If you were here for the first two weeks of this series, as we were looking at what Jesus had to say about money in the Sermon on the Mount, you probably recognize that this is mostly the same material. It’s arranged a little differently and worded a little differently, but most of it is essentially the same. Some scholars like to take that and argue about what is “original,” assuming that Matthew and Luke changed stuff to suit them; which is kind of stupid, because it assumes that Jesus only talked about all of this once. In an age before newspapers and magazines, to say nothing of videocameras, TV and the Internet, I’m sure Jesus gave his sermons many times apiece; indeed, even today, people on the speaker’s circuit do that all the time. How many times did the President use his Slurpee line last year? As such, contrary to some of my academic brethren, I figure what we have here in Luke is a different version of the same message, which makes it worth our time to take both the similarities and the differences seriously.
First, we see again the emphasis on not being anxious, on trading in worry about what we have and don’t have for trust that God will provide for us, as he does for the birds and the flowers; given that he’s the one who gave us life, and he’s the one who created out bodies, it’s absurd to think that he can’t provide all the lesser things we need as well. More, given his wisdom and goodness, it’s equally absurd to think he doesn’t know what we need, or that he won’t provide for us if we depend on him. Jesus here is giving us essentially the same challenge God gave his people through the prophet Malachi, in a passage we’ll be reading in a few weeks: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse . . . and thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” Just trust me, he’s saying; you’ll have everything you need, but without the worry.
Of course, if we’re honest with ourselves, a lot of our worry isn’t really about having what we need, is it? Most of us could do with less than what we have; it’s about what we want, the way we want to live our lives, what we’re not willing to do without. Most of us could live more simply than we do, and I certainly don’t exempt myself from that; and I’m sure we can all think of people we know who got themselves into financial trouble because they spent way more than they could afford on houses and cars and other things that were far more expensive than they needed, just because they wanted them. I’ve been thinking lately about the sister of one of my secretaries back in Colorado, who was overextended and in deep financial trouble even before the housing market started to crash; I wonder whatever happened to her and her husband and their two kids.
The truth of it is, as we talked about two weeks ago and see again here, the core issue in all this is idolatry: where is your heart? Who or what is really your first love? What are the priorities that determine everything else in your life? It’s not bad to have more than we need, but if love of money—or fear of not having enough—is calling the shots in our lives, then that’s our idol, that’s our treasure, and we need to cut it down. “Sell your possessions and give to the needy,” Jesus says, and immediately we start asking, “Sell how much? What do I get to keep?” We start defining the limits and trying to figure out what’s the least we can do to be good enough—it’s law-based thinking, and I caught myself doing it as I was writing this sermon; and it’s completely wrong way round. The real question is this: if we cared more about storing up treasure in heaven than in accumulating treasure on earth, if our hearts were really set on Jesus and he were truly our first love and our first priority, then how much would we want to keep, and how much would we gladly give away?
This has been a hard one for me in the last few years, because I never thought of myself as materialistic; indeed, I would have strongly resented the suggestion that I was. I could rationalize all the stuff I have—and pastors can be great rationalizers, as this cartoon shows; and it’s not like we’re particularly extravagant or buy things for which we have no real meaningful use. But as I was coming to realize the degree to which my life has been driven by fear and anxiety, I began to see that I did have a fear issue when it came, not to money, but to material things: fear that I would need something and not have it, and that if I didn’t have this particular thing, at some future point I would be inadequate, because I wouldn’t have the whatever-it-was that I needed. Trying to prepare for contingencies, to get a leg up on the future, by piling up stuff, rather than trusting God to take care of it—that, I think, is my main issue here. It’s stupid, and it’s twisted, and it’s not at all what Jesus wants from me; but it is, I think, all too sadly human.
And it all really flows, in the end, from us wanting what we want, rather than letting God teach us to want what he wants. We look for security in earthly things, even as untrustworthy as they are, because our hearts are set on an earthly security with earthly rewards. Why else would we use the word “securities” to mean stocks, bonds, and other investments? They’re not secure at all—just look at the New York Mets, who bought “securities” from Bernie Madoff; now they’ve been hit with a $1 billion IOU. Stocks, bonds, they go up, they go down—on the whole, they may do well by you, but you can never be sure about tomorrow. It’s all in God’s hands, none of our own. But we call them “securities” anyway because we want to believe that they can give us the security we want: enough money and things to kick back and live the good life, however we define that, without having to work any harder than we want to.
It’s a pleasant vision, but even if we get there, it could still all go splat at any time—financial crisis, medical crisis, family crisis, you can think of all the ways; and even if it doesn’t, is that really enough for us? In the end, human experience seems pretty clear: no, it isn’t. That desire for more, that we can be so prone to try to fill with ever more material things, is the surest sign that material things will never be enough. To find what we really need, we must look beyond the kingdoms of this world; and so we have this little verse, unique to Luke, that ties this whole passage together, verse 32: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Note that. He doesn’t say, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to make you rich”; those sorts of financial blessings may come, or they may not. Instead, he tells us two things. One, if we seek his kingdom, we will receive it. There’s certainty there. If we seek for material wealth, we may find it or we may not—there are many who have gone broke trying to get rich—but if we seek the kingdom of God, we will get what we seek. And two, what we will get will be better than anything else we could ever find.
No, we may not have all the things we want—we probably won’t—but while God may not give us anything more than we need, he won’t give us anything less, either; and more than material things, he’ll give us his love, his peace, his joy, his hope, his power, his strength, and most of all, his life, and those will do more to bless us through the difficult times in this world than all the wealth of the Americas. And that’s just in this world, which will end, and maybe all too soon for some of us; when this world dies and is raised to new life as its maker died and was raised to new life, and all those things that were merely temporary markers of position have passed away, when all that remains is the kingdom of God—then that kingdom will be ours. Totally, without exception. Forever.