Today’s passage from Luke is one of a number of  passages that centre on Jesus’ attitude to wealth,  possessions and human self sufficiency. The  passage is part of the `great addition’ – the  material from chapter 9 through to chapter 18 that is found only in Luke, and not in the other  canonical gospels.  

And that, obviously, raises an interesting question.  Since the material isn’t in the other gospels, did  Luke just make it up, to serve a particular teaching need in his community? Or did he have access to  some other source of material, and is he giving us  a reliable insight into Jesus’ teaching on a  challenging topic? 

This material may not be found in the other  canonical gospels. But it is found in one other,  early Christian document of great importance: the  gospel of Thomas. 

As is typical, the account in the Gospel of Thomas  is shorter and more cryptic. Jesus doesn’t explain.  Instead of the moral instruction at the end of the  story of the rich Farmer, in Thomas’s account Jesus simply says “Let those who have ears, hear”. 

The Gospel of Thomas is not of course, part of the  canon of our scriptures, but it is an extremely  useful resource for helping us to understand more  about the history of the early church, and the  origin of our scriptures. 

What we can see is that Luke is very probably  drawing on an older source. It is not material that  he just made up – even if he did edit the material. I

think Luke is giving us insight into Jesus’ attitude  to wealth, and he is doing so through his access to  documents and traditions arising from the very  earliest years of the Church. That means that I sit  up, take notice and listen to this passage carefully.  In it, I think we can hear the authentic voice of  Jesus – tidied up and sanitized by Luke, no doubt,  but still present and still challenging. 

With this in mind, let’s look more closely at this  particular passage. First we have Jesus declining to act as arbiter of an inheritance. The man’s request to Jesus might seem reasonable – even fair. He is  asking a trusted third party to mediate. But what is really happening here? He asks Jesus ‘Tell my  brother’’ – he is already anticipating that Jesus will  decide in his favour. He is not looking for  reconciliation; he is looking to reclaim what he  sees as his rights. He has no doubts as to the  legitimacy of his claims. This man doesn’t want his  relationship with his brother restored, he want his  money. 

But Jesus sees into him, he sees the anger and the  wanting burning in this man’s core. Jesus sees the  corrosive impact this has on the man’s  relationships, on his family. And he simply does not get involved. This isn’t what he is here to do.  Instead he rebukes the man:  

Take care, be on your guard against all  kind of greed. 

Jesus is saying that this man’s priorities are wrong.  He has privileged possessions over relationships,  and that priority is incompatible with the kingdom  of God.

The story of the rich farmer drives the point home.  The attitude to the farmer is clearly negative,  

God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you 

What is it that this man has done wrong, and how  does it relate to the preceding verses? There is no  suggestion that the rich farmer has lied or cheated  his way into his fortune. He has simply been lucky,  or even perhaps a good manager. So why is he  censured? Certainly he is preoccupied with his  wealth, and the secure retirement it will bring him: 

And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have  ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry. 

This, I think is the man’s error. His sense of who he is, his security is based on what he owns. Owning  much,. He feels safe and secure. But in fact his life  will end this night. His security is an illusion, and  empty dream. 

And this is the human condition. We are all in this  situation. We consult our financial planners; we  worry about our superannuation. We all want to  have ample goods laid up for many years, so that  we may take our ease, eat, drink and be merry –  and with any luck take the occasional international  tour. I want this. If the alternative is scraping by  unable to buy a cup of coffee or a bottle of shiraz,  if the alternative is being too poor to visit my  grown up children, I don’t want that.  

But ultimately, our value, our unique significance,  our identity do not depend on what we have. Our  security depends on whose we are.

The people who compile our lectionary stopped  early. Because the next verses in this chapter  transform this story from being a stern warning,  into a comforting promise. Our Lord goes on to say, in one of my favorite passages: 

Consider the lilies, how they grow: they  neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even  Solomon in all his glory was not clothed  like one of these. But if God so clothes  the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the  oven, how much more will he clothe you —you of little faith! 

This was the rich farmer’s mistake. He trusted in  his own resources and his wealth, rather than in his relationship with the Father.  

There is a danger in taking this passage out of  context. Far too often, the Church has supported  the rich and powerful by telling the poor and  powerless that earthly wealth does not matter. The radical American propagandist and song writer  Joe Hill mocked this in his song ‘The Preacher and  the Slave’: 

Long-haired preachers come out every  night, Try to tell you what’s wrong and  what’s right; But when asked how ’bout  something to eat They will answer in  voices so sweet You will eat, by and by, In that glorious  land above the sky; Work and pray, live  on hay, You’ll get pie in the sky when  you die.

But if we look at the context of the passage,  that self serving Gospel of the Republican  Jesus cannot be supported. At the end of this  chapter we read: 

Sell your possessions, and give alms.  Make purses for yourselves that do not  wear out, an unfailing treasure in  heaven, where no thief comes near and  no moth destroys. For where your  treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

This passage is a warning to those who have, not a palliative to those who have not. To  accept the fullness of God’s care for us, to  accept the values of the Kingdom of Heaven,  to accept the primacy of relationship over  possession is to accept God’s radical demand for our generosity. 

That injunction is every bit as confronting to me as  it was to Our Lord’s first listeners. As Thomas says, let those that have ears, hear. And may I be  amongst them. Amen.

Leave a comment