Finding the Lost: Why People Really Matter
Luke 12:13-21: The Parable of the Materialist
There was once a Baptist preacher who found himself seated on a train next to Mahatma Gandhi. As they travelled together, the preacher did his best to tell Gandhi about the gospel and to win him over to Christianity. As the journey came to an end, the preacher asked Gandhi if he was ready to accept Jesus as his personal Saviour. "Jesus!" exclaimed Gandhi with a pretended look of surprise. "I didn't realise you were talking about Jesus. I thought you were talking about some successful oil tycoon from Texas." I cringed when I heard that story.
These Sunday mornings we have been considering why people matter to God and how Jesus explained about the compassionate heart of God toward people who are addicted to spiritual substitutes. Today we come to the parable of the materialist. Some Christians believe wealth is a sign of God's blessing and poverty is a curse, a sign of unbelief or sin. Some Christians on the other hand believe poverty is mandatory, intrinsic to the gospel and wealth is a sign of moral corruption and compromise with the world. I guess we would place ourselves somewhere in between these positions - tempted to get defensive about our life style, at times confused about how to live for Jesus in a materialist world, but keen to do God's will. If we start from the premise that the Bible is God's word and that He has made his will plain on this matter, lets measure up these positions one at a time.
1. The Prosperity Gospel
Those who believe it is God's will that we be wealthy subscribe to the Prosperity Gospel. There are plenty of examples in the Old Testament of individuals who were blessed by God and prospered materially. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Job - these are just a few examples. The Lord promises Joshua for example, "Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you... then you will be prosperous and successful" (Joshua 1:7-8). John Wesley the father of Methodism observed that the accumulation of wealth is in one sense a natural consequence of the gospel. The question is what do we do with it when we have it? Wesley had a solution. Those who teach that prosperity is intrinsic to spiritual blessing go much further than Wesley though (Copeland and Avanzini).
Denis Haack in "The Success Factor" describes how a TV preacher declare, as he pointed to his diamond rings and new Cadillac, that the difference between him and us is that "I have Cadillac faith and you have Volkswagen faith." Haack says,
"By the end of his message I was led to believe that
to own anything lass than the most expensive was not only an indication of anaemic
faith, but a slap at the dignity and generosity of the God of Abraham. And Abraham
happened to be, by the way, a very wealthy man."
So what's so wrong with all this? Prosperity teaching undermines the cross of Jesus in three ways:
1.1 It subverts the demand of the cross
for self denial.
Jesus commands, "Who ever is not willing to take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:27) And by the way Jesus wasn't taking about a Calvin Klein gold cross with diamond studded nail heads.
1.2 It reduces God to a means to an end.
God becomes the means whereby the end of prosperity is attained. He becomes the source from which prosperity flows, rather than the sovereign to whom prosperity in this life is sacrificed. Faith becomes a technique or key that unlocks guaranteed wealth. Belief in Jesus Christ is therefore irrelevant (Hagin).
1.3 Prosperity teaching is focussed on the things of this world. Material possessions are seen as a sign of God's approval and the means of God's blessing. The demand of Jesus to leave this world behind and take up the cross is blunted if not silenced. The prosperity gospel has accommodated itself to the affluent western world and since poverty must be a curse or due to lack of faith, it is deaf to the cries of the poor. If you need more evidence, check out our church web site or borrow one of these videos and inoculate yourself against these charlatans. If the prosperity gospel is a heresy for idolising wealth, lets consider the poverty gospel instead.
2. The Poverty Gospel
The poverty gospel also appears to have a biblical basis. "Looking at his disciples, Jesus said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God."" (Luke 6:20). Later he taught them, "Sell your possessions and give to the poor. 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. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Luke 12:33-34)
What could be plainer? If we take the Bible seriously, it is clear God is the God of the poor. Jesus was poor and his disciples are called to follow him. If we really submit to Christ's lordship we will suffer as he did.
How can we possibly indulge in the good things in life when we live in a world that is full of suffering and starvation? If we are still wealthy it means we are not sharing equitably the earth's dwindling resources.
On the face of it living a simple lifestyle, joining a monastic order or commune and taking the vow of poverty has its attractions occasionally. No worries about fitting locks or taking out insurance policies. Give up the car and walk. Its healthier. With anxieties over the uncertain effect of the millennium bug, many people are taking to the hills. It has its attractions.
I am not saying it is wrong to live this way but is it necessarily intrinsic to the Gospel? Jesus did say "How hard for the rich man to enter the kingdom" (Matthew 19:23) but did he really say it was impossible?
Did not the disciples aspire to the poverty gospel when the woman poured expensive ointment on Jesus feet? "When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. "Why this waste?" they asked. "This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor." (Matthew 26:8-9). If the prosperity Gospel turns God into a capitalist, the poverty gospel is in danger of turning God into a Marxist. Here lies the clue to the weakness of both positions. Both tends to measure people and their spirituality by their lifestyle or possessions. Material or cultural norms, usually our own, are used to exclude others who don't fit our theology or lifestyle. The prosperity Gospel and the poverty Gospel.
Is there an alternative? Yes there is. Wealth is neither intrinsic nor incongruous to the gospel. Lets turn back to Luke 12:13-34.
3. The Lord's Gospel
The context for this story about a rich fool is prompted by a man in the crowd who interrupted Jesus and asked Him to solve a family problem. Rabbis were expected to help settle legal matters, but Jesus refused to get involved. Why? Because He knew that no answer He gave would solve the real problem, which was covetousness in the hearts of the two brothers. (The "you" in Luke 12:14 is plural.) As long as both men were greedy, no settlement would be satisfactory. Their greatest need was to have their hearts changed. Like too many people today, they wanted Jesus to serve them but not to save them. Jesus told this parable to reveal the dangers that lurk in a covetous heart. As you read it, test your own responses to this farmer's various experiences.
3.1 The Fool's Dilemma (12:16-17)
"The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.
How do you respond to the wealthy farmer's dilemma? Here was a man who had a problem with too much wealth! You may be thinking - I wish I had that kind of problem. If you inherited a fortune this week, you would no doubt ask the same question as this man, "What shall I do?" It was a good question to ask. What made him a fool was the way he answered it. There are perils to prosperity (Prov. 30:7-9). Wealth can choke the Word of God as we saw in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:22). The list of verses in your news sheet shows how wealth can create snares and temptations (1 Tim. 6:6-10, 17-19). It can give you a false sense of security. "And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy;"
Isn't that the motivation behind many a pension plan or saving scheme? People say that money does not satisfy, but it does satisfy if you want to live on that level. People who are satisfied only with the things that money can buy are in great danger of losing the things that money cannot buy. The Fool's Dilemma.
3.2 The Fool's Decision (12:18-19)
'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." '
How do you respond to the decisions of the rich man?
Are you saying, "Now that is shrewd business! Save and have it ready for the
future!" But Jesus saw selfishness in all that this
man did. Eleven times he uses the personal pronoun. The world's philosophy is
"Take care of Number One!" But Jesus does not endorse that philosophy. There
is certainly nothing wrong with following good business principles, or even
with saving for the future (1 Tim. 5:8). Jesus does not encourage waste (John
6:12). But neither does He encourage selfishness motivated by covetousness.
The Fool's Dilemma, the Fool's Decision.
3.3 The Fool's Destiny (12:20-21)
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?' "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."
How do you respond to the death of the boastful farmer? We are prone to say, "Too bad this fellow died just when he had everything going for him! How tragic that he could not finish his great plans." But the greatest tragedy is not what the man left behind but what lay before him: eternity without God! The man lived without God and died without God, and his wealth was but an incident in his life. God is not impressed with our money. We cannot buy our way into heaven like the Olympics. Wealth cannot keep us alive when our time comes to die, nor can it buy back the opportunities we missed while we were thinking of ourselves and ignoring God and others. What then is the right approach to wealth and possessions? Jesus said, "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God." As we close lets think for a few moments about being "rich toward God"
4. Rich Towards God
4.1 Rich in Thankfulness (12:22-24)
"Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes... consider the ravens... God feeds them"
The fundamental error this fool made was to think his possessions were his own, that this exceptional crop was the result of his own hard work and all that mattered. If we would have a proper attitude to possessions then we must first acknowledge like the birds that all things come from God. We are grateful stewards of God's good creation.
4.2 Rich in Simplicity (12:27-28)
"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith.."
The fools motive was "more is better". Jesus says learn to live simply so that others can simply live. Forget this years Spring collections. They cannot match the beauty of God's creation and that includes you. Rich in thankfulness, rich in simplicity.
4.3 Rich in Generosity (12:31-34)
"But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well... Sell your possessions and give to the poor. 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. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Wealth can be enjoyed and employed at the same time if our priority is to seek His kingdom above all else and our purpose is to honour God (1 Tim. 6:10ff). At one level its all too easy to give away our possessions for with them go our responsibility. Its much harder to hold some of them in trust as good stewards, awaiting our Master's orders as to how he would have us invest them in his service. Lets try and answer three basic questions arising from this parable.
4.3.1 Why should we give?
As members of God's family we belong to him. All that we are and all that we have are His. Part of our family responsibility is to use the resources He gives us for His purposes and His glory. Giving to God's work be seen as a series of isolated acts of charity depending on how generous or prosperous we feel. Instead it should be a matter for prayerful consideration and consistent responsibility in supporting the ministry here at Christ Church and through mission both in this country and overseas.
In your news sheet is a note about our Church finances.
Not withstanding the tremendous amount raised in one off gifts for the Millennium
Project, we need to review our regular giving. We currently need about another
£2,000 per month to maintain our budgeted expenditure on the ministry.
Only Ron our treasurer knows who gives what. That's confidential information and I stay out of it. What I do know however is that two third's of our budget - that is £65,000 a year is given by around 15 individuals or families. The other one third comes from about 70 individuals or families. And there are over 300 adult members of Christ Church. You work it out.
Let me challenge you. Our income has doubled in the last
five years, lets double it again in the next five and see how much more we can
do in Virginia Water and beyond because we do not lack the financial resources.
Giving to God's work should be our first priority not the last resort because
we want to be rich toward God. Why we should give.
4.3.2 How should we give?
Paul in his second letter to the Church in Corinth gives us a number of principles to follow based on the example of the Christians in Macedonia.
They gave, even in the midst of their suffering, liberally
and joyfully (8:2) , generously and freely (8:3), and in proportion to their
ability (8:12). As a result, they reaped according
to the measure that they had sowed (9:6) and God richly blessed their cheerful
willingness (9:7). Consequently many others were blessed through their giving
(9:12). Why and how.
4.3.3 How much should we give?
This is something only you can decide before God. Prayerfully reflect on where God comes in your budgeting and spending. In the Old Testament, God commanded His people to tithe 10% of their income to the Temple and their free will offering was over and above this. In the New Testament God does not lay down any set figure. We live by grace, not under the Jewish law any more. However, surely this should motivate us to give freely. However controversial, I believe tithing to be the norm in Scripture and a good benchmark to start with as we give secretly, joyfully and sacrificially. When Joanna and I worked with Campous Crusade for Christ we lived by faith. Even though we had no regular income we nevertheless tithed the first 10% of our income. Although we were poor by the worlds standards we never lacked anything, and never went without a meal. Try it.
Ron Sider goes one step further. In his book "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger", Sider calls for "Proportional Tithing" . There is a description in your sermon outline. Sider says calculate what you need to live on and then for every £1000 beyond that calculate an increasing tithe. I offer it as a suggestion but its between you and the Lord.
If you have seen the film "Schindler's List" you will remember the scene when the Jews who have been rescued from the holocaust by this "righteous Gentile" expressed their gratitude..
Jesus calls us to follow his gospel not a prosperity gospel of poverty gospel. Rich in thankfulness, rich in simplicity, rich in generosity. This is how it is possible to be rich and a Christian. Indeed its the only way. Lets pray.