Sermon 07-31-2022: “Get Rich in the Only Way that Matters”

Scripture: Luke 12:13-21

If you’re of my generation—Generation X—and you needed to be reminded that you’re getting older, well… with great sadness we were reminded of this fact last week when actor Tony Dow—whom most of us know and love as Wally Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver—died, from cancer, at age 77. And I was genuinelysaddened. I know you can say it’s “just a TV show,” but, man… Leave It to Beaver was an important part of my childhood. I mean, that show dealt with real issues that I was facing when I was a kid at the time—that’s for sure!

Anyway, even the New York Times obituary writer put her finger on something that I always appreciated about Wally, the older brother to Beaver. While describing the kind of person Wally was, she said, “And [Wally] would never ‘squeal on’ the Beav, unless he had to.”1 

Oh, how I longed to grow up with sibling like Wally! I didn’t have older brothers, but I had older sisters. And let me tell you: they positively enjoyed “squealing on” on me—or “telling on” me or “tattling on” me… their little brother!

Something like that is happening in today’s scripture: a brother is “squealing on” his brother… and he’s squealing on his brother to Jesus, of all people! That’s got to be embarrassing! Verse 13: “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’”

We can infer that this man is a little brother. In the ancient Jewish world, an older son would have been the executor of his father’s estate. He would also be responsible for dividing it up according to Old Testament Law. Under that law, the younger son was entitled to one-third of the estate. And it sounds like, for whatever reason, the older brother was unwilling to give his younger brother his fair share.

Was this younger brother’s cause a just one? Did he have a case?

He probably did! He is likely a victim of injustice. He is likely being mistreated in the settling of his father’s estate. And he wants justice.

And don’t we all… when it comes to issues of wills and estates and inheritances… don’t we all want justice or fairness. In my pastoral ministry, I’ve seen plenty of families become divided over a parent’s estate. I’ve seen my own family become divided over it, which I’ll describe in a moment.

Many of us can relate to this younger brother’s plight.

And yet Jesus refuses to hear the man’s case. Instead, he says, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”

Jesus discerns what’s going on in this man’s heart—and Jesus perceives, as he so often does in the gospels, that this man has a problem far deeper than the one he’s bringing to Jesus. Verse 15: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Jesus names the sin: covetousness—a breaking of the Tenth Commandment. One of the biggies. 

I want this sermon to explore the sin of covetousness: to identify three roots of this sin of covetousness, which Jesus himself identifies in today’s scripture. I want us to see how God’s promises in his Word can heal this sin within us. And I want to apply Jesus’ teaching to the area of financial stewardship, tithing, and generosity.

So let’s begin by looking at three roots of this sin…

Jesus senses that covetousness is what’s driving this man’s desire for justice. That’s why Jesus warns him to “take care and be on guard against it” because covetousness so easily and often disguises itself as righteous indignation. Covetousness has a way of sneaking into our hearts and making us say, “I deserve this. I am entitled to this. I know my rights, and I am being treated unfairly!”

Years ago, my Aunt Mary died—Aunt Mary was what used to be called a “spinster.” She was unmarried; she never had kids—absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course. For decades, she had been an executive secretary at AT&T—back when working for “Ma Bell” was a big deal. And she had amassed a small fortune, which she bequeathed to her nieces and nephews… And dividing up her estate became one big, awful, ugly fight. Today, some of my first cousins still refuse to speak to one another as a result. 

But I became party to a lawsuit—with a dozen other cousins—to settle my Aunt Mary’s estate. 

Was I right to do so? What would Jesus say about it? 

I think he would say—indeed, I think he did say to me at the time—“Walk away, Brent, and forget about it. It’s not worth it. This is not good for your soul. You don’t need the money.”

And let me tell you… My cousins and I are all professing Christians, by the way. All of us are good, Bible-believing Christians who would agree that God is telling the truth in his Word… Yet all of us felt deep down in our souls that we were being mistreated, that this was deeply unfair,and this injustice could not stand! We felt so righteous in our cause!

So I know exactly how this man felt!

Like him, we cousins needed to hear Jesus tell us this troubling, hard-hitting parable about a wealthy farmer who simply wants what he deserves, who simply wants what he’s entitled to, who simply wants what he has earned, fair and square… who simply wants what he has coming to him! 

The farmer, in this case, has a bumper crop, an abundant harvest. And this abundance creates a problem: “I don’t have enough room in my existing barns to store all of this grain!”—as we would say today, that is a nice problem to have! 

So the farmer decides on what appears to be a prudent course of action: to build bigger barns.

Please notice that there’s nothing here in this parable—is there?—that’s directly about the sin of covetousness. For one thing, there have to be other people around in order for us to covet. We usually think of coveting as wanting what someone else has. But that isn’t he case here: The farmer is by himself in the parable, looking only at what he possesses and not what other people possess. 

Also, we usually think of coveting as making ourselves miserable because we don’t have what someone else has. But there’s no indication at all that this farmer is miserable—at least not until the end, when he meets God in judgment, and faces an eternity separated from God, in hell. But that’s only at the end. Earlier, far from being miserable, he’s elated because of this abundant harvest!

And yet Luke wants us to see a connection between the younger brother’s covetousness and the farmer in this parable. So what is the connection?

Jesus makes the connection by identifying the sinful roots of covetousness—which we find within the farmer.

First let’s look at verses 17 to 19. Luke records this farmer’s internal monologue

[A]nd he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” And he said, “I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

More than a few preachers and commentators over the centuries have noticed how many times the word “I” appears. Six times. The farmer isn’t less self-centered when it comes to his use of the word “my,” which shows up five times in these verses.

And this is one root of covetousness: the mistaken belief that we are ultimately responsible for our success, our prosperity, our material blessings. And if we’re responsible for it, then when we receive it, it is ours. It belongs to us to do with as we please. The farmer thinks, “I did this. This is mine. This belongs to me. After all, I’ve been fighting and scrapping and competing with other people for everything I possess—for decades. And now I want what I have coming to me! Now I want what I deserve!”

And that’s all this younger brother wants as well—right?—what he has coming to him, fair and square; what he deserves. His financial success depends on him, after all. So he needs to take matters into his own hands and solve this problem… he needs to enlist a wise arbitrator like Jesus to defend his cause… and get the money he thinks he deserves… the money to which he’s entitled… If he doesn’t do all these things, he’ll miss out on something good… something he believes he needs to be happy.

And that’s Root Number Two: a mistaken belief about what you need to be happy.

And I say “mistaken belief” because we get an idea what their version of happiness look like, in verse 19, when the farmer tells himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Undoubtedly, the younger brother believes that if he gets his share of his father’s inheritance, he, too, will be able to do something similar, something that will make him deeply happy!

Relaxing and eating and drinking and being merry—that’s the good life—as far as both these men are concerned. They’ve seen other people enjoy that kind of life, and that’s what they want for themselves. If they don’t get these things for themselves, they believe they will miss out on something really good. 

We can relate, can’t we? We even have an acronym in our culture that describes it. We see it a lot on social media: Fomo. “Hashtag Fomo.” Which stands for “fear of missing out.”

My beloved English Springer Spaniel, Ringo, often has a serious case of “Fomo”—for example, whenever we give his sister, Neko, a Milkbone dog biscuit first, before we give one to him. Oddly enough, Ringo isn’t bothered at all if we give him the Milkbone first. He doesn’t worry whether we’ll be fair and give his sister will get one too.

So Ringo often experiences Fomo… One moment, he could be lying on top of the cushions of our love seat in the living room, where he loves hanging out. And we could be petting him, giving him affection, giving him attention… And his tail is wagging; and he’s got that big Springer smile on his face… He’s well fed, well loved—fat, dumb, and happy… All is right with his world… until… until that moment when we give our other dog, Neko, a Milkbone.

And Ringo, who, moments earlier, couldn’t have been happier and more contented, is now indignant: “What about me, Dad? You can’t give Neko a dog treat without giving me one too! It says right here, in paragraph 322.4, of the doggy owner’s manual! I know my rights! I only want justice, after all! I only want fair play! I only want what I have coming to me!”

If Ringo had never known about that Milkbone we gave to his sister, he would have been just as happy as he was before. But now… now he know that she has something he doesn’t have… Fomo… 

And Fomo only happens when Ringo compares himself with his sister, and then becomes deeply unhappy.

Are we so different from Ringo?

After all, suppose the younger brother was living in a different country from the rest of his family, far from his father and brother. Suppose he hadn’t gotten word yet that his father died, or that his older brother took all of his dad’s money… Those events would have had no effect whatsoever on the younger brother’s life, on his happiness, on his wellbeing. Similarly, notice verse 16: Jesus begins the parable, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully.” This farmer was already doing perfectly well for himself… even before he had this unusual problem of needing more storage space.

I know from personal experience the feeling of, “I don’t have enough to be happy”—but 99.999 percent of the time that I feel this way, it’s because I’m looking over my shoulder at the other guy, and I see what he has! 

I’ve told you before that every year in our Methodist system, when new clergy appointments get announced, I will inevitably look at the list, become indignant, and say, with sin in my heart, “They’re sending him to that giant church, in that desirable part of town? What a disaster! Are you kidding me?” 

Why should I care? Comparing ourselves to others is a spiritually deadly game. Dear Lord, give us the power to refuse to play it!

So this is Point Number One: What are the “roots” of covetousness? First, believing that our success in the world, our happiness, depends ultimately on us… and what we do. Second, a mistaken belief about what we need to be happy. And third, feeling afraid of missing out on what we think we need to be happy—a problem that becomes especially acute when we compare ourselves to others and think, “Why does that person have that good thing that I don’t have? They don’t deserve that more than I do! That’s not fair!”

[Show bulletin cover.]I’ve subtitled this current sermon series “the surprising path to joy in the gospel of Luke” for a reason: Hardly anything impedes our path to joy like a spirit of covetousness. Wouldn’t you agree? 

The good news is this: there is a better way to live! 

Which brings us to Point Number Two: At the heart of Jesus’ words about covetousness is a belief in God’s providence. Providence simply means this: God will always, and is always, taking care of his children. All the time… in every situation… in every circumstance. If you read on in Luke chapter 12, Jesus makes this point explicit. Verse 24:

Consider 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!

He goes on. Verse 27 and 28:

Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!

Do we believe Jesus when he promises us that his Father will take care of our every need… so that we don’t have to worry?

Remember I said earlier that I believe—in that particular situation with my Aunt Mary—that I should have walked away instead of litigating it… Listen, I’m not for a moment suggesting that legal action is always wrong. Not at all! We need good lawyers. I love knowing a good lawyer! I’m only speaking personally, in this one situation, and I’m saying that our Lord Jesus was telling me in his Word to walk away from it, and I didn’t.

Now… here’s the question I want us to consider: Suppose I had done so, suppose I had walked away and took no part in the lawsuit, and took no part in arbitration and settlement. And suppose I received nothing from my aunt’s estate—no money at all!

Would I still be standing before you today? Are you sure?

I mean, are you sure that I wouldn’t have starved? Are you sure I wouldn’t have been able to make ends meet? Are you sure I wouldn’t have had to change careers… you know, gone back into engineering and left this pastoral career behind? What do you think?

So you seriously believe that even without the money from my aunt’s estate I would still be alive, I would still be making ends meet, and I would still be pastoring this church today?

Do you really believe that?

So do I! 

Why do I think that? Because our Father always takes care of me… just as Jesus promises that he will… in his Word! And the same would be true for the younger brother in today’s scripture. He can afford to walk away from his father’s inheritance because his success in this world, his prosperity, his ability to make ends meet, does not ultimately depend on whether or not he gets this money; it does not ultimately depend on whether or not this case gets settled in his favor; it does not ultimately depend on his ability to enlist a clever arbitrator—like Jesus—to hear his case and rule in his favor… His success in this world, his prosperity, his ability to make ends meet, depends on our heavenly Father!

And our Father is infinitely resourceful. God doesn’t need this man’s older brother to “do the right thing” and give him the money he’s owed. God can supply this younger brother every need in some other way. And God promises that he will!

If only we could believe that?

I mean… This isn’t a stewardship sermon, I promise… but you can see the application to stewardship, can’t you? 

I would love for every single member and regular attender of Toccoa First to be faithful to God in the money they give to this church. Every single one. The biblical standard of giving to the church is at least a tithe. The tithe comes from the Old Testament; those of us under the new covenant of Christ’s atoning death on the cross are free to be even more generous than ten percent. And God may call you to give more than a tithe, just as he often does in the New Testament.

But the standard for giving is a tithe.

And I want every member and regular attender of this church to tithe—which is, to give ten percent of your income. I do. I at least want you to pray about it and take concrete steps to move toward a tithe. I believe God is calling you to do so. Whether you do or not, by the way, I promise I will never know! I don’t know what anyone at this church gives—by choice

But I want you to tithe. And I’m not worried about stepping on your toes by saying so, because I imagine that, if you’re not being faithful to God with your money, tithing already, you already feel guilty about it.

But I don’t want you to feel guilty; I want to encourage you. And the only way you can be encouraged to be faithful in stewardship is by understanding the truth of the doctrine of God’s providence. If you are a faithful steward, if you are faithful in your financial giving, God will be faithful in his giving to you!

I heard Janet Kaup say this in a testimony a few years ago, but she pointed out that we are given permission to put God to the test when it comes to tithing. Malachi 3:10: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. 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.”

And thereby put me to the test, God says. See if he won’t provide for you when you are faithful in tithing.

But getting back to my situation with my aunt’s estate. Suppose that Lisa and I really, really needed that money that she bequeathed to us. Suppose it wasn’t even a matter of starvation, but it was very serious. We needed the money! You might say, “How could you afford in that case to obey Jesus and walk away from this legal dispute with your family? You genuinely needed the money, Brent!”

Yes, I agree, I genuinely needed money… but… if God’s Word is true, where does our money ultimately come from?

If you remember the Book of Esther at all, you remember that her people, the Jews, were in danger of mass extermination, at the hands of an evil Persian government official named Haman. It seemed like only Esther, who had married the king of Persia, could stop this genocide. And she’s afraid for her life to even try. And her cousin Mordecai appeals to her with these profound words about God’s providence from Esther 4:14:

If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?2

“Deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place…” That is a statement of God’s providence. Mordecai is rightly convinced that even if his cousin Esther, the queen, fails to do what God is calling her to do, God will take care of Mordecai and his people… in some other way. God does not need Esther to do anything in order for God to rescue God’s people.

As desperate as Esther and Mordecai’s situation appeared, their deliverance from their enemy did not ultimately depend on what they did; it depended on God alone. If Esther failed to take action to deliver her people, God would find another way to deliver them.

God has the power to do this!

Christian writer Richard Foster says that when he was a senior in high school, he was invited to spend a summer doing mission work among the Eskimo in northern Alaska. He had a strong conviction that God was calling him to do this. The problem was, he had no money. All of his family’s money went to pay his ailing parent’s medical bills. Yet he still felt called. As an act of faith, he decided to tell no one about his financial need except God. He believed that if God wanted him to go do this missions work, the funds would become available. Almost immediately, he said, a check arrived in the mail from people who knew nothing about his call from God. The note said, “For your expenses this summer.” And in similar ways, he said it was beautiful to watch as God took care of every provision for the trip.

When he returned home from his Alaska mission trip, he now had no money for college. He spent the summer doing ministry instead of earning money. One day after church he was invited by a couple to have lunch with them. They asked about his college plans and before long they formed a group among their friends to support Foster through four years of college and three years of graduate school.3

I’ve heard plenty of other testimonies from credible Christian believers along these same lines.

So… if I needed the exact amount of money that my aunt’s estate would have provided for me and my family—and yet I said, “No, the Lord is telling me not to take part in this legal dispute over her will”—God would still have provided! He would have done so in some other way, but he would have provided.

Let’s look at the “punchline” of this frightening parable in verse 21. Jesus says that if we live our lives like the farmer in this parable—if we live our lives in pursuit of the “good life” apart from God and his kingdom—we will be fools who will be separated from God eternally in hell. No sugarcoating it. That’s what Jesus means when he says, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

Frightening words of judgment that ought to stir all of us to examine our hearts. Jesus is not for one moment discouraging us from using our gifts to make money, to be prosperous. He often uses our personal wealth to build his kingdom, to spread the gospel, and to supply the needs of God’s people. We see this in the Book of Acts and in Paul’s letters.

But Jesus is calling us to examine our hearts: Are we trusting in him alone to take care of us—or are we trusting in our material blessings?

But here’s some good news from this verse, which otherwise sounds like nothing but bad news: Every single one of us, irrespective of our jobs, our careers, our socioeconomic backgrounds, our education levels, our families of origin, our stock portfolios, our 401(k)s, our pensions—every single one of us is capable of being rich

Of “being rich” in the only way that matters: of being rich toward God.

It doesn’t require money, either. If you’re rich toward God, it doesn’t matter how much money is in your bank account.

You can live the “good life,” Jesus says, and not be anxious any longer about money and possessions and all the things people so often worry about. 

The good life is knowing God through Jesus Christ and trusting in him to supply everything you need. It’s free. And it’s yours for the asking. It only requires faith…

  1.  Anita Gates, “Tony Dow, Big Brother Wally on ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ Dies at 77,” nytimes.com, 26 July 2022. Accessed 28 July 2022.
  2. Esther 4:14 NLT
  3. Richard Foster, The Challenge of the Disciplined Life (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 47-8.

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