Christianity and the Material World
“And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’” (Luke 12:15). The story Jesus told of the rich man (vv. 10–21) is ageless and simple. A man of immense wealth invested a portion of his money and substantially increased his worth. Then, just as he was set to enjoy his incredible prosperity, he suddenly and unexpectedly died. Jesus told the parable to warn against covetousness, greed, or avarice.
Greed hides itself so easily behind the mask of virtue and good reasoning. Our first inclination as we read this parable is to agree with Jesus and say, “The man was daft. He was greedy and Jesus was right in calling him a fool because he made plans to live luxuriously without any provision for dying.” Most of us don’t read that parable and say, “I am like that man. I am greedy.” However, I would venture to say that in our culture there are more of us who are like that man than unlike him.
He was hardworking and successful in his business. He had not made his money by taking advantage of people. His profit was lawful gain. He had not been lazy. He had done well for himself and his family. This was the American dream come true.
Notice that Jesus said to His listeners, “Take care … be on your guard.” What should put us on our guard? Covetousness. The actual Greek word used by Jesus for this sin meant “a greedy desire for more.” Jesus was saying it can sneak up on you. It can be there and you don’t even know it.
How do we know that the man was truly greedy and not just making wise business decisions?
True greed misinterprets the meaning of life. Jesus prefaced the parable by saying, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Greed says that life is about having more. Covetousness says that life is about having all you can get. We must be careful as we approach the subject of money or wealth. Many folks have misunderstood Christianity at this point. God did say that we should enjoy His creation. We should enjoy food, beauty, friends, and work. He said we should enjoy the sexual relationship inside of marriage. He said we should enjoy our material blessings. So let’s be sure that we are not saying that Christians must drive twenty-year-old cars, wear hair shirts, live in hovels, and have furniture with holes in the upholstery. That was not the message of this parable.
Jesus’ words warn us that it is so easy to get caught up in stuff and in self that stuff and self become the meaning of our lives. In writing about the materialism of our culture in his excellent book A Hunger for More, Laurence Shames writes, “A certain line gets crossed. People look to their goods not just for pleasure but for meaning. They want their stuff to tell them who they are.” We buy luxury pens or watches because we want those accessories to describe who we are to the world. We want everything from our cars to our vacations to define us.
Greed always wants more. In the opening scene of the story, the man was already very wealthy (v. 16). But he was not satisfied. He already had many barns (notice the plural), but they were not enough. He wanted more. Greed always does — it is insatiable. During a political revolution in the Philippines that drove Ferdinand Marcos from power, he and his wife Imelda fled the country. She left behind 1,200 pairs of shoes and seventy-one pairs of sunglasses. The truth is that she would not have stopped at two thousand pairs of shoes or two hundred pairs of sunglasses.
Greed fails to see the true source of our possessions. The wealthy land owner considered himself to be a selfmade man. Six times in speaking to himself he used the personal pronoun “I.” He also spoke of “my crops; my barns; my grain; my goods.” He did not see himself as God’s steward. He saw himself as the owner. He was his own creator and sustainer. Now, that is the point of the parable. The parable does not end with his sudden death. The parable ends with the question God asked the man on the night he died: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (v. 20). As the man left this world, God forced him to realize for the first time that he had been only a steward. Everything he had in life had been given to him by the true Owner, and the steward’s use of it had just come to an end. God would turn it over to another caretaker, and the former steward would give an accounting.
Christian stewardship far exceeds giving ten percent to the Lord. The true Christian steward understands that everything he is and has belongs to God. God is the owner of his body, his time, the buttons on his shirt, and his children. To claim God’s possessions as your own is not only arrogant, it is inane. The mind of the steward is to reflect the mind of the Master. The heart of the steward is to reflect the heart of the Master. The generosity of the steward is to reflect the generosity of the Master.