The Perils of Covetousness

CC BY-NC, boodie 131, Flickr
CC BY-NC, boodie 131, Flickr

Jesus tells the parable of the rich man in Luke 12 to warn his listeners and disciples about covetousness. He explains how a wealthy farmer had no remaining storage space for his flourishing crop. So he tore down his facilities and built larger ones. Pleased with his ever-increasing accomplishments, the man raised a toast to his life and success, but things suddenly changed. The man died and we hear God deem him a fool and question what would become of his wealth. Then, Jesus concludes that the man, although rich in earthly wares, was spiritually bankrupt.

God’s Concern about Our Wealth

The parable is a vivid opening to what is one of the richest treatises in the Bible concerning wealth and greed. It is significant for two major implications. First, Jesus never denounces wealth or affluence. Nowhere in the story does he view wealth or the man’s possession of it negatively. This is important because many people incorrectly believe that the scriptures condemn riches, but a topical study would prove otherwise. Whether studying the Prophets, Proverbs, the Gospels, or James, places where wealth is a prominent subject, we would quickly discover that what matters to God is not mere wealth, but how people use it.

Generally, what God condemns in the scriptures regarding wealth and affluence are: 1) people being caught up in their riches, 2) people not helping the poor, and 3) people using their wealth in ways that disenfranchise others. The first listed condemnation is the point of Jesus’s teaching, which is the tenth commandment: do not covet. Covetousness is often thought of as desiring what belongs to another person—and it is that. But the definition is broader and means a desire for gain or riches beyond what is necessary or that is beyond our ability to acquire.

Trade existed in the days of Christ and long before then; capitalism and the market system drive today’s world economy. People have more now than they have ever possessed in history, and the results prove positively in high standards of living, longer life expectancy, and a better overall quality of life. Yet the excesses that are the byproduct of the world’s wealth cause Christ’s teaching to loom in significance. In many societies it may also be true that never have people been more consumed with acquiring material possessions and becoming rich. So, although wealth is not bad, Jesus wants us to see that a heart set on it is a bad thing.

Life at All Levels

CC BY-NC-ND, Steve Martin, Flickr
CC BY-NC-ND, Steve Martin, Flickr

The second implication from the parable derives from God’s pronouncement on the man—“You fool!” Understand this: the man wasn’t censured because of his status. It is not for us to ridicule those who are rich, especially if their wealth has been earned honestly. It is the blessing of God to them. People balk and even view it as disgusting that some live in multi-million dollar mansions that may be ten times the size of a normal home. But we should avoid this type of attitude.

People live at all levels. It is the goodness of God to work and achieve and be sumptuously remunerated for it. That shouldn’t be criticized because everyone has a duty to work for their well-being. We should also not think it strange that God bestows wealth on some. Wealth is not extravagance and vanity of itself; it is better to understand excess as being relative to our socio-economic level. Furthermore, simplicity is encouraged at whatever level we live.

We can be more critical when the rich do nothing to help the less fortunate. We would be hard-pressed to deny the scriptures’ emphasis on that obligation. But help may mean something more than monetary aid; instead, it could be the help that attends a wealth of influence and decision-making and is capable of making systemic changes that benefit people on a large scale.

Caught Unaware

The rich man’s problem was that he only lived for his wealth. Work, making money, achievement, and even prestige became the point of his life. He forgot or purposely omitted his eternal welfare, and he didn’t look beyond himself to help others. Then, he suddenly died. It is important to note here that Jesus is not implying that the man died because God killed him for any reason. The man died in what we are to assume was the natural course of his life, yet he died in a state of ungodliness and, therefore, eternal loss. “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matt. 16:26) The man is a fool—a stupid one—because he didn’t build a lasting fortune with God in the way he built his earthly fortune.

Our Small Concerns

Jesus continues and opens a larger discussion on covetousness and the dangers of a life lived only for wealth and material possessions. He uses the fate of the rich man to underscore his thesis already stated in the parable—“Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (v. 15b). In his exposition he specifies these (but certainly doesn’t limit them) as food and clothing, very basic needs for human survival and well-being. Although the theme of greed continues, the topic shifts slightly to incorporate worry for things beyond our control.

Masterfully, Jesus draws upon God’s providence in nature to answer human concern. The birds do not sow or reap in the field; they have no storage places. The flowers do not work or make their own clothing but are magnificently adorned just to beautify grassy fields that are constantly mowed down. God feeds the birds; God clothes the earth. If the Creator supplies the basic needs for the natural world, he will certainly care for those he has given his own image, for “how much more valuable you are than birds!” (v. 24).

Jesus questions the worth of worry: “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” (v. 25-26). He alludes to the providence of God: that God is in control of our lives and is always working to care for our needs. Our very lives are in his hands. In effect, Jesus asks what would be the benefit in worrying about how long one would live, except to keep him or her fearful of dying and joyless about the present moment. Worry only produces more stress and never a solution. Matter-of-factly, he calls the days of our lives a small thing in God’s eyes. So if worry can satisfy nothing about the little concerns of our lives, which are already too big for us, then we must trust God to handle the truly complex ones.

The Snare of Covetousness

CC BY-NC-ND, Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, Flickr
CC BY-NC-ND, Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, Flickr

Still working from Jesus’s thesis—“Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions”—the implication of verses 25 and 26 is significant, for it addresses the poor and the rich alike on the topic. There is more to life than what is seen and tangible. It is deeply sacred and lends incredible dignity to humanity, human relationships, and life in this world. It is spiritual wisdom and it derives from God—and is owed to him in worship.

Covetousness, a form of idolatry, becomes a trap that keeps us entrenched in this life bent on acquiring temporal material things. It effectively nullifies our spiritual and eternal outlook. If not careful, the poor and the rich together will be snared by the rich man’s temptation: to live only for material gain. The less fortunate will do all for comfort sake; the very fortunate will hoard and do everything to maintain their comfort.

Jesus’s teaching clashes with an age-old social norm of greed and personal satisfaction. What we cannot see when all we see is money and possessions is the condition of our souls and any lack of godly wealth. The prophet Haggai dealt with the same problem in his day. He criticized God’s people for living in highly decorated homes when the Temple of God lay in ruins (1:4). Thus, despite all our earthly comforts, we could end up bankrupt in the life to come and, instead, live eternally paying the price of our sinful negligence. Godliness is true wealth and is significant in ways we don’t understand in this life, yet God’s love assures us eternal gain.

All of these temporal things, Jesus says, are what unbelievers run after—merely these things, for the poor, and more of these things, for the rich (v. 30). The New Living Translation reads, “These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers…” This couldn’t be truer in a generation run amok with greed. Christ’s warning against worry extends even to our fantasies. We make ourselves sick with desire for material things: fancy homes, new cars, fine clothing, the latest smart device…anything. It’s fun to daydream about what our lives could be like in another set of circumstances, but too much of this becomes futile and counterproductive. In fact, it can eject us out of faith in God for our present, real needs and cause us to be unhappy with our situation and lustful for what is not in our power to acquire.

Rich or Poor, Same Problem

I mentioned earlier that people live at all levels. We should learn from and appreciate the level where we live because our situations could quickly change, for better or for worse. I firmly believe that it is God’s desire that we prosper at our level, which means to have our basic needs met and the ability to avoid struggle. Upward social mobility is a good thing, and I do not frown on people working diligently to lift themselves out of meager circumstances. But investing too much energy in an attitude of escapism or in “climbing the ladder” may not proceed from faith in God’s providence but in greed and vanity. Furthermore, we should work dutifully and trust God to bring us to new levels of increase in our lives.

Now, in verse 30, Jesus is ready to present the most important thing: “But seek his kingdom.” The interesting thing, however, is that all the preceding leaves little need for the exhortation and proves Jesus’s skill as a master teacher. God would supply all our personal needs, Jesus declares. A deeper consideration of the verse, within the context of the larger discussion, might be God’s desire that we seek his kingdom with our wealth. Jesus continues, “Your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (v. 32). The verse, ironically, seems to joyfully illustrate the plenty of God’s wealth. Galatians 5:23 footnotes the fruit of the Spirit in a like manner by saying, “Against such there is no law”—there are no injunctions against producing godly traits. They are freely offered by the Holy Spirit and available in copious supply. Therefore, do the things that engender godliness because the heart will reveal our true instincts.

CC BY NC-ND, Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Flickr
CC BY NC-ND, Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. Flickr

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v. 34). I enjoin this popular verse on the heart with another one that appears in the Matthew 6 rendition: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (v. 24). The illustration extends beyond money to our loyalties and indeed service to God. What we love the most will produce neglect for all else, and this underscores the danger of covetousness, whether we’re rich or poor: the pursuit of material gain will cause us to abandon our spiritual lives (1 Tim. 6:6-10).

Paul’s Heart on the Matter

The apostle Paul in Philippians 4 brings these verses to life. He cherishes the Philippian Christians because they have consistently supported his ministry when all others did not. He says to them, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (vs. 11b-13).

Paul shows us a heart with God firmly fixed as its priority, and this was his anchor despite the highs and lows of his circumstances. Because God was first, he was sure not to be carried away by worry and fear and the need to escape his troubles and equally as sure to avoid the temptations of demanding money from his churches for his support and vindicating his apostleship.

It is interesting, however, that he states, “I have learned…” It is a sweet spot of transparency the great apostle reveals to us, for given the struggles he had to overcome in ministry, he didn’t learn simplicity overnight. There must have been moments when he hated his conditions and craved better resources, but, God getting the best of him, he learned that God’s will and the spread of the gospel far outweighed his creature comforts. Time and the Holy Spirit would have had to condition Paul’s heart and reset his priorities.

Paul affirms that by Christ he was able to accomplish all things (v. 13). It is a big statement—in Christ’s strength we should be able to endure the temptations of both lack and abundance. If we recognize the Lord to be our priority and true Sustainer in meager times and plentiful ones, then those times gain meaningful context within his purpose. Why God allows people to go through tough times is not always understood, but we have the confidence that in all our situations, he is at work for our good (Rom. 8:28). Job 1:21 expresses this concept beautifully: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Also on this topic: Why Do the Wicked Prosper? 

8 thoughts on “The Perils of Covetousness

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