Monday, November 24, 2008

Building Bigger Barns

Luke 12:13-31

So I have distinct memories of two times that I was studying Luke, once during grad school in Wisconsin and a second time in Buffalo shortly after I got my first engineering job. In both cases I was cruising along in the book, the stories were pretty familiar and the study was pretty unremarkable, until I ran into chapter 12 like a brick wall. Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village church, said that this passage has beaten him up. I agree.

Jesus makes two basic and related points here. First, he says, Watch out for greed. Then he says Do not worry. This is all precipitated, however, from a nonsequiter. Jesus is teaching the crowd about some pretty weighty stuff. Earlier in chapter 12 you get the verses:

2There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 3What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. 4"I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

Like I said, Jesus is not messing around in Luke 12. I honestly can’t believe this guy was listening. I can not read those verses without thinking about the things concealed that I am afraid to have made known. This guy wasn’t there to let Jesus set his agenda, he wanted to set the teacher’s agenda. He wanted Jesus to work for him. So he interrupts Jesus and asks him to force his brother to divide the inheritance with him. Now there are a few observations I’d like to make about this exchange:

i. The guy is treating Jesus as a rabbi. Rabbis were commonly called upon to adjudicate disputes like this. It is kind of ironic that he comes looking for a judge and he finds THE Judge.
ii. But the guy is not asking Jesus to make a decision. He is asking Jesus to rubber stamp his agenda. And this makes Jesus mad. I don’t think there is any question that Jesus is hot when he responds. And I think there is a subtle warning here. Don’t you dare assume that Jesus backs your agenda. He will not be used. He will not be coopted to serve your purposes. Honestly, this whole thing reminds me of the election. People on both sides essentially came to Jesus and said, tell the other folks I’m right. Or they said to each other ‘Jesus is on our side.’ We need to be very careful what we sign his name to.

iii. We have no information regarding whether this guy was actually wronged. He might have been. Jesus does not seem to think that is the point.

He takes no interest in this family dispute but uses the opportunity to teach about greed and contentment. He builds the argument from two directions. In verses 13-21 he warns about the dangers of greed, essentially developing the ‘negative’ argument. ‘Watch out,’ he says, this thing can wreck you. Then, in verses 22-34 he paints a picture of contentment, not just the absence of greed, but the active discipline of the opposite affection…and offers contentment as the antidote for worry and fear. So I will tackle the passage in these two parts. But before we get into some pretty thick material, let’s illustrate the two points with visual aids from

1. Watch out for Greed
2. Cultivate Contentment

1. ‘Watch out…for greed.’

Now it may seem odd to give a talk on money and possessions to a room full of college students who don’t tend to have much of either, but let me make a case for it.

i. First, greed is an equal opportunity destroyer. It affects those with a lot and those with almost nothing. Greed is not actually a function of how much you have but of the orientation of the heart.

ii. Secondly, as UCD grads you are going to eventually have pretty strong earning potential. It is you and those like you that will resource the church for the decades to come. The patterns you set and commitments you make NOW will set the patterns for the decades when you will have significant resources.

iii. Third, Jesus says to ‘Watch out, for ALL kinds of greed.’ Lust and porn are essentially forms of greed. The are symptoms of discontent. Check out this verse in Collosians:

5Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these:

Doesn’t it seem like ‘greed’ is out of place on that list. All the other verbs seem to refer to sex. But ‘greed’ does too, it totally belong in this list. In Luke 12 Jesus focuses on material or financial greed. This is not surprising since Jesus talks about money approximately 12 times more frequently than he talks about sex. But the principals are the same for ALL kinds of greed. So if you just cannot get into Jesus’ warning about financial greed, many of the same principals can be applied to other parts of our lives where our behaviors include unhealthy excess.

A: The Warning

"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 says ‘Watch out’ That phrase is actually significant. Why? No one thinks they are greedy. Look at the other places he uses this phrase:

“Watch out for false prophets.”
“Watch out that no one deceives you.”
“Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod.”

He uses this phrase to talk about sneaky dangers.[1] He never says “Watch out for adultery.” Why? Because you know when you stepping out on your wife. It is destructive, but it’s not sneaky. Jesus uses this phrase ‘Watch out’ for sneaky stuff. You don’t know if you are being deceived (Because you’re being deceived) and, likewise, it is easy to overlook the results of greed in your life. Tim Keller said he did a series on the seven deadly sins. You have heard of these right? They are something like lust, pride, sloth…a few others…including greed. I think there was a disturbing Brad Pitt movie on them. Keller said that when he announced the series his wife said to him, you watch, your lowest attendance will be for the week on greed. And you know what. She was right. More people came to the week on sloth, which is surprising, since it would seem like if you struggle with sloth, you wouldn’t be motivated to go hear a talk on it. You’d just stay in bed.

The reason Keller’s wife was right is that no one thinks they struggle with greed. It’s sneaky. And that is why Jesus says ‘watch out’. He says be extra vigilant on this one. The Greek phrase for ‘be on your guard’ is a military term for keeping watch for armed hostiles. He says keep your hand on your gun, work the night vision goggles, because there is a stealth enemy out to get you, and he might already be in your midst.

'Because life does not consist in the abundance of things'

So since I started perching at college life I am 3 for 3 on film illustrations, but I could not read this passage without thinking of my all time favorite movie.[2] Here is a classic scene from Fight Club:

‘The Ikea Nesting influence.’ For years after seeing this I refused to go to Ikea. It is a devastating clip. But the question ‘what kind of dining set defines me as a person’ gets right at the heart of this passage. And incidentally, did you catch the link between greed and porn. Later in the movie the Ed Norton’s charecter is talking in a bar with Brad Pitt’s character and they have this exchange;

Tyler Durden: Do you know what a duvet is?
Narrator: It's a comforter...
Tyler Durden: It's a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?
Narrator: ...Consumers?
Tyler Durden: Right. We're consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don't concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.
Narrator: Martha Stewart.
Tyler Durden: (Bleep) Martha Stewart. Martha's polishing the brass on the Titanic. It's all going down, man. So (Bleep) off with your sofa units and Strinne green stripe patterns…What you own ends up owning you.

And this is how we are viewed in our illustrious economic system. We are consumers. There is an entire industry that spends millions of dollars in psychological research with the admitted intent of assailing our contentment and agitating our greed. But Jesus beat Tyler Durden to this punch. By saying ‘a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’ he is saying, refuse to let them define your personhood by what you consume. Be something radically different. Be content.

B: The Story

To illustrate his warning Jesus tells a REALLY disturbing story.

The first thing to notice about this story is that the man is not primarily responsible for his excess resources. The passage says, ‘The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.’ Did you catch that? Who produced the crop? Jesus intentionally attributes this man’s success to forces outside of his control. From the very beginning he undermines the man’s assertion that ‘his’ stuff is really his by pointing out that there are forces outside his control that have made him prosperous. I think this is Jesus’ way of saying, God gave this man an abundant year. Let’s see what he does with it.

So the man decides to store the excess. Now this is where commentators disagree on this passage. Many (even most) say there was nothing wrong with his decision to tear down a perfectly good barn to build bigger ones to store his excess. I tend not to agree. I think he begins to go wrong here. There is something suspicious about storing large quantities of resources. Now this can be taken too far. For years Amanda and I refused to save for retirement based on this passage. No one could explain to us the Biblical basis for storage in light of this passage, until someone said, 'the first barn.' There is sanctioned storage in this passage. When the man had a standard sized barn that provided adequate storage, he was not condemned. And so we have sanction for reasonable savings. It was only when he wanted to assure his future and gaurentee that he would neither have need to trust God or work, by hoarding this crop for his own use, that he is condemned

So while the commentators differ on the rightness of building the bigger barns, they are agreed that the center of this mans error is in verses 18-19:

18"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. 19And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."

The Greek words for “I” and “my” are used 12 times in 3 verses here . This man had a passion for himself. His primary error, the essence of greed, was to take the abundance God has given him, and us it on himself alone rather than to return God’s generosity by passing the excess on to those who had need. This man is fundamentally an American, he thinks that the purpose of life is the 'pursuit of happiness.' He’s wrong. It was ultra easy for me to fill a powerpoint slide with logos and items encouraging us to ‘Eat, Drink and be Merry.’ It is our anthem. Its our destruction. Some people talk about cultural propensities for certain sins. In some cultures lying is more prevalent because it is more socially acceptable. If you ask a Christian from almost any other culture what our cultural sins are, they will say lust and greed. So more than almost any one else, we need to ‘Watch Out.’

Remember the verse from Colossians…why does Paul call greed idolatry? Because how you use resources IS WORSHIP. Hoarding them our using them in a self centered way demonstrates that you do not worship Yahweh. Money, like everything else in life, is a worship issue. When evangelicals talk about worship we generally mean singing. This frankly sucks. It is so wrong. The moments of greatest worship can be writing a check or holding your tongue. Have you ever thought about internet worship…the act of NOT clicking on sites you know are not good for you is a radical act of WORSHIP. What you buy and where you click demonstrates your allegiance.

A couple commentators pointed out that this man is talking to himself instead of to other people or to God. Notice that this is a private rather than a corporate decision. Who is his personal financial advisor? He is. So his decisions make perfect sense to him...but God calls him a fool. Which bring up the roles of community in generosity. I think Christian community has two roles in the generosity of individual Christians. First, other Christians can provide accountability. I think it is funny that we hold each other accountable on sex, affection and lust issues…but some how, our finances are too personal. Some of my professors at Wheaton used to voluntarily share their tax returns with each other and give each other permission to question whether or not the numbers demonstrate that the worship Yahweh.

But there is a second role of community in generosity: protection.[3] God says he will provide all of your needs if you are generous and, in our individualistic society, we think that means we will get a mysterious check in the mail. But God’s primary instrument for his work is his people. One role of the church is to have each other’s backs in the event that someone’s generosity leaves them exposed.

There is another subtle subtext to this passage. In the Roman and Greek world work was seen as mundane and unfortunate. If you could, you had other people labor (i.e. slaves) for you giving you the leisure necessary for philosophical and spiritual development.[4] Work was seen as fundamentally unspiritual and a hiderence to spiritual growth. This dichotomy has made its way into our culture as well. Most of us see work as bad and leisure as good. We want to put ourselves in a position where we can work as little as possible and have as much leisure as possible. The American dream is to be independently wealthy (note, independent means not dependent). But this is not the Hebrew view or the New Testament situation. In the Bible work is a PRE-Fall ordinance, which means that when Adam and Eve were living the best possible life, the ideal existence that God had in mind for them before sin messed things up, it included work. The fall made work harder, but it didn’t invent it. You do not here this preached a lot in churches, I think, because those who preach do not work outside the they don’t spend much time thinking about it. You here, spend more time with your families, or spend more time in ministry, but you seldom here good biblical teaching on the other 50 hours of your week. Here’s a kicker, I think heaven will include work. Pastors and doctors will have to undergo vocational re-training with the drug dealers and prostitutes[5], but we will work in the eschaton. In addition to this man being self involved and failing to worship, he tried to create for himself a life of leisure. A life dedicated to leisure is unnatural as a life dedicated to work.

2. Cultivate Contentment as the Antidote to Worry

A. Where Worry Comes From

In verse 22 it appears that Jesus abruptly changes topic. He says: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear.” It would appear that he made a random topic change from greed to worry…except, one of the first things you learn about biblical interpretation is that ‘Therefore’ connects the passage to whatever came before it. In mathematics, ‘therefore’ connotes a logical consequence, such as the conclusion of a syllogism. It represents a strong connection. So what is the connection between greed and worry? Worry is the proportional byproduct of vesting in loosable things. Jesus suggests that worry precedes from greed.

To unpack this idea Jesus tells two micro parables. Now I used to think that the birds and the lilies were just Hebrew parallelism. Are you familiar with parallelism? Glen actually talked about it on Sunday. It is one of the foundational structures of Hebrew poetry. You see this all the time in the Psalms where the poet says the same thing two different ways for emphasis. For example:
"O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint;
Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony." Psalm 6:1-2,

So I though, Jesus is making the same point two different ways for emphasis. But I was wrong.[6] He is drawing out two different kinds of greed that we need to watch out for. A common root cause that manifests in two opposite behaviors. He is saying there are at least two dramatically different ways that greed can lead to worry: security and image. The first is the one I struggle with the most. The story of the Raven gets at worry that resources will run out…that I will somehow come up short. This generates the impulse to horde in order to reduce uncertainty about the future and, thus, mitigate worry. Those of us affected by this kind of greed, we tend to be misers.

But the story of the lilies addresses an entirely different kind of resource worry. It is a concern about image. Will I appear important, clever, attractive, interesting, worthy of love. This kind of worry generates the opposite behavior. Instead of hoarding, this kind of worry brings with it the impulse to max out credit cards to aquire goods that will make us feel good about ourselves and seem beautiful or important in the eyes of others. .

The hoarders look at the spenders and judge. The spenders look a the hoarders and judge. But both worry and at the heart of both kinds of worry is a fundamental discontent. Greed if you will. Jesus says that both of these are symptoms of the same disease, and require the same prescription; contentment.

The Bible is consistent in its treatment of this topic. Paul says, be careful, greed is sneaky and it can mess you up before you even realize you are affected by it. And then he offers contentment as the solution.

6But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.

B. The Prescription

31But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. 32"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”

I love the insight we get into Jesus in this passage. He is dramatically stern and tender within a few minutes of each other. Before this he was railing on religious hypocrisy and he laid into the guy who interrupted him with a family squabble. But listen to how gentle he is here in assuaging fears. Do not be afraid little flock. But after he tenderly assuages our fears, he gets shocking again. Look with me at the next verse (33):

33Sell your possessions and give to the poor.

That always floors me. It is like the previous text sets me reeling and this is the knock out upper cut. That is a radical command. The last thing I want to do is to diffuse the power of this verse…but I think there are three things we need to think about as we try to apply such a radical statement.

i. We store resources differently in our time, culture and economy than those listening to Jesus that day did. We have bank accounts, 401k’s IRA’s, Roth IRA’s, CD’s, stocks, shorts etc… There were not that many ways to store resources back then. If you had excess agricultural resources, either you build a bigger barn or you buy something of value (e.g. fine cloth was a common investment which is why he mentions the moths, it was not a completely safe investment). So when Jesus tells those listening to sell stuff, what he is essentially saying is ‘dip into what you have stored up’ your buffer if you will.

ii. How much should we liquidate to give? Well there is not a formulaic answer to this.[7] We see a variety of responses in the Scriptures. Jesus told the rich young ruler (who Bronwyn will be talking about next quarter) to give everything he had. Zacheus (who Bronwyn will also be talking about next quarter) gave half and Jesus was pleased. Barnabas sold a field.

iii. Third, he is not just talking about supporting the work of the gospel. He is interested in the poor. There are 2103 in our scriptures that address the poor and the oppressed. That is like 2096 more times than the Bible mentions homosexuality. The poor should be the special interest of the people of God.

The point here is to work out with God how much you keep and how much you give and to whom. This is dangerous ground for legalism. I have to admit that every time I see a $60,000 vehicle in the church parking lot I start to get all judgy. But we feel like God led us to buy a house in Davis a few months ago which, honestly, makes Lexus money seem like chump change. The point here is for each of us to try to simplify. For us, there is one number on our tax return that is more important than any other…more important than how much we owe or will get back…it is what our giving percentage is. It would be moral failure for Amanda and I, with what we make as a two income engineer/nurse family, to give only 10%. We want to see this percentage (not just the amount but the percentage) that we give grow each year.

For you, as students, who are already simplified by necessity, I think the goal is as your income grows, place governors on your spending. Try to lag your secular couleuges in standard of living by 5 to 10 years. Try to reject the idea that certain life stages require a certain standard of living. Intentionally rebel against the cultural expectations and wage simplicity so that you can put your excess resources into God’s business of justice, beauty, the poor and the gospel. Be rich towards God.

The passage concludes: Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I’ll close with this story. I 8th grade I had a friend named Korey Buzzell. Lets just say that, in 8th grade, neither of our social calendars were exactly packed. So most weekends we’d get together and play video games, chess and monopoly. We were evenly matched at chess. Most weekends we’d each win half the games and we’d never play an odd number because we were afraid to give the other one a week of bragging rights. When it came to monopoly, however, it was a different story. Korey Buzzell owned me in monopoly. I tried everyting, I tried to play precisely like him, I even took a book out of the library on monopoly strategy and read the whole thing (Yes, a book like that exists and yes, that is how popular I was in 8th grade, I had plenty of time to read it). But to this day I have never beaten Korey in monopoly. That year we probably played 30 games and I went 0-30. But here is the thing. I got really vested in each of those games. The more I lost the more I wanted to win and the more the monopoly money meant to me. But it only mattered for 2-3 hours. After Korey had all my monopoly money, which happened every time without fail, he couldn’t so much as buy a coke with it. Once the game was over it had no value. But what if there was a way to win real $ in monopoly I assure you that wining the actual cash would become the game’s primary objective.

And this is essentially the point of this passage. Jesus says “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted.” Essentially, he is saying, ‘Stop hoarding monopoly money.’ It's value is fleeting. Go for the stuff that will last. Invest in the Kingdom. Be rich towards God.

[1] For this point I am indebted to Tim Keller.
[2] Actually, since the last 20 minutes of fight club fall apart, it is in a dead heat with Braveheart…but the opening hour of Fight Club was written for me, an Angsty X-er man.
[3] This point is from Keller as well.
[4] See Faith and Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance and Use of Money by Justo Gonzalez.
[5] That is a funny picture.
[6] Again, Keller was the only one I encountered (of 5 commentaries and 12 sermons reviewed) that brought this out.
[7] This point is from John Piper’s work on this passage.

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