Gospel: Luke 12:31-40
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ 14But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ 15And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ 16Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
22 He said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27Consider 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. 28But 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! 29And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
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.’
41 Peter said, ‘Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?’ 42And the Lord said, ‘Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? 43Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. 44Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. 45But if that slave says to himself, “My master is delayed in coming”, and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. 47That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. 48But one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.
On Being a Prepper
The links between the pieces of Luke 12:13-48 mean any divisions by the lectionary are artificial, but it seems telling that lectionary leaves out vv22-31 and vv42-48, which are particularly challenging for we who are rich. My first conclusion on reading the text is that we are so rich that we do not know how to read these words, and my second is that we have left out some of the most challenging words.
At church last night I told people of a younger friend who had said, "Given my age, I may just get to die in bed." She and I were talking about the consequences of global warming, which now seem to be an unavoidable climate catastrophe. I suggested to the meeting that if we are not addressing how to live in a dying civilisation and, perhaps, even as a part of a dying species, then we have nothing to say to younger people. Climate catastrophe is their world, and their reality. Do we take seriously that it is in such a world that God wishes to give us the Kingdom, or are we carefully averting our eyes from the rising waters and temperature?
NT Wright says of the text
Jesus ... is now warning that a crisis is coming, a great showdown for which one must be prepared in the same way as servants who listen eagerly for their master’s footfall and knock at the door. Jesus seems to have envisaged a coming moment at which the forces of light and darkness would engage in a terrible battle, resulting in his own death, and a devastating catastrophe for Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular. Though this passage and others like it have often been taken as predictions of Jesus’ final return, Luke throughout his gospel seems to suggest that they refer principally to a complex of events which Jesus knew would happen within the lifetime of his contemporaries. (Luke for Everyone pp156 SPCK 2001)
Does Jesus speak to our coming catastrophe? Will we have anything to say to our contemporaries? How can we be prepared and "dressed for action?" (Luke 12:35) I begin this post with the climate catastrophe because climate catastrophe is a direct result of giving our hearts over to material riches rather than the Kingdom of God. And we westerners must begin with the admission that we especially are blinded by our riches, and that much of what we say needs to be the confession of enslaved hearts. It is truly a time for us to listen.
The heart is the centre of my passions and being. It is who I am. It is the thing which drives and empowers me. The heart is also the centre of my happiness; it is the part of me which feels that the life I am living is "real" rather than a pretence, or a mistake, or an illusion, or has no meaning at all. We people properly seek to fill the longing of our hearts; there is no other way to live. The latest power tool or gadget, the newer model phone and, indeed, the latest fashion of any kind, all promise to comfort and fill an empty heart, so that a person may live. Yet most men's sheds are full of clutter they thought would comfort their heart and give them meaning, but which didn't. And our full sheds show us how little we have allowed the Christ to fill our hearts.
In reaction to this disappointment of the heart, is the Christianity of asceticism and self-denial: life should not be too much enjoyed; desire is suspect; don't fill the heart with unnecessary things because you will lose your salvation since you are not "rich towards God." (Luke 12:21) Yet John 10:10 says "I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly." Perhaps the question is if what we are enjoying, is life giving and heart filling.
Desire is 'hardwired' into us. "Jesus assumes that our need for treasure is not something which can be lobotomized by any amount of high-mindedness: we must have our desires re-formed around a more fulfilling treasure." (James Alison The Joy of Being Wrong pp228, quoted here.)
Paul Nuechterlein quotes Jesus, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also," and then says
... The "romantic" view is that our heart defines our treasure. Jesus tells us that it's the other way around. We need to find our treasure in heaven (vs. 33), and our heart will follow.
Desire is not evil, of itself. But what we desire, and the one we follow, will shape and locate our heart. Paul goes on to say,
Our desire comes from the model for our desires, not from our hearts. And in order to steer clear of mimetic rivalry, we need to locate the model for our desires in heaven. Earthly models of desire lead to rivalry. The Genesis 3 story of the fall shows us the choice between earthly and heavenly models of desire. The man and woman are living in Paradise as long as they follow God’s heavenly desire. But they eventually go with the earthly models of desire and fall into rivalry. Jesus comes as the Son of Man from heaven to model godly desire for us. Ultimately, when we make him our treasure, our hearts begin to follow.
Rivalry is that sinfulness which leads to sheds and cupboards full of clutter as we seek to fill our poor hearts with stuff which our rivals desired and taught us to desire. Not even stuff which we particularly like. The compulsive behaviour of buying stuff in western culture is a compulsive rivalry which is directly driving the climate catastrophe which is engulfing us.
I've seen commentators suggest that the driving emotions of consumerism are not so much about possession of an item as the action of making the purchase. Which makes sense. When I purchase this thing, I am becoming like my rival, or even getting ahead. At that moment I belong, I am one of the people who matter, one of the purchasing class. But if it is the purchase that matters, if it is the belonging that drives all this, then perhaps buying experiences, rather than (e.g.) things, is also one more cluttering that will not finally comfort the heart.
"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom." God wants us to be rich, to have treasure that does "not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys." But then Jesus says, "Sell your possessions, and give alms." It seems that to be "rich towards God" has nothing to do with possessions, apart from giving them away. If Jesus reused his sermons, I suspect there would be days when he would say, "it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom, so... sell your possessions, and give alms."
When it comes to preaching about possessions, my all-time favourite line comes from an Australian colleague, Peter Lockhart: "Being a Camel. What can one say?" Apart from: We are rich. We have options. We have food in the fridge— we have a fridge! My car is a 1985 van given me by my father, and I have a pushbike. I am richer than most of the world, well into the top 10%, judging by Peter's article. I'm even able to think about retiring! I can only say I am not rich if I am modelling myself upon people richer than I am, and learning their desires, rather than modelling myself upon Jesus and learning his desires. And that would be to show very clearly where my treasure, and thus my heart, was located.
What if Jesus is not using hyperbole when he says (Luke 18:25) it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom? What if he is stating a flat fact which is that riches keep us out; that it's our riches that leave us wondering if God's promises are true, and which have us wondering if the Bible is deluded? This is not to romanticise poverty, which is dreadful, but to highlight that we mostly have no clue how rich we are.
Here is another apparent hyperbole. Paul says
I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phil 4:11b-13)
This is the bloke who undergoes all the beatings and shipwrecks and hunger and thirst. (2 Cor. 11) What if he also is telling us the flat facts of his experience, which are that the enthralling, enlivening experience of God has nothing to do with possessions? We tell ourselves that we live in a time where, unlike Jesus and Paul, you can't just wander the countryside. We point out that even most of Luke's people stayed put and didn't sell everything. And us? Well our lives are far more complicated, we say. Bill Loader warns that "the complexity of our situation can be our camouflage for inaction," but I fear appealing to the complexity of our situation also reflects our desire to stay rich, which is a desire to feel safe, which is really, a lack of faith that it is God's desire to give us the kingdom.
Laura Brekke says,
living in a constant state of anxiety steals your joy. When you are always worried, always waiting for the shoe to drop, you cannot fully appreciate the moments of happiness as they arrive....
When Jesus tells us “do not be afraid,” he invites us to divest ourselves of our fear and our control. Sell our possessions, give the money to the needy, for those things will not save us. Our control over our wealth will not save us. Only God, whose good pleasure it is, will give us the kingdom. We cannot replace anxiety with inactive calm. We cannot replace fear with our desire to control outcomes. Fear must be replaced by trust and faithful action.
The faithful action she speaks of will always confront us with our death. I'm beginning to suspect that if our faithful actions are not frightening us as we lose control, that perhaps we are not acting faithfully enough.
Everything screams at me that I am being unrealistic in what I am writing here. What about my superannuation? Where will I live? What will happen when I am really old? I am afraid for my future even though Jesus says "Do not keep worrying," and "Do not be afraid." (Luke 12:29, 32) There is a meme on Facebook which says
This blows my mind every single day: That a handful of old white men hold the fate of humankind in their hands. And they refuse to act because they are afraid of losing their money. It's a lousy reason for a planet to die. (Somebody on Facebook)
This is a lie, of course. It's me who is afraid. And the creator of that meme. And all of us. Or we would be marching by the millions. It is easier to blame others, or wait for others to act. And to be fair, the issues are so enormous that they paralyse us. Where does one start?
I'm fascinated by preppers, the folk who are getting ready for the big disaster. Stockpiling food, learning survival skills, building bunkers, and caching weapons. Their desire often seems to be modelled upon the American action hero who steps in when the state fails. These folk are not going to be some "small little flock" at the mercy of the strong. They are going to be prepared. And these folks' hearts are comforted, at present, because they have been active. They are dressed for action and prepared for thieves. But I suspect that when the endless heatwaves come, and if civilisation melts down, they will find that even their bunkers are full of clutter and broken promise, for some thieves can never be denied. A planet cannot be placated. And the heart which has sought to comfort itself with mammon and has desired the wrong treasures will find that it is devastated and empty, and always was. I fear preppers may find they were about preserving themselves and their privilege rather than being prepared ready for God.
What then can I do?
The priest Maximilian Kolbe was imprisoned in Auschwitz.
When a prisoner escaped, ten men were chosen to be starved to death to deter any more attempts. One of the men cried out,
"My wife! My children!" Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
According to an eyewitness, ... in his prison cell, Kolbe led the prisoners in prayer. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After they had been starved and deprived of water for two weeks, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied, so they gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Kolbe is said to have raised his left arm and calmly waited for the deadly injection. (Wikipedia)
Well might we pray, "Save us from the time of trial." I often wonder about the trope in novels and movies where those facing certain death still make bargains to forestall the inevitable for a few hours or even... a few minutes. It clearly reflects a reality we know in ourselves. If death is not a reality in God's reality, and if resurrection is real, why is it that so few of us feel we could be like Kolbe? It seems to me that Kolbe spent his final fortnight in Auschwitz in the Kingdom of God, slowly being weakened as his "little small flock" died around him, and yet full of power.
God knows I am a coward. And God knows if I could ever do as Father Kolbe did; God would most certainly need to give me the same strength as God gave Kolbe! I do know this: if my heart does not model itself upon the Christ*, I will not be able to grasp hold of the treasure which sustained that priest. I also understand that I can dress for action; that is, I can prepare for such a moment. I prepare by living to give. I am astonished by how much even my small giving up of my riches has freed me from fear. It has come by wishing to be like Jesus, pious and simplistic as that may sound.
We are all going to die. The only questions are where our heart will have placed us when the time comes, and how much we suffer fear in the meantime. I hope that in my prepping for death that I might find my heart among those hearts who die with an unexpected calm. I pray that this preparation, and even the dying, may witness a freedom for those who must live on into a planetary future which is outside human experience. To do this depends on my continuing to repent of my riches for "some things have to be believed"; that is trusted through action, "to be seen." (Madeleine L'Engle)
Andrew Prior (2019)
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!
Also on One Man's Web
Climate Change and Death – Easter in the Anthropocene
Luke 12:32-40 - Possessions and Kingdom (2010)
Luke 12:32-40 - Peach Trees and the Kingdom of God (2013)
Luke 12:32-40 - Ready for what? (2013)
Luke 12:32-40 - Good Pleasure and Joy (2013)
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