You Shall Not Covet…Right?

Text: Luke 12:13-21
Date: Pentecost X (Proper 13) + 8/1/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

This is a most difficult sermon on a most difficult Word. It is difficult, first, because the bottom line, the “punch line,” the basic message ends up being, as you would expect, that you should give more of your money away to others. That’s Law, not Gospel. While that’s true, it is a most difficult sermon also because it touches on the very heartbeat that characterizes most of our life lived in the economic struggles of day to day, everyone concerned mainly about who gets the money and how. But this is a most difficult sermon on a most difficult Word mainly because of the temptation that we will end up talking only about you, your stuff and the more stuff you might want and never get around to what this all may have to do with your relationship with God, proclaiming Jesus Christ and Him crucified! Well, let’s see if we can discover what’s going on here in today’s scripture readings and find something we can call “the Gospel of the Lord.”

The guy in the Old Testament Reading, “Qoheleth son of David” or “the Preacher,” seems to have it right while the guy in Jesus’ parable today seems to have it all wrong. The first sees the vanity of gaining possessions, the other, it’s the only thing he thinks of. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher…all is vanity.” “All is vanity and a striving after wind,” says the Preacher. And he’s right, isn’t he? “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me.” How do we say it today? “You can’t take it with you.” Or let’s remember the Biblical word from Job, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return” (Job 1:21). Yes, when you think about it, for all our striving and working and toiling and scheming and long-range estate planning, it’s all for this life only because you can’t take it with you. Period.

As depressing as that thought may be, still, what is the result or the effect of that kind of attitude toward life and material possessions? Qoheleth the Preacher concludes, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” In other words, we use and enjoy the things of this world, our possessions for what they’re really worth and no more. And as God’s people that know that everything is, ultimately, gift of God, we are moved further and more joyfully to be God’s conduits of blessings for others. It is nothing short of amazing, isn’t it, how much money is given by all sorts of people to various charities every year. Oh, a lot of those people do it as much to brag about themselves, or to enhance their public image or reputation as much as for any purely benevolent purpose, but so it goes. It is amazing that even fallen, sinful human beings do not look at everything from a purely selfish, “covetous” point of view all the time.

“Covetousness.” “You shall not covet” say the ninth and tenth commandments. Coveting begins with desiring something or someone. The desire itself may not be wrong. In fact, the Bible says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4), that is, God will give you godly desires. When desire, however, moves you to scheme to get something in an illegal or immoral way, when the desire lures or entices you to sin (James 1:14-15), when that which is desired becomes more important than your relationship with either God of your neighbor, then it becomes covetousness.

“Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness,” says Jesus in today’s Gospel. The subject came up because He was interrupted in His teaching by “someone in the crowd,” saying, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Did you notice that Jesus simply and immediately refused to do what the person requested? How many people think to use even the Church for their own gain? Many have reduced the Christian faith only to the level of advice, rules or principles, which, if you put them into practice, will lead to prosperity, a peaceful home, and a truly blessed life. Nevertheless, no matter how perfectly decorated and clean a Christian’s house or how many late model cars in the garage or how outwardly upstanding may be the reputation, it is just as amazing to see the nasty family feuds that ensue after the death of a father or grandfather as the relatives scramble selfishly for the inheritance. “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” Answer: no one. That’s not why Jesus came.

Then, how many folks do precisely as the man in Jesus’ parable, that is, see only as far as their possessions, their stuff, and no further? He is a rich man. Now I don’t know your definition of “rich,” but when you compare your life to many, even most people around the world, just having food, clothing and a roof over your head is more than many have. Add on top of that those things that have become “necessities” that are really, after all, “luxuries” (cars, clean water, water heaters, furnaces, air conditioning, amazing medical advances), we conclude (or ought to conclude) that, in comparison, we too are very rich.

So he is called a rich man whose land produced plentifully. The man’s entire dialogue with himself reveals a person thinking only about himself and, worse, only about his stuff. “What shall I DO…I HAVE nowhere to store MY CROPS…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….”

“But no, you won’t!” is the punch line. You don’t determine your life span or the extent of your blessings. “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

So much for the warning about selfishness, self, your stuff, possessions and the sin of covetousness. The real point is in the last words, being “rich toward God.” According to our sinful nature, our spiritual poverty, we should only fear that night when our soul is required of us by God whose judgment of death for sin is spared for no one. It is only by the One here issuing the warning, reaching out in saving grace, that we can hope to overcome sin, death and the grave.

For He came to take our place under God’s judgment and wrath, the sacrifice for “all the vain things that charm me most” (LSB 426:2), to be our holy and perfect substitute, God’s Son, come in the poverty of our flesh to bear our sin and be our Savior. Now alone by faith in Jesus we know God’s grace, “that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). This, of course, doesn’t refer to your bank account or your stuff. It means to become rich in the things that really count—the release from the power of sin and death, the new and right spirit of faith, hope and love created in you by the Holy Spirit, the promise of the ultimate healing of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

Rich toward God. The first guy, Qoheleth, the Preacher was right. “There is nothing better for a person (in this life) than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God….” The same can be said of our spiritual life that never depends on our own toil but solely on faith in the work of the Savior, Jesus Christ. In Him we find “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us” (Eph. 2:7).

May the prayer of St. Paul for the Ephesians be fulfilled in you: “that according to the riches of [God the Father’s] glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:16-21).