Economics of the Kingdom

Luke 12:13-34

1 July 2012

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning Reflective Service


It's quite hard to escape from economics at the moment, isn't it? You can pretty much guarantee that in any news bulletin, at least one of the top three headlines will be about the banks, the Euro or tax. It's fair to say that since 2008, macro-economics has become a national obsession.

Thankfully, economics is really easy to understand. There are only two things you need to know about: greed and fear. We've seen clear examples of both at work in the last week, haven't we? We've seen evidence of naked greed as Barclays dishonestly tried to manipulate interest rates, and we continue to see fear of collapse driving meltdown in the Euro area.

This morning, in our series on the Kingdom of God, we are looking at "the economics of the Kingdom". But the problem with tackling a topic like this is that Jesus has a huge amount to say about money: where to begin? What I've chosen to do is to focus down on these verses from Luke chapter 12 where Jesus tackles both greed and fear head-on. When we've understood these, we'll have understood everything.

Greed: the dangers of wealth

In the first section, verses 13 to 21, Jesus confronts greed: verse 15 Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greedref. And he links greed with a spiritual problem: the problem of feeling that we are wealthy. It's a problem because a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessionsref, which is the complete opposite of the world's estimate of our value, isn't it?

So, Jesus paints a picture for us of a successful land-owner. This man is a financial success story. By our standards, and the standards of that day, he has made it, hasn't he? He's achieved that great financial goal that we all aspire to; he's stashed away enough money to put his feet up, to retire, and take it easy.

He'd had an excellent year; his farm had produced more grain that he knew what to do with. There was so much of it that to store it all he had to tear down his existing storehouses and build bigger ones. And he had acquired so many great possessions as a result of his windfall that he had to store those in the new barns as well. Now he could relax. He'd achieved financial security. He could say to himself those wonderful words, You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merryref. This guy had made it!

Yes, he was successful, and there's nothing wrong with that. But we begin to see some warning signs in verse 18. Have a look at them. It's all "I, I, I" and "my, my, my", isn't it? There's no thought of others, and certainly no thought of God. At heart, this man is greedy—everything is for him alone to enjoy. He is a hoarder who has built up a nice nest-egg for himself, but gives no thought to spreading it around a bit.

The corrosive effect of wealth on this man is two-fold. First, it has made him selfish. This is a peculiarity of money: there seems to be a general pattern that the more we have, the less generous we become. There are notable exceptions, but this seems to be the general trend, and I see it in my own heart. The second effect is to keep him from God. When we have enough to live comfortably, we quickly forget God, don't we? Isn't this the main reason why Christianity in this country is so feeble compared with some other parts of the world? We are simply out of the habit of trusting God; we invest our trust in small pieces of paper and small pieces of plastic.

But in the end, this man's apparent wealth, his abundance of possessions, has blinded him to the fact that, actually, he has nothing at all. He may be a financial success story, but he has a false sense of security. He'd completely forgotten that a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.ref And he was about to experience a catastrophic crash in the value of his investments.

Isn't it ironic that who had good things laid up for many years, who'd carefully saved up and stored up and insured thoroughly against future adversity, had forgotten to insure against the one event that was certain to happen to him?

Verse 20, But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?"ref

This man is about to appear before God in judgement. What good will his stuff in his barns do him then?

Greed is one of those irregular verbs, isn't it? It goes something like, I am prudent, you are acquisitive, he is greedy. But, whatever we call it, our desire to build up a comfortable nest egg—the desire to build up worldly wealth and to insure against the future—is a dangerous one. The wealthy face a serious hazard: they are so busy storing up things for themselves that they forget to be rich towards God, verse 21.

What do you want to hear God to say to you on that last day? "Well done, good and faithful servant?", or "You fool!"

Fear: The dangers of lack of wealth

Now, it may be that this isn't your particular problem, this morning. Far from being wealthy and comfortably off, you are desperately concerned about money. You have payments due and you don't know how you are going to meet them. There are things you need which you can't afford. You just can't get your finances under control. Your world is entirely different from this rich man's.

Well, in the next section Jesus turns to you. In the previous section he talked about the spiritual dangers of wealth, now he turns to his disciples, and he warns them about the spiritual dangers of lack of wealth.

And the danger is worry—or in the terms of my introduction, fear. This is the opposite picture from that of the rich fool, isn't it? But Jesus is clear that we don't need to be wealthy for money to have a grip on our lives. In fact, lack of wealth can master us just as easily as wealth can.

This is comes out in our lives as worry. If we are concerned about money, it affects everything we do. So, even if we haven't got much, money becomes our master just as surely as it is the rich man's.

In five little quick-fire illustrations Jesus shows us the pointlessness of worrying.

Three of the illustrations show us that worry actually springs from a lack of trust in God, and underestimating of our importance to him. Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater. Consider the ravens; consider the lilies; consider the grass of the field. Doesn't God feed the ravens, doesn't God clothe the lilies, and even the meadows? How much more will he feed and cloth you? Do you really believe that you are less valuable to God than Ravens—a ceremonially unclean bird? Do you really believe that you are less valuable to God than grass, here today, mown up tomorrow?

When you worry about money, you are showing that you don't really believe that God cares for you. That you believe he neglects his children.

Another illustration shows the futility of worry. Only God can give and take life; only God can shorten it or lengthen it. Your worrying can't change these things one tiny little bit. We can't even add a single hour to our lives! But God can. When you worry about money, you are showing that you don't really believe God is able to change your life.

A final illustration in verse 30 shows that when you worry, you are valuing the things of this world over God himself. The pagans devote all their energies to running after food and drink and clothes and things and stuff. You are God's child: don't you believe that your Father knows what you need?

Instead of chasing the things of this world, we are to chase after God: verse 31 seek his kingdom.ref He won't let you down: and these things will be given to you as wellref.

Is it realistic to rely on God like this? Well, I don't think Jesus was in any doubt! His audience here in Luke would have been mostly poor and humble. They would have laboured day by day for each day's wage and each day's food. They had no social security, no insurance, no health service, no pensions. If Jesus can order these people so firmly and repeatedly not to worry, but instead to seek God's kingdom, then how much more should you and I do so?

At this point, I should mention that if you are anxious about money, as a church we do have a money management ministry. It's been running for quite some years now, and has helped a good number of people. If you feel this would be helpful for you or someone you know, then John Honeybourne is the person to see.

Wealth and giving

So, Jesus has dealt with two ways in which wealth can destroy our relationship with God.

On the one hand, feeling that we have enough wealth can lead us to self-reliance and hoarding. We become greedy and keep it to ourselves. It takes our heart away from God: we trust in gold rather than in God. And so wealth becomes our God, and ultimately dooms us.

On the other hand, the feeling that we have too little wealth can also destroy our relationship with God. We worry and fret that we have to provide for ourselves, we rely on our own efforts to chase after the things that the world chases after.

Wealthy or not wealthy, the underlying danger is the same: trusting in our own efforts; trusting in ourselves; living our lives without reference to God. Whether our problem is greed or fear, this is where it comes from.

In verses 32 to 34, then, we find that in the kingdom economy, wealth or lack of wealth is not the issue. The issue is, where is your heart?

In the world-at-large, economic importance is measured by GDP; it is measured by how much we all earn and save and spend.

In the economy of the kingdom, I am convinced that economic importance is measured only by our giving. Jesus nearly always ends with giving when he's talking about money. And that's where we finish today.

I am convinced that, for the Christian (an important qualification), giving is the both the test of our hearts and the cure for our hearts. Whether you have a great deal like the rich young ruler or Zaccheus, or whether you have a little, like the widow who put two small copper coins in the collection: all that she had—whether your problem is too much money or too little, the health of your giving is an entirely reliable guide to where your heart is.

And the giving that helps us is not just giving out of our excess, but giving that costs. In verse 33, Jesus encourages us to sell [our] possessions and give to the poorref. This would puncture the self-reliance of the rich fool. This would force the worrier to rely on God.

In verse 34, your heart is where your treasure is. Is your treasure in the world in the form of barns and stuff that you already have? Or is your treasure in the world in the form of food and clothing and things that you worry about that the pagans run after? How can you know? Well, just ask yourself this: how's your giving?

But we must be sure that our giving is simply a response to a God who has already given us everything, v 32, Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdomref. We already have the pearl of great price! We already have the treasure hidden in the field! Our giving cannot buy us a place in heaven; God, in Jesus, has already given us everything. If we treasure this fact above all else, then what else can we do but give of ourselves in turn?


Rather unusually, I want to finish with a fairly lengthy story. It's taken from the life of Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission back in Victorian times. It's a story I love, and I hope it will illustrate the point better than me exhorting you for another few minutes. So please forgive the indulgence.

The background: for various reasons, the only money that Hudson Taylor has is a single half-crown piece, worth two and half shillings. He has no money for food the next day. He has been asked to come and pray for a dying woman. In his own words...

Up a miserable flight of stairs into a wretched room he led me, and oh, what a sight there presented itself! Four or five children stood about, their sunken cheeks and temples telling unmistakably the story of slow starvation, and lying on a wretched pallet was a poor, exhausted mother, with a tiny infant thirty-six hours old moaning rather than crying at her side. "Ah!" thought I, "if I had two shillings and a sixpence, instead of half-a-crown, how gladly should they have one-and-sixpence of it." But still a wretched unbelief prevented me from obeying the impulse to relieve their distress at the cost of all I possessed.

It will scarcely seem strange that I was unable to say much to comfort these poor people. I needed comfort myself. I began to tell them, however, that they must not be cast down; that though their circumstances were very distressing there was a kind and loving Father in heaven. But something within me cried, "You hypocrite! telling these unconverted people about a kind and loving Father in heaven, and not prepared yourself to trust Him without half-a-crown."

I nearly choked. How gladly would I have compromised with conscience, if I had had a florin and a sixpence! I would have given the florin thankfully and kept the rest. But I was not yet prepared to trust in God alone, without the sixpence.

To talk was impossible under these circumstances, yet strange to say I thought I should have no difficulty in praying.

"You asked me to come and pray with your wife," I said to the man; "let us pray." And I knelt down.

But no sooner had I opened my lips with, "Our Father who art in heaven," than conscience said within, "Dare you mock God? Dare you kneel down and call Him 'Father' with that half-crown in your pocket?"

Such a time of conflict then came upon me as I had never experienced before. How I got through that form of prayer I know not, and whether the words uttered were connected or disconnected. But I arose from my knees in great distress of mind.

The poor father turned to me and said, "You see what a terrible state we are in, sir. If you can help us, for God's sake do!"

At that moment the word flashed into my mind, "Give to him that asketh of thee," and in the word of a King there is power.

I put my hand into my pocket and slowly drawing out the half-crown gave it to the man, telling him that it might seem a small matter for me to relieve them, seeing that I was comparatively well off, but that in parting with that coin I was giving him my all; but that what I had been trying to tell them was indeed true, God really was a Father and might be trusted. And how the joy came back in full flood tide to my heart!...

I well remember that night as I went home to my lodgings how my heart was as light as my pocket...

Hudson Taylor records that the woman's life was saved. But the story doesn't end there: the next morning, he receives an anonymous letter containing a pair of gloves and half a sovereign.

"Praise the Lord," I exclaimed, "four hundred per cent for a twelve hours' investment! How glad the merchants of Hull would be if they could lend their money at such a rate of interest!

For our reflection this morning, I just want to ask one, short question: how's your giving?