In Luke 12:13-15 there is the story of man who believed that Jesus would be the right person to settle a family dispute. “Teacher,” the man says, “tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” The man is so sure he is right that he doesn’t even ask Jesus’ opinion. He just tells Jesus to tell his brother to do the right thing. If Jesus had wanted to get involved, he could have began by asking a few questions, such as ‘did your father have a will?, what did it say?, are there any other brothers and sisters?, why do you suppose you were you excluded?,’ and so forth. But Jesus does not get involved, making it very clear that he is not interested in such matters, saying, “Who appointed me to be the judge between you two?” And then Jesus gave that man and the whole crowd a warning. “Watch out!” Jesus said, “and be on your guard against all kinds of greed, because a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
Jesus’ answer is typical of the Bible’s approach to matters of money and property. There is a balance here between concern and lack of concern about such matters. Jesus does not tell the man to forget the whole thing, he just said that he did not want to get involved. These kinds of things take a lot of time, and that is not what Jesus came for. He had more important things to do– a whole world to save, and he was not about to get bogged down in an individual legal dispute that could take days or weeks to unravel and settle. So Jesus makes it clear he will not be the one to serve as judge in the matter; but he doesn’t say that a judge is not needed. He does not condemn such concern about money and property, but he does go on to do what he always does. He cautions against too much concern. He says “Watch out! Be careful of greed because money and possessions are not the most important things in life.”
Jesus then told a story (verses 16-21) of a rich man who built bigger and bigger barns for his abundant crops, thinking that he had now built up for himself a solid and lasting security. The rich man said to himself, “Now I have plenty of good things laid up for many years. All I have to do now is take life easy and eat, drink, and be merry.” But then God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded of you.” And in Jesus’ final comment, he again displays his balanced view toward money and possessions. This rich man is not criticized for working hard, or for providing for himself, or for planning ahead, or being successful. Jesus does not criticize him for any of that. But Jesus does say, “That is how it will be for anyone who stores up things for himself, but is not rich toward God.” The man’s problem was not that he was concerned about being a good farmer and provider. The man’s problem was that he was concerned only about that. So too with the man who wanted Jesus to settle the dispute between him and his brother. Here is Jesus, the greatest spiritual teacher that the people have ever seen, proclaiming a message of eternal life– and all that man can think about is getting Jesus to tell his brother to give him some money. There is in Jesus, and in all of the Bible, a concern, and a lack of concern, about money and wealth. Yes, we do need to be responsible; but the Bible’s primary message and direction is to move us toward a having broader perspective.
The 2003 movie “House of Sand and Fog,” is about a dispute concerning the ownership of a house. A young woman is the rightful owner, but the county has made an error concerning delinquent back taxes. She goes in to take care of the matter, and believes it is settled. She then foolishly ignores subsequent mailings and warnings that inform her that there is more that she needs to do. She is forcibly evicted the day before the house is sold at a Sheriff’s auction. She is desperate to get her house back, but now the house has been sold, and the new owner is just as desperate to fix it up and sell it to make money for his own urgent financial needs. Both are in complex situations, and both need possession of that house, and both fight very hard. The viewer comes to have a great deal of sympathy for both of the characters, as both do have a certain right to the property.
The legal fight becomes personal and intensifies, until it unintentionally becomes a matter of life and death. All involved are pretty good folks, and none of them wanted it to get to that point; and when it does, they are all willing to back off, even though it might, by then, be too late. When the fight was only about ownership of the house and the money that one or the other would gain or lose, getting that house became for each of them the most important thing in life. But when it really did become truly a matter of life and death, their whole perspective changed. They realized right away that there were more important things in life than getting that house. The movie skillfully draws you into the battle, so that in the middle of the film you are convinced of the great importance of that house for each of them, but by the end, you see how silly it is to be so concerned about simple material possessions.
That is what Jesus was trying to tell the man in the text, both in his reply to the request to settle the inheritance battle, and in the parable of the rich man who kept building bigger barns. Money and property must be a matter of some attention and concern in this world, but those things must never be the objects of our greatest attention or concern.
I Timothy 6:10 reflects this same balance: “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith, and have pierced themselves with many pains.” Again, we need to look at what it does not say. It does not say that money itself is evil. Money is simply a tool to simplify the exchanges of goods and labor between people. But, says Paul, it is the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil. Earn money, save money, spend money, give money away,– there are all kinds of good and necessary things you can do with money. But, says Paul and Jesus, do not LOVE money. Do not love money more than you love God. That, they say, will get you into all kinds of trouble. You will pierce yourself with many pains, says Paul. And Jesus says, do not forget that someday your soul will be required of you, just like the man in the story, and then all your money will be left behind. Be prepared for that day and do not, like the rich man in the story, find yourself poor in your relationship with God. When that time comes, all that will matter will be your relationship with God.
I Timothy 6:10 — For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith, and have pierced themselves with many pains.
Almighty God, judge of us all, you have placed in our hands the wealth we call our own. Give us such wisdom by your Spirit that our possessions may not be a curse in our lives, but an instrument for blessing, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. —Lutheran Book of Worship