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Kingdom Economics: Being Rich toward God

By Joseph M. Stowell

Joseph Stowell is former president of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. He preached this sermon at Generous Giving’s Texas regional conference, San Antonio, Texas, November 5-6, 2004.

My all-time favorite story in the life of Jesus Christ is found in Luke 12. In this story, Jesus is moving through the crowd, and a guy in the crowd catches his attention. Jesus is the stunning personality who is the talk of every town and every village, and this guy in the crowd all of a sudden locks eyes with him. What a moment for this guy, and in that moment of their eyes locking, the guy finally has an opportunity to interact with Jesus, and he blurts out, “Master, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” And I’m saying to myself, “Dude, if you get one chance to talk to Christ, this is not a really good subject.” I think if I got the attention of Jesus at one point, I’d like to think that I could muster up a very profound, insightful question to ask him. I would like to ask the kind of question that would make Jesus stop and say, “Hmm. I never thought of that before. Could we have dinner together tonight?” But not this guy: He is so taken with the fact that he’s been ripped off by his brother about money, that’s all he can think about.

Out of that encounter in Luke 12, Jesus Christ launches, by far, his most comprehensive teaching on possessions, wealth and the hunger for worldly possessions. Before we look at the text, I want you to keep a few things in mind. What I’m going to share with you is not some nifty idea that I thought up. This is a divine encounter of the close personal kind. This is Jesus talking to us. What I’m sharing with you is an echo of Jesus’ words on that day.

I pray that you will experience a divine encounter and that you will hear Jesus’ words. Whatever words I have that don’t match the text, you can scrap them on the floor, but we can’t ignore what Jesus says. Jesus always brought radical paradigms to life because the unfallen holy one, the one who was always right and had all the right perspectives, walked into a fallen, unholy, upside-down world. We’re born into fallenness. We are upside-down people. If you make toast in the kitchen in the morning and slather it with butter and jam, and it falls out of your hand, it always lands upside down on the floor. We’re upside-down jammed toast on the floor. We are just part of an upside-down system, and so when Jesus speaks, it is always penetratingly radical in terms of challenging our paradigms. You can expect that as Jesus interacts with this man in the crowd, there are going to be penetrating, radical words from him.

Try to remember that God put this in the Bible because he knew you were going to be reading it someday. This wasn’t just about the guy in the crowd, or the crowd, or the disciples. This is about you. I don’t know why it is that we always listen in church as though we had a giant reflector on our head. I really think God put stuff in the Bible because he intends that we listen to it as though we have giant funnels over our heads. It’s not about your brother, your sister, your spouse; it’s about you. I’m praying that you will take it personally.

We are going to be dealing with some principles from the text. I will purposefully try to avoid the specific applications of these principles to your life. Why? Because, the application doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all paradigm to it. These are principles that you will hear from Christ, and my prayer is that you would take them and pray with great discernment about how God would have you apply them in your life. I trust that the principles will lodge deeply and the discernment will soon come to fruition and lead to great action.
    Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:13-21).
In this text, Jesus Christ is seeking to take people like you and me, who tend to be very consumed with personal gain, with the hunger for more, with the hoarding of our possessions and the stockpiling of our stuff, and move us to be consumed with the kingdom of God. He moves us to be consumed with the generous outpouring of our stuff to advance the kingdom of God or, as Christ says, to teach us how to be rich toward God. In this text,, there are eight steps to becoming rich toward God.

Eight Steps to Becoming Rich toward God

Step 1 is to live your life to pursue Christ as your true source of satisfaction and fulfillment. This is the first step because of the tension in that opening encounter: Here is this guy asking Jesus Christ to arbitrate a food fight with his brother about money. Just think of all he could have asked from Christ and all that Jesus offers to a life, but he was too bound and blinded by his consumption for gain.

I think there comes a point in all of our lives where we have to make a choice, whether our lives are going to be about going for deep pockets or for getting deep with Christ. I love what Christ does in this passage. To magnify the issue, he says, I’m not going to get involved with you and your little family food fight, thank you. I’m not going to get dragged down into the no-win situation that money fights always bring about. I’m not going there with you because I have something far better for you. Nobody made me a judge over you. Let me talk to you about the greater things, the more glorious things. Let me talk to you about the emptiness and hollowness of worldly stuff and about all the treasures that I can bring. So what will the pursuit of your life be if you have Christ? What will your life be about?

I periodically get the opportunity to stay in beautiful five-star hotels, where you walk in the front door and it is just the metaphor of abundance with fresh flower arrangements, and you go up to the desk, and employees rush at you with hospitality. Then three people gather around you and grab your bags, and a guy takes you to this beautiful, spacious room with chocolates on the pillows and gives you a tour. You have thick robes hanging behind the door and big chunks of soap ready for you to unwrap and use. I love places like that, but I don’t always stay them.

If you go into places like the Motel 6, there’s nobody there to greet you. There’s a sorry single plastic flower, nobody behind the desk, a little bell to ring. Finally, someone comes dragging themselves out like you’re the biggest pain in their life, shoves you something to sign, takes your credit card, and you carry your own bags to the room. When you walk in, it’s stale and stuffy, and you walk into the bathroom where there are 30-second-size pieces of soap, and the towels are like old sheets that they cut up and hung.

Let me ask you, which place would you rather stay? I’d rather stay in the five- star kinds of places any day, anytime. Would you rather live with the hollowness and the ultimate emptiness of all the worldly stuff in the Motel 6-ishness of your pile, or in the rich abundance of all that Jesus can offer you? You might say, I’m taking both. But you can’t take both. God made it very clear in Luke 16 after another one of his parables on money and possessions that you cannot serve two masters. You will be distracted or consumed by one or the other. You just can’t have it both ways.

I had a student named Victor come to the Moody Bible Institute from Mensk, Belarus. I visited Victor on more than one occasion, and the first time I was over there, he said, “My mom lives about 40 miles away. I’m going to visit her. Do you want to come?” We jumped in a van, and we drove down the highway and then into rutted paths back to this backwater village. We were the first foreigners to visit there in 38 years, and it was like shantytown. We drove back and pulled up in front of this dilapidated house, and out of the house comes this old Russian woman running, the babushka tied, beaming with joy, and I know this is because her son had come to see her. We walked up to the house, and there was a little vegetable garden where she gets her food, and there’s a pig she raises during summer to eat in the wintertime. As we turned to go in the house, I noticed the path continued to an outdoor plumbing place, you know what I’m talking about. That shanty had two rooms, a primitive kitchen with a sheet hung to make another with a little bed and a little broken down couch, and that’s all she had. This lady was beaming. I thought it was about Victor until we sat around that little dilapidated kitchen table and ate cucumbers from her garden. All she could talk about was Jesus, how much she loved Jesus, how much Jesus meant to her, and how she couldn’t wait to go home and see him in heaven. I knew that I was sitting with a truly rich woman: Though I had so much, she had Jesus. Thus, the first step to being rich toward God is to make up our minds that the pursuit of our lives will be Jesus Christ and the satisfaction and fulfillment that he alone offers.

Step 2 is to embrace contentment as the liberating option to the cancer of covetousness. Jesus now plasters a warning label over all of life: “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15, NKJ). It’s fascinating that the Greek word for “covetousness” basically means “to have more.” Covetousness means being obsessed with or living for the things you don’t yet have, and being consumed with what you want to have. I find it important to remind my own heart that when the Lord downsized all his expectations into a list of Ten Commandments, covetousness made the list, so it’s not a light thing with God.

My wife, Martie, and I moved into a home a little over a year ago that we had the joy of planning and having built, and Martie putting her wonderful touch on it. She makes home a pleasure, and we can’t believe God has graced us with it. A few weeks ago, we were in Grand Rapids, Mich., going to somebody’s house. I hate to admit this, but driving through their neighborhood, I was looking at the architecture of the homes and thinking, why couldn’t we have built that house? I wonder if maybe in a year or two we can sell our house and get one like that one. Have you ever been there? This is how subtle this cancer of the distracted, silly, dead-endedness of greed and covetousness are. This is serious.

Contentment is the liberating option to this covetousness. In 1 Timothy 6:6, Paul gives us the formula: “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” We mess up this biblical formula so often, thinking that godliness plus gain will make us really content. We must pray that God give us hearts that are content with what we have as an anecdote to the silly dead-endedness of covetousness and greed. When I think about pursuing godliness with contentment, I think of Matthew 5: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled.” You could just as easily write this verse the other way and it would be true: Empty are those who hunger and thirst for more stuff, for they will never be filled.

Again, Paul writes in 1 Timothy 6:10-11 with such power: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” In Luke 12, Jesus knew that the guy in the crowd was settling for basement-level life experience, when Jesus had come to bring him so much more. Godliness with contentment is great gain.

Step 3 is to get a grip on what life is not about. I was driving on the highway recently, and I saw a huge billboard in Houston that said, “The Good Life.” I’m thinking, right, I want the good life. I then read the small print, which said, “Lakeside Homes from $450,000.” I had to think about that for a minute: the good life, Lakeside Homes. I had to think about the people who bought those lakeside homes and the tension in the homes, the dissatisfaction in the marriages, the children who are neglected by parents so given to stuff that they don’t spend time with their kids. I said to myself, “I’m not sure that lakeside homes guarantees anybody the good life.”

Sometime ago, somebody read this story to me, and it is so good:
    A young investor stood looking out into the cool Gulf waters before him on the end of a pier on a small coastal Mexican village. Having spent the last several months working hard toward gaining his securities license, he left for a few days of sun-soaked pleasure in western Mexico. As the golden sun sank imperceptibly into the pale horizon, a single fisherman docked his boat alongside of the pier. The young Wall Street banker walked over to the boat and looked into its sweating hull. He saw several large yellow- finned tuna gasping for air, resigning to their fate. The young executive complimented the tan fisherman, a wise-eyed weathered man, on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took him to bring in this catch. The Mexican fisherman said, “Not long at all.” “Well,” said the New York banker, “why not stay out longer and catch more fish?” “Well,” he said, “I have enough for today. This is all I need to feed my family.” “Well, what do you do with the rest of your time?” “Well,” he said, “I sleep late. I fish a little. I play with my kids. I take a siesta with my wife, Maria. I stroll into the village each evening where I enjoy some wine and laughter with my friends. I have a full and happy life,” the fisherman said smiling at the setting sun. “Well,” said the New York banker, “I’m a Harvard MBA, and I just completed my investment securities training. I could help you. You could spend more time fishing and with the proceeds from the larger catch, buy a bigger boat, then you could catch even more fish. Eventually, you could open up your own cannery. They you would control the product, processing to distribution. You would not need to live in this small coastal village, but you could live in Mexico City or L.A. or even New York, where you could run your expanding enterprise.” The fisherman goes, “How long would that take?” “Oh, 15, maybe 20 years max.” “But then what?” the fisherman said. “Well, when the time is right you could announce your IPO, sell your company stock to the public, become very rich. You could be worth millions.” “Millions and then what?” said the fisherman. “Well,” the New Yorker banker said, “Well, then you could retire and move to a small coastal village like this one, where you could sleep a little late, fish a little in the morning, play with your grandkids, take a siesta, enjoy wine and music with your friends in the evening.”
Get the picture? The fisherman grinned and tipped his head as the young adviser shook his head and walked off the pier without reply.

Jesus warned us, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). What Jesus is really telling them is that you just have to turn to what life really is all about, and it’s not gain; it’s giving.

In Luke 16 is the story about the unjust steward, who, under the threat of losing his job, had gone out and discounted everybody’s bills to try to make friends. This way, if he got fired, he’d have a place to live and friends who would take care of him. Jesus concluded that stirring, stunning story by saying, use money to make friends who will welcome you into heaven. We should lead lives that are generous, to do something beyond ourselves, to do something that makes life truly worthwhile and makes eternity worthwhile. Being 60, I’m well aware of my mortality. When you’re young, you’re bulletproof aren’t you? You think you’re going to live forever. At my age, I’m starting to see my mortality out there on the horizon, and I’m thinking, will I end up in a nursing home someday, sitting and waiting for the lunch bell to ring? For me, life has been all about the stuff and all about my own gain, so that’s going to be a really, really bad day. I’ve come to believe that true life is about giving to do something of real significance for others, giving to advance the cause of the kingdom, making friends who will welcome you into heaven. Think about people rushing to you and saying, if you had not given, I wouldn’t be here. That’s going to be a good day for me because I will know that my life had been worth something after all.

Step 4 is to acknowledge God as the source of all that you have. Jesus told his stories with a purpose; all the lines are important. It is not a mistake that Jesus said in Luke 12:16 that the land of a certain rich man was very productive. This was pre-chemicals, and pre-master’s degrees in agriculture, where you learn how to manipulate crops and to use special fertilizers, and you can walk away and say, check my crops out. This man had nothing to do with his gain. Everything he had was at the mercy of the divine weatherman. Everything he had was a gift from God.

Timothy tells us every good and perfect gift cometh down from above. The biggest mistake that we make to think that all we have resulted from how good we are, how smart we’ve been, where we went to college, how clever we are in the marketplace, or how hard we’ve worked. Let’s look at the story of Little Jack Horner. It’s a great story. I remember seeing the pictures of him sitting down in the corner eating a little Christmas pie that’s on his lap. He stuck his thumb in the pie, pulled it out, and said, “What a good boy am I.” Let’s exegete the story. Little Jack Horner is sitting in the corner. Good boys don’t sit in the corner. That’s where bad boys sit. What’s he doing with the whole pie? I’ve never known a mother to give a kid a whole pie. He probably stole it from the kitchen, and what is he doing with his fingers in the food? He’s breaking every rule of propriety, yet he has the nerve to say, “Look, what a good boy am I.” The least he could have done was give credit to his mom for making the pie.

We do that all the time with our empires: “Check me out! Look not only at the kind of car I drive, but read the numbers on the trunk!” I don’t know that there could be anything more offensive to God, or at least it has to make the short list, for us to take the credit when he has been so gracious to us to give us what we have. It’s by his grace that you were,be born in America, rather than somewhere like the Sudan. It’s truly a stroke of his grace. He allowed you be born into a family that gave you the opportunity to go to college and maybe to get your MBA. And it was he who wired you for success. I’m so well aware every day in my life that if it weren’t for what God has done for me, wired in me, given me, I would be zero. I would be nothing at all. What could be more offensive than to take credit for these gifts that were intended to stimulate our hearts not to personal pride, but to praise to God for how good he has been to us.

The gain that we have is not about our own hurrahs. It’s a humiliating thing. We should say, “God, you would do this for me?” Martie and I have a nice house. When I drive in my driveway, instead of it being a symbol of my gain, I need to drive in having it be a symbol of gratitude and humble adoration. I should think, “God, I am so unworthy; I can’t believe that you gave this to me.”

This step is about acknowledging where all that you have has come from. Isn’t it a tragedy that we get consumed in the gifts and we forget all about the giver? It was the land in Luke 12:16 that brought forth crops by God’s grace. You will never be a generous giver and know the joy and outpouring of generosity that only generous givers know until you know God. God gave me so much, so I want to think about what he would want me to do with it.

Step 5 is to actively pursue goodness, generosity and hospitality. Luke 12:16 says, “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’ ” In three verses, there are 13 personal pronouns. It’s all about me and my gain, and through this gain making my life comfortable.

1 Timothy 6 tells us that our wealth is not about us, and to thank God that we enjoy some of it. God has given us all good things to enjoy. It’s not really about us and our comfort.

Paul writes, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share” (1 Timothy 6:17-18). Do you notice the directional arrows here? For the man in the story, it is all about him. God said, no, it’s not all about you. This is the step of actively pursuing not the gain for our own pleasure, but pursuing goodness, generosity and hospitality.

Step 6 is to draw a line at enough. Do you think it ever crossed the mind of this guy in the parable from Luke 12 that he had enough? When he realized his barns were full, instead of tearing down the barns to build more to store for himself, wouldn’t it have been wonderful if he said, “I live in a world of great need. At the city gates there are beggars. There are poor people. There are needy people. I’ve got family members in need.” Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if he said, “I have enough, and I’m going to give the rest away.”

Have you come yet to the point in your life when before God and all the gifts that he’s given you, you say, “I have enough, that’s it. My barns are full. I’m going to have the joy of giving away everything else for some greater purpose than my own little existence.”

Step 7 is to respond to the ramifications of immediacy. The anti-hero of this parable says to himself, “I have all these goods stored up for many years to come.” God shows up and says: Not really; tonight your soul shall be required of thee. Like the anti-hero, I am terminal right now. There is no guarantee that I will even be alive at 2 o’clock this afternoon. Your friends who may have cancer are not the only terminal people in your life. We are all terminal. This brings up the issue of immediacy.

I love what the psalmist says: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). And at the end of the parable that Jesus so artfully tells, He says, “This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” That ought to be tattooed on the frontal lobe of your thinking: “Then whose shall these things be?”

Martie and I have a lot of global experience. We go around the world and see great needs. Then we come home to America, where about 90 percent of Christian wealth is locked up. The needs are so great now, but we have all these mechanisms of sheltering our wealth, unitrust, revocable, irrevocable, annuities, for some day in the future. I just want to ask you, if you believe with me that the return of Christ is imminent, and the needs in this world are so great, can your heart be taken with immediacy? What could you release now so that it will never be written across your legacy, “Now whose shall these things be, when they could have been Christ’s?”

Step 8 is to manage your wealth in view of accountability. What I find fascinating about the pattern in this anti-hero’s management of wealth is how it goes. He took what was given to him and called it his own, so it was his own. Then he stored it up and then he left it behind. In every single parable and talk about money, there is a point of accountability. God is the owner of everything. It’s not mine. I have been assigned to manage his wealth, and I will be held accountable in terms of how well I have done that.

The greatest joy of your life would be to be God’s wealth manager, who did such a great job that when you get home to heaven and open up your file, he puts his arm on your shoulder, looks you in the eyes, and says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I live for that day. A big part of whether or not I qualify for that moment would be what kind of a wealth manager I have been for him, the owner of the wealth he has entrusted to my care.

Jesus says that this man was a fool because he had all this stuff and was not rich toward God (Luke 12:20-21). The big question is, are you rich toward God? I need to now tell you why Jesus is so concerned about money, why he talked about it more than any other one thing. Jesus knows that possessions and wealth and the desire for the consumption of more is the number-one block to us understanding how much we need him and, therefore, the number-one block to an in-depth, intimate, ongoing relationship with him.

I’m struck by the letter to the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3. This letter is the most in-your-face, penetrating reproof. This must be a huge problem to deserve such strong words from Christ. Jesus said, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.” I’ve always thought that this letter meant the church’s problem was that they were not fired up for God, that they needed to get the revival going again. That’s not what it means. He said, “I wish you were either hot or cold.” The Laodiceans knew what he was talking about because their water was lukewarm and putrid. Have you ever had lukewarm water that has minerals like sulfur in it? It is horrid, and Jesus says, “You’re like your water to me.” And then think about this: He says, “Because you are lukewarm like your water in my mind, I feel like spitting you out.” He basically says, “You make me so sick, I feel like vomiting you.” And you wonder, my goodness, what has this church done? Jesus says, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing,’ ” including God.

The accumulation of stuff that God has given us, has the blinding power to block our sense of need for him. Jesus tells the church at Laodicea, “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17). You are dressed up on the outside but so impoverished on the inside. That is the power of wealth, to block your sense of how desperately you need God.

Regardless of our bank accounts or portfolios, all of us are fallen. Every day of our lives we live with our fallenness. I am frail and fickle and broken; every day I am in desperate need of Jesus. I need his wisdom, his guidance, his reproof and his teaching. The danger of wealth is that it can keep us from being rich toward God because we are upside-down toast on the kitchen floor. We desperately need him. Do you find it fascinating and sad that at the end of this letter, Jesus Christ, the Almighty One, the one to be feared, the majestic, awesome, Jesus Christ, is humbly bent at their hearts’ door on the outside of their lives, knocking, wanting to come in and fellowship with them?

And so Jesus says to them: “Repent.” He said if you really want to be rich, come to me and buy from me gold refined by fire. He is talking about character: integrity, righteousness and strength. You can’t get that except from Jesus Christ. Let him give you the salve that will take your blindness away, the wisdom that only Jesus can give. Having true riches means to be one pursuing Christ, letting him build in you character and wisdom, and dependence upon him. Our hearts cry out in need of him. If you’re not careful, if you define your riches wrongly, you will be truly poor.

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