On from Young, 2011

Possessions and Kingdom

Pentecost 11: 8 August Luke 12:32-40

32 ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell 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. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
35 ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
39 ‘But know 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. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’

This reading follows on from last week when it says "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (34) It is the logical conclusion of verse 21: So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’

I love the image of the little flock… the small and relatively defenseless little church to whom it is the father’s good pleasure to give the kingdom. Here we have the little flock of sheep in the care of the shepherd. It is so unlike the mob of thousands left to fend for themselves out in the salt bush. Suddenly, Luke is not talking to the crowd gathered in thousands, 12:1, but the reality of most churches through history, small and often struggling, and living in perilous conditions. For me, these are some of the most comforting words in the Gospel of Luke.

I read the gospels from the perspective that they tell us about Jesus and God via the methodology of living as a Christian. They are an appeal to live to experience the kingdom.

They are not really about doctrine. They are not a set of beliefs to espouse. Doctrine the sort of thing we create to sum them up… and then corrupt by telling ourselves our doctrine is the gospel. The gospels are about practicing the kingdom. The promise, and the actuality, of the “Father’s good pleasure” are what guide and centre us.

Loader also sees Luke firmly based in practice, not doctrine. He says of this week's gospel

It sets us free to deal with wealth creatively. 12:33 speaks of selling property and using the proceeds for others. Today this is complex, but the principle is simple. The complexity of our situation can be our camouflage for inaction. The reality is that we need to address the underlying possessive anxieties which our world has a way of escalating. When we do so, then we can be free to let our wealth go and use it (as wisely as our best caring strategies determine). This is both something which grace generates and something where the sequence is not automatic. Grace needs a shove because the sophisticated rationalisations for selfishness create heavy drag.

This is to be done not as a duty, but at least as enlightened self interest. And not self interest which is about political platitudes or the justification of social policies. It is based in the fact that it has been God’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom. We are already beginning to live in a different world and under a different system.

Petty says Luke

follows the parable of the rich fool (12: 13-21) with exhortations to live without anxiety.  Worry about food or clothing is unnecessary in light of God's providence.  "The nations" worry about such things--that is to say, people who think and act in light of the dominant culture's assumptions will find themselves riven with uncertainty and anxiety.
Why so?  The dominant culture operates out of the myth of scarcity, i.e. that there is not enough and one must compete for scarce resources.  The Jesus movement, on the other hand, is to live in light of God's abundance in which there is plenty for everyone.  (It would be impossible to attain a world population of 7 billion people unless there is a significant abundance of food.)

He notes

This change in worldview brings its own anxiety.  If we don't compete for food, how will we survive?  We don't know any other way!

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.

When we come to these words we are given two gifts. Deciding to give away possessions sets us free. Beginning to give things away is then that “shove given to grace,” using the words of Loader (above), which in my experience yields a disproportionate harvest. It is good for us.

Petty highlights the second gift.

God has already given this kingdom.  It is not something that kicks into effect after you die or when the world ends, but something that is present right now….
In the world of that time, a gift given now constitutes an obligation to return a similar gift in the future…  In this case, in return for God's gift of a new way of life, our return gift is to be given not to God himself, but to the poor…
Selling possessions and giving alms is, itself, is a sign of the kingdom.  You want to pay God back for his splendid gift of abundance and a healthy way to live in a cause that endures forever?  Fine.  If you want to give back to God, give alms to the poor.  That's the same thing as giving to God.

This is so different from the stern discipleship with which we are often burdened. Anyone can give.  Compassion and generosity are currency which all of us possess. It is freedom from the slavery of conforming to whatever it is our local church deems necessary to be a good Christian, whether it be believing the right things, or singing the right songs, or having the right experience.

The fact that “the dominant culture operates out of the myth of scarcity” means giving is difficult to begin. Everything about life, from our earliest evolution as a species, moves us toward hoarding. The myth began in reality. But it has been nurtured by the military industrial complex, and refined into highly organized consumerism so that it bears no relation to real scarcity and famine for those of us in the west. Instead we cause famine elsewhere with our greed filled political meddling and mining.

This consumerism is so pervasive it seems to be reality.

Giving ourselves a shove not only allows grace to pour into our lives. As we give and let go, we will do much of the work required to “be ready.” (35-40) We will not be distracted by our possessions.

Giving is not without consequence. A colleague reflected on our high ideals as young men, and the calls to discipleship and faithful living. He reflected with some bitterness on how, because we had lived that out, he and I did not have boats, and holiday homes, and houses in the best part of town, and high incomes and large superannuation funds… unlike some of our youth group contemporaries.

He is correct. I have done very little giving really, but the cost in material possessions has been high. But the return has been even higher, I suspect. I have some peace. I am glad of the choices I have made.

The background of this teaching of Jesus is useful for those of us who are sensitive to the ecological and justice issues of our world. No matter what we do as westerners in Australia or the USA, for example, we are complicit in a national exploitation of other workers. The very computer on which I write, and you read this article, is made under conditions we would not accept for ourselves. We work, at best on a trickle-down theory of trade which off-shores our less pleasant tasks and pollution. Much of it is pure exploitation. We are, by definition, the very rich of the world. Stoffragen reminds us that

in the first century, it was believed that there was a fixed and limited amount of wealth. If someone gained wealth, someone else had to loose it. They didn't believe that everyone [was] becoming wealthier. Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) state: "Acquisition was always considered stealing" (p. 359 emphasis in original). So, if the poor were to escape their poverty, it would have to come from the wealthy sharing their possessions. In essence, the wealthy would have to become poorer if the poor were to gain some wealth.

We are beginning to recognise that the levels of material wealth we seek to maintain as the Australian Dream are not only currently unjust. They are simply not achievable for everyone. They are only achieved now by mining the past for energy. As we gain, other people, and planet, lose.

We recognize that even as we simply farm, and count the beans with Thoreau at Walden, we have an effect on the planet and on our neighbours. As our agriculture and industry have become more complex and have much more impact on the planet than Thoreau's little farm, we have rarely done an honest accounting of the full effects, and asked when is too much. It is time to begin asking again, “Who loses as I gain?” And to consider, “At what level am I stealing when I acquire?” We must get abandon the idol of ceaseless growth, for at some level, the people of Jesus time were correct. There are limits to growth before it becomes theft.

These are difficult questions in societies which consider that they own what they produce. They are difficult questions for we who have rarely thought to account the true cost of what we produce in terms of its ecological impact. They are difficult questions because the vested interest of the countries in which we live hasten us toward climate disaster, seek to shout us down. Byron Smith says he compares

our situation facing the various ecological and resource threats of industrial society as being like a car crash unfolding in slow motion. The point of this analogy … [is] that while a crash may be almost inevitable, the driver (societal leaders, including though not limited to political authorities) still has a role to play in shaping the severity of the collision.

It can seem we are in an impossible situation, and are ethically hopelessly compromised by our membership of this society. The crash is coming; the only question is when. Will we dare to hear Jesus say it is the father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom and believe it? Will we believe it with our living and giving and be rich towards God (12.21) or will we seek to claw our way up over the backs of the poor to the level of the even more rich, and try and live out the crisis secured by our own wealth? Can we have a vision of a kingdom of heaven which will be given to us as our current order and structures collapse, or will we struggle on alone?

Ultimately, in our time, the kingdom of God is a calling and a recipe to live against the rampant greed of the age. It is the way to live alternatively. It is the way to live through the re-setting of society. Kingdom is our hope in a world falling apart.

Andrew Prior August 2010

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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