The occasion for Jesus’ story in Luke 12 about the man building the bigger barns is actually a conflict. A man comes and says to Jesus, “Jesus. Rabbi. Tell my brother to divide my inheritance.” That’s a pretty common scene actually, especially in church life. I have seen it played out over and over and over again, not only in the lives of parishioners, but I’ve also seen it happen in my own family, where brothers and sisters fight over inheritance and the dollars that represents.
What Causes Conflict?
There’s a passage in James which I have used in parenting a lot, and I also think it applies to this situation. James says in James 4, “What causes fights and conflicts among you?” That’s a good question isn’t it? “What causes fights and conflicts among you?” These two brothers have a conflict over the inheritance. James answers it this way: You want something but you can’t have it. In other words, conflict comes from our desires. We want something but we don’t have it. We can’t get it. I want you to give me my inheritance. That’s a desire. I want my half or my share — whatever that share is — according to my desires. But you can’t have it so you kill, you covet, you fight, you quarrel. James would go on to say, “You do not have because you do not ask. And when you do ask, you ask with wrong motivations intending to spend it on your own pleasure” (v.2-3). He encourages us to grieve our idolatry.
Oftentimes in conflicts like the ones between these two brothers, there are material things that are at stake, the substantive issues. How much money should I get from this estate? But then there are also personal things that get wrapped up in those material, substantive matters, and oftentimes in peace-making, those personal issues and material issues are all intertwined so closely together that they cause a reciprocal negative thing to happen among them. But here are these two brothers, and obviously the one brother is not getting what he wants. He wants a portion of the estate — I’m not sure what exactly percentage he expects but he clearly thinks that he’s not getting what he deserves.
I would imagine that this is the younger brother because typically the older brother is the executor of the estate, especially back then. If he’s not getting what he deserves, he somehow thinks that the older brother is not being fair or faithful or something. Maybe they had a personal grievance with one another. So instead of asking Jesus to intervene, he demands. That’s typical of a conflict.
Wisely, Jesus does what Moses failed to do actually. There’s a story in Exodus 2 where Moses came up on an Egyptian who was beating the tar out of a Hebrew, and afterwards he went and killed the Egyptian. And then later he came across two Hebrews fighting with one another. Two brothers in a sense. And Moses began to intervene in that conflict and the Hebrews said to him, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” A lot of times when we come across a conflict we want to get sucked into it. Wisely, Jesus does the opposite of Moses, says, “Who made me judge and arbiter over you? I’m not getting involved in your conflict. I’m not going to take sides in this fight. But rather I want to get to the heart of the matter and the heart of the issue with your conflict, and that is your idolatry of money.”
Jesus would speak a principle and use the occasion of this conflict to teach a very important principle about our relationship to material possessions. He says to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all kinds of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Be on your guard against all kinds covetousness for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Fundamentally this has to do with where we find our sense of worth and value.
Apparently there’s more than one type of covetousness. I think there’s a covetousness that can come from a desire to just love money and to have a lot of money. There are certain people that are just characterized by a covetousness which is more aptly described as greed where they’re just greedy for a lot of money. But sometimes covetousness can be caused by insecurities that we have where we feel like our material position and posture is not good, so we look at what other people have, and we covet what they have. Or we might have some sense of entitlement. All kinds of covetousness — and you could probably think of a lot of different ways that we fall into the trap of covetousness — but fundamentally what it has at its root is the equation of the significance of our lives with the abundance of our possessions.
Possessions as things “Under Rule”.
I want to zero in on that word “possession” with you for a moment. There’s a Greek word behind our English word “possession” in the New Testament here. It is at its root hyparcho. And it comes from two root words: hypo which means “under,” and archo which means “rule.” Rule under. Now think about this. Our possessions are the things that are under our rule. And what we want is more things under our rule. Right? I’d like to have a lot of things under my rule, and it’s not just money. I’d like to have more people to supervise, more things to be in charge of, more material things to take care of. Inside of us is an inherent desire to rule over things. In fact, that’s part of what it means to be an image-bearer of God.
When God created human beings — male and female — he put us over material things. He told us we need to steward the garden. We need to rule over the beasts of the field and the cows and the domestic animals. That we are in charge of creation. It is our possession. Something that we need to rule over and would be ruled under us. But the problem is not the possession itself but it’s when we equate what we have under us with the significance and the meaning of our life. Right? It’s when that which is under us becomes what defines us.
What should define us? Well, there we go. Jesus. It’s like a Sunday school question. I mean, this is what Paul is getting at in Colossians when he says, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3). Up there. This is where our life is. Above us.
Now, here’s the subtle thing that happens, because not only are we made in the image of God, designed to have things that we possess and other things that we subdue that are under us, but we also are designed to be under something. We are designed to be possessed, not by demonic forces, but we are designed to be under the rule of God and under the rule of the lordship of Jesus Christ. And so, when we equate the very thing that is supposed to give us life with the things that are under us, we actually are flipping the order of things. We’re taking the things that are under us and literally putting them over us. We are making the things that we are to possess the things that possess us. Do you see it? It’s a very subtle shift that happens, but it’s an important one because at its root, it’s idolatry.
What is idolatry? The taking of the work of our hands — the things that are under our possession — and making them our overlords: the things that we follow, the things that we rule, the things that define us, that give us our identity, our worth, our value, our significance. I mean, think about how stupid that is. I mean, the Israelites worshiped a cow in the wilderness. A golden cow. Now what was that cow? That’s the thing that they were supposed to have under them. They were supposed to rule over cows and make sure the cows got their grass and supplied their food and so on. But instead of having what they possessed remain under them, they put it over them, and they served and worshiped the work of their hands. A golden calf.
Jesus just has one story to tell how foolish this is. And He does a great job of just disconnecting it. Basically, He calls the man who builds the bigger barns a fool. Proverb 14:1 says, “A fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” The man who builds the bigger barns is a man who is living as a practical atheist, who takes the work of his hands and places them in the position of God and defines his soul and his life in terms of the abundance of his material possessions. He equates these two things, and by doing that, he is a fool.
I’m reminded of the woman — her husband had just died, and she’s talking to the minister of the church. He says to her, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” and she replies, “It’s horrible, yes.” And then she says, “You know what’s interesting though? I went up into the attic, and he had left a suitcase full of money up there. That crazy man thought that he was going to go to Heaven and grab the suitcase on his way up.” The minister says, “Just goes to show you. You can’t take it with you.” She says, “Yeah. You know what else? He really should have put it in the basement.”
It’s silly the things that we do. And yet we all do it. I want to end by asking some practical questions. What should we do if we have begun to define our lives in terms of the things that are under us and not over us? If we’ve equated our lives with having an abundance of possessions? Well, first of all, the antidote to that is actually getting our mindset correct. It’s about a change of thinking and a change in orientation where, like Paul says, we set our minds… It’s a mindset. We set our minds on the things that are above, not the things that are below.
It’s not wrong to have possessions. What’s wrong is to equate possessions with the things that are above. Our life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Our marching orders and the definition of who we are — our identity, our significance — it comes from God and from our relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. And when we have that right mindset, then we begin to put into proper perspective the things that are under us and our stewardship of the material things. Our lives are on loan from God. We are his possession, and the things that we have ultimately belong to him. I love in the Crown Ministry financial stewardship course where people are asked to sign a quitclaim deed of all their things to God. Now, you don’t actually have to sign the quitclaim deed for all the things to belong to God — they already do — but it’s a nice gesture from a heart standpoint and a mindset standpoint to go, “You know what? I don’t really, truly own all of these things. These things fundamentally belong to the Lord, and I’m going to acknowledge His ownership.”
All things belong to the Lord. That mindset changes everything.
But then let me give you two more things here: What do we do if we are a person that has built the bigger barns? In other words, we have been blessed by material abundance, and we’ve had to tear down some barns and find some bigger bank accounts or bigger investments in order to accumulate an abundance of wealth. First of all, we wrestle with the question, “Is there more to life than this? Is this enough? And what is enough?” But then the challenge — and you have to be the one that sorts this out — but what am I going to do as a stewardship of this abundance? I can continue to build bigger barns only to one day die and have it become insignificant and meaningless or give it to my kids to fight over. Or I might do something for the Kingdom with that abundance. And how will I steward that abundance for God’s will? This is something that you have to pray about; you have to be thoughtful and discerning. Invest in things that are worth investing in. Look for ways in which to multiply the Kingdom of God. This is what Jesus is getting at when He says, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God.” The one who has abundance should ask himself, “What does it mean to be rich towards God? And how can I be rich towards God?”
Get out of Debt.
But then we also have those who don’t have abundance who have the opposite problem of looking at those that do have abundance and saying, “Boy, they have the life. And I wish I had that life.” Because that’s the same trap of thinking that life consists in the abundance of possession. And so what happens with that mentality sometimes for those that don’t have it is that they over-leverage and get themselves into incredible burdens of debt. Instead of building barns, they raise mountains of debt. And this comes to the same heartache and has the same insignificance and meaning. Break the bondage of covetousness by living within your means, getting out of debt, determining how you’re going to steward your dollars.
Now I think God’s plan from the beginning of tithing is such a good thing to help us break this. Ten percent is not so much that it breaks us and prevents us from living a life and from having material things and from taking care of ourselves and our children and so on. But ten percent is painful enough that if we give away ten percent, we actually are saying, “You know what? This is not my god. Money is not what leads me and owns me. I am a steward over it, and I’m giving back to God a portion of what He has given to me in recognition that He, not my money, is the one who is over me.” I encourage you to contemplate the practice of tithing, to think about divestiture if you have abundance, and getting out of debt if you don’t, but fundamentally changing your mindset and putting the Lord, and not your possessions, above your heart.