What shall I do? I shall pull down my barns and build greater. (Luke 12:18)
- Our true theology is revealed by our approach to finances
- Jesus presents the radical view
- Covetousness is the weakness of man
- St. Augustine describes the two motives of covetousness
1. There are very few things that reveal our true theology as precisely as our approach to finances. A person may profess to be deeply faithful to Christ. He may radiate piety, smiling humbly and making references to God all the time. Or she may regularly attend church, never absent from the pew. An external performance of Christianity is as old as the faith itself. And yet, our Lord takes pains to teach us that if our theology has not reached the wallet and chequebook – if the way we view finances are no different from the shrewd unbeliever – then our faith is, at best, questionable.
Our relationship to money – and indeed, to goods more broadly – tells us a lot about where we are in our relationship to God and the extent to which we trust God to be our provider. It shows to us the extent to which we are truly content with God. When we are content with godliness, this will manifest in both satisfaction and gratitude for the things we possess in the sure knowledge that all that we have (and no more) has been given to us by the express design of our Father for our own good.
Our attitude toward money is a great revealer of the quality of our conversion. Whether we are fretful about losing our property; worried about the markets; or whether we agonise over the future tells us much about the authenticity and depth of our faith. And, of course, how joyfully we give to others – “for God loves a cheerful giver“. Giving generously is particularly demonstrative of true conversion, for mankind in his dead nature is never tempted to divest himself of his money. He does not struggle with the inborn impulse to hand money over to others.
Quite the opposite. The prevailing sin of mankind is to be covetous, avaricious, greedy and grasping, which is why St. Paul could describe money as the “root of many evils”. On one hand, man ceaselessly wants more than he has. On the other hand, he holds jealously to what he has gained already, like the proverbial dragon guarding his store of gold.
The Lord addresses these impulses in the human heart many times during his ministry. Always, Christ directs us to a new view of life that must become the “new norm” for a true Christian. It is a view of life in which our relationship to things and money is radically altered. Where the bare frame of our human outlook is coloured in with divine realities, eternal priorities, and with a preoccupation with God and his kingdom.
2. The view of life that Jesus teaches is neither comfortable (for it demands living by faith and not by sight), nor is it congenital to our inborn nature (because it makes eternal, invisible things the priority of life). Moreover, what Jesus teaches is starkly realistic and people have never liked stark realism in any generation. “Life is short and uncertain,” Jesus says, “and you could die tonight. So stop living in the fantasy world that everybody else lives in. Stop worrying about money and goods. Start labouring for the treasure that does not fade or spoil, a treasure in heaven that lasts forever“. Jesus tells us that a man’s life – his true security and happiness – does not consist in the abundance of what he has.
This point is established by Christ in the Parable of the Rich Fool.
Of all his parables, this represents one of the Lord’s most stinging rebukes during his ministry. It deals directly with man’s natural covetous desires, although it is only part of a much longer discourse on money and worry. Nonetheless, even without the rest of the context, it still clearly reflects Christ’s low tolerance for greediness, and equally clearly sets out the new view of life that Christians are to have. Yet it has often been ignored within the church because its message is unwelcome and difficult, especially as times have become more prosperous and every individual has more to lose.
One theologian observes:
The world, Christian as well as pagan, in each succeeding age, with a remarkable agreement, utterly declines to recognise the great Teacher’s view of life here.
3. Jesus begins by warning his audience to: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of covetousness” (Luke 12:14).
The fact the Lord urges his hearers to be energetically on guard suggests that covetousness is subtle and common. If a Christian is not on his guard, Jesus implies, and does not learn to think with kingdom mindedness, he will surely be overpowered by a view of life that is acid to Christianity. Like the seed that fell among the thorns, he will soon find the gospel choked in his life by the love of riches.
Note that the Lord refers to all kinds of covetousness. Covetousness is not simply the desire for more than we have. It is not even breaking the laws of God and man for the sake of gain like Judas Iscariot, although this is certainly the result of covetousness. Rather, covetousness also includes holding onto that which we already have and the attendant belief that life is not worth living if we lose our possessions, comforts, and little luxuries.
Jesus describes an industrious farmer who gets a bumper harvest. He is giddy with delight, for now he can pull down his barns – actually, enormous underground granaries – and build bigger ones, and retire. He can spend the rest of his life taking his ease, eating and drinking, and having parties.
It is a significant example of covetousness for our Lord to have chosen.
Jesus often turns our concept of vices on its head, attacks our safe definitions, and drills down to the attitudes beneath them. Note how the rich man in this parable does not provide a typical illustration of what people generally think covetousness looks like.
The rich farmer does not seem like he is desperate for more. Quite the opposite. Here is a man who has finally reached a point where he judges that he “has enough”. Enough for what? Enough for a long retirement in which he can wallow in his wealth, living a life of ceaseless pleasure. It is a testament to the ever-current nature of the gospel that if we fast forward to the 21st century, we discover exactly the same widespread disposition among millions who make it a serious goal of their lives to reach easy retirement, so that they might hit a golf ball around a green or spending hours relaxing in local cafes.
God’s answer to such a disposition: “You fool!“. The fact that God speaks directly in this parable – which is uncommon in Christ’s parables – strongly suggests that this is not merely an illustrative story but a cautionary biography of a real person. A biography enhanced with Christ’s heavenly knowledge.
In any case, God refers to him sternly as a “fool”. A biblical fool is an insensible man who thinks himself clever when he is not. In his stubborn pride he refuses to hear or repent, and thus places himself beyond all correction or redemption. If this farmer was an actual historical person, then he had evidently not listened very obediently to the message of Ecclesiastes in which the preacher describes the very phenomenon Christ illustrates. Ecclesiastes observes that men who labour all their lives and store up wealth frequently do not enjoy their earnings, but die and leave it to others to enjoy.
Why is the man a fool? Because, having finally set everything up for a pleasure-filled existence, his life was going to end that very night. The earthly paradise he longed for would not materialise because the stopwatch of his life’s span had run down to zero. He had held on to things that he could only keep temporarily. And since everything that falls into our hands is ours only for a fraction of time, and since we are eternal souls, wealth and goods can never be the source of our happiness and joy. To live for them is madness.
The parable underscores the serious reality of life which ought to underpin our handling of finances. The reality is this: even if we gained the whole world, the day will soon arrive when our soul will be demanded of us and we must give an account before the Judge of all the earth.
4. St. Augustine addressed the issue of covetousness in his sermon (Sermon 36) on the text of Matthew 19:21: “Go sell all that you have and give to the poor“. In this sermon, St. Augustine presents the two major motives behind covetousness or avarice. He also goes on to argue that for a Christian – when he is renewed by the Holy Spirit in both mind and soul – the same motives remain, but are now purified and changed in focus and orientation. Instead of drawing the soul downward, those motives are set free to draw him upward.
This concept of corruption is a central feature of St. Augustine’s theology, and it makes a vivid reappearance in the 20th century through C. S. Lewis’ writings, especially the extended application of this principle in his book The Screwtape Letters.
St. Augustine explains that all human desires are, at their root, desires for God. Whether it be food, sex, drugs, money or music, behind every human yearning is a keenly felt emptiness, as if the soul had fallen into twilight and were vainly seeking to ignite the lamps with sodden paper. Man is a fallen creature, writes St. Augustine, and therefore does not realise his soul’s true need and does not seek for God. His soul cries out for communion with his Holy Creator but wretched man that he is! He tries to slake his thirst for an eternal God by indulging his sensual appetites. He engages in a relentless search for more – more money and more pleasure – as if the sheer volume of an unsatisfactory delight will eventually fill his need. So it is that “man is always restless until he finds his rest in God.”
It is a striking theology that C. S. Lewis expands upon. “It is not that our desires are too strong,” writes Lewis, “but that they are too weak.” If we really desired abundant happiness we would seek it in Christ, the “Joy that man has always secretly desired”. Instead, man’s mind is so numbed and blunted by his fallenness that he thinks a bit of money or a new car will satisfy him. Lewis uses the illustrations of children stubbornly making mud pies in a puddle in the backyard because they cannot imagine what it would be like to go for a holiday to the beach.
This twisting of man’s desires and motives is a recurrent feature in St. Augustine’s writings. As in many of his pastoral writings and sermons, St. Augustine personifies virtues and vices. Of covetousness he writes:
What says avarice? “Keep for yourself, keep for your children. If you should be in want, no one will give to you. Live not for the time present only; consult for the future…” Thus avarice did enjoin one thing: “Keep for yourself, consult for the future”.
Covetousness (or avarice), says St. Augustine, is motivated by the two impulses of keeping for oneself and laying up for the future.
“Keep for yourself,”says avarice. Suppose you are willing to obey her, ask her where you shall keep your gains? Some well-defended place she will show you, a walled chamber, perhaps, or iron chest. Very well, now you apply every precaution. Even so, perhaps some thief in the house will burst open the secret places; and while you are taking precautions for your money, you will be in fear of your life.
Or, it may be while you are keeping your store, he whose mind is set to plunder has it even in his thoughts to kill you. Lastly, even though by various precautions you should defend your treasure and your clothes against thieves; defend them still against the rust and moth. What can you do then? Here is no enemy without to take away your goods, but one within consuming them.
St. Augustine echoes Christ’s teaching here that our goods and money are simply never secure, regardless of our best efforts. Certainly, we can keep try to keep our money and property safe, but there are numerous cases of burglaries that have gone terribly wrong and someone has been left dead. Or banking errors that have seen people’s money leeched away. Or inflation or volatile markets that sees the value of every dollar erode away until it is worthless. Or, our goods become worn and damaged by mould, rust, or other forms of decay.
When covetousness demands that we “keep for ourselves”, it is a fictional demand. For even with our best efforts nothing that we have, from books to furniture to money, can be kept. Everything will pass from our grasp in time, one way or another.
No good counsel then has avarice given. See she has enjoined you to keep, yet has not found any safe place where you may keep.
Let’s consider her next advice, “Consult for the future”.But for what future? Only for a few and uncertain days.
She says, “Consult for the future,”to a man who may not live even until tomorrow. But suppose him to live as long as avarice thinks he will… [suppose] that he grow old and come to his end: when he is bent double with old age and leaning on his stick for support, even then he still hears avarice saying still, “Consult for the future.”
(The number of elderly retirees who have been caught in investment scandals in recent years have skyrocketed. Much of this has come to light in the current banking commission exposing poor industry practices. In some cases, people well advanced in years have taken out loans for properties that they would not live long enough to pay back. Others made more and more exorbitant investments into the millions. It is a technicolored confirmation of St. Augustine’s observation that even old people can continue to live in the delusions of covetousness.)
For what future? When he is even at his last breath she still speaks. She says, “for your children’s sake”.If only we could find that old men who had no children were not avaricious! Yet to even to childless elders, who cannot even excuse their sinful greed by pretending to have family affections, she still ceases not to say, “Consult for the future.”
…so let us look to those who have children. Can they be certain that their children will possess what they shall leave? Let them observe the children of other men. Some lose what they had by the unjust violence of others. Other children lose what they had by their own wickedness, consuming everything they possessed. So it is that the children of rich men can remain poor.
…But a man will say, “My children will possess this.”It is uncertain. I am not saying that this is a false claim, but at best, it is uncertain.
But now suppose that their inheritance of your estate is certain. What do you wish to leave them? What you have gotten for yourself. But everything that you have gotten was not left to you. Yet you have it. If you have been able to get possessions that were not left to you, then they will also be able to get what you have not left to them.
St. Augustine then shows how these motives can be more properly directed in a heavenly direction:
Thus have the counsels of avarice been refuted… Now let righteousness speak. The words will be the same, but they will not have the same the meaning.
“Keep for yourself,”says the Lord, “consult for the future”.
Now ask Him, “Where shall I keep?”
You shall have treasure in heaven, where no thief approaches, nor moth corrupts.Against an enduring future you will be able to keep it!Come, blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
How many days this kingdom will last for is shown by the end of the passage. After He had said to those on his left hand, “these shall go away into everlasting burning”, tothose on his right hand He says, “but the righteous into life eternal.”
This isconsulting for the future.A future which has no future beyond it. Those days without an end… neither preceded by a yesterday nor succeeded by a tomorrow. So then let usconsult for this future.The words which avarice spoke to you are not different from this, yet by them is avarice overthrown.
“But what am I to do about my children?”
Hear on this point also the counsel of your Lord… I would be bold to speak through His mercy; I would be bold to say something, not of my own imagining, but of His pity.
Keep then for your children, but hear me. Suppose any one should lose one of his children… This is man’s condition. It is not that I wish to see it, but sadly we see cases of it. Some Christian child has been lost. Perhaps you have lost a Christian child.
But you have not indeed lost him. Rather you have sent him before you. For he is not gone away, but only gone before. Ask your own faith: surely you too will go there too? The same place where your child has gone.
Does your son live? Ask your faith… Consider with Whom he is. If any son were serving at the Court and became the Emperor’s friend, and were to say to you, “Sell my portion, which is there, and send it to me;would you find what to answer him?”
Well, your son is now with the Emperor of all emperors, with the King of all kings, with the Lord of all lords…