Sub Specie Aeternitatis


Luke 12:13-21

This is material in the gospel arranged according to a theme. The Lord may have delivered this teaching at different times, but Luke has collected them here. You will be able to see very quickly next Lord’s Day how the next paragraph follows this one and the one after that still again.

Once again an interruption from the crowd gave Jesus the opportunity to deliver some unforgettable teaching.

Text Comment

v.13     The man does not appear in a good light from the beginning. He doesn’t ask the Lord to arbitrate the dispute or to look at the facts and render a judgment. He doesn’t say, “Lord I am perfectly willing to hear that I should remain as I am.” He asks him instead to take his side and order his brother to give him what he wants. It was not uncommon for fathers in those days to give their estate to their sons as a unit. This son wanted his share now. [Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 59] One commentator reminds us that in this parable the problem is the same problem that has bedeviled the Middle East up to our own time, viz. the division of land. [59]

v.14     Jesus addressed him as a stranger and quite peremptorily. He had come to bring men to God, not money to people. [Morris, 230]

v.15     Notice the “to them.” The Lord was not speaking only to this man, but to all who were there. This man felt that his problem was that his rights were not being respected in regard to his inheritance. But according to Jesus, the man’s much more important problem was not this particular dispute with his brother but his false view of life revealed by his covetousness. That problem would not be solved even if he got his way with the inheritance. Moral goodness is much more important than money! “It may be true that a certain minimum of material goods is necessary for life; but it is not true that greater abundance of goods means greater abundance of life.” [Manson in Bailey, 62] A particularly important warning for people like us who live in a day and place of great affluence.

v.16     The man is already rich. That fact is important.

v.19     To accent the man’s self-centeredness, the possessive pronoun “my” occurs four times in vv. 17-19; in the Greek of these same verses the pronoun “I” (in the form of first person singular verbs) occurs not six times, as in the ESV, but eight. His conversation with himself, his soliloquy, confirms that his viewpoint is entirely self-centered. He is not thinking of God or of others; only himself. [Bock, ii, 1152]

v.20     It is an interesting form of words, “Your soul is required of you.” The point is that his life did not belong to him, a crucial fact he had forgotten. The final question may return us to the initial demand of the unnamed man whose request of Jesus — demand really — started this line of thought. It may be that Jesus was inviting this man to imagine the bitter fight for his possessions by his heirs after he had died. [Bailey, 67-68] But, in any case, the one who will not possess them is the rich man himself.

v.21     Or, in other words, the only things worth striving for are those that death cannot take away. [Caird, 163]

The famous Latin phrase that serves as the title of the sermon “Sub Specie Aeternitatis,” literally “under the aspect of eternity,” means simply “in view of eternity.” Things look very different when judged in view of eternity. We have two fools in this short paragraph, both fools precisely because they did not judge matters sub specie aeternitatis. They acted as if their lives in this world would last forever. The man who interrupted Jesus with his demand that he intervene and force his brother to divide the inheritance was standing before the Savior of the World, the Prince of Life, from whom he could learn the way to eternal life and endless and boundless joy and satisfaction. But all he could think about was what his brother wouldn’t let him have now! And the rich man, already so much more comfortable than those around him, was so concerned to guarantee a comfortable life for himself for the remaining years of his life was that all he could see was ever larger barns for the grain that his fields were producing.

This will not be the only place in Luke’s Gospel that covetousness or the love of money is exposed as an obstacle to faith and moral goodness or as a fatal distraction from the real issues of life. Think of the conversation the Lord will have in chapter 18 with the rich young ruler who wouldn’t follow Jesus because of his great wealth or of the Lord’s parable in chapter 16 of the rich man and Lazarus. In fact the Bible is full of accounts of people who were destroyed by wealth or by the desire for it. But this is not a warning only for the wealthy. In v. 15 Luke makes a point of reminding us that what Jesus said he said to everyone who could hear him. The desire for wealth, the comfort in life that it creates has a distorting effect on the soul. It tempts us to find our place in this world, to lay up our treasure here; it concentrates our attention on the present to the point that we forget the future; it beguiles us with the creature and the Creator himself recedes from our view.

Covetousness, Paul reminds us, is a form of idolatry. This man’s mistake wasn’t being successful in agribusiness. It wasn’t his becoming rich. Nothing is said here to suggest that his were ill-gotten gains or that he climbed the ladder at the expense of others. God had blessed his farming. The mistake this man made, the reason Jesus judged him a fool, was that his wealth had become his god and had blinded him to reality and, as a result, he lived in a world of his own imagination, not the real world, not the world as it actually is.

The real world is a world of death, a world in which no one lives very long, a world that empties into an eternal future of weal or woe, a world in which the great issue of life is not whether one lives in comfort and ease or poverty and want but whether one finds peace with God or remains under his wrath. That is the real world. But riches and comfort — and they are hardly the only things that can have this effect — distract us, dazzle us, and keep us from seeing things as they really are. It is amazing how impervious the human mind is to the reality of death and how people can become past masters of living their lives as if they were not going to die! A perfect image of man is the teenage girl who is texting while driving her car directly into the telephone pole.

I told you last Lord’s Day evening that I have been reading a fascinating study of the people who sailed with the Titanic on its maiden voyage. The great ship’s passenger list was, in very illuminating ways, a window on European and American society in the early years of the 20th century. The distinction between social and economic classes was much more pronounced then than it is now, though no one was so low that he could not find someone else to look down on. But third class, no longer called steerage on the Titanic, was several cuts above steerage accommodation on other ocean liners of the time. Indeed, there were third class passengers, perhaps a good number of them, whose accommodations on the Titanic were more sumptuous than anything they had experienced before, including their own homes.

The ridicule of the upper class, the first class passengers, that you get in James Cameron’s film of a few years back is typical of a modern mind looking upon the past with an air of undisguised superiority. As the author of this new study observes:

“Over eighty years later the paradigm was sharpened into class war. James Cameron’s film Titanic diabolized the rich Americans and educated English, anathematizing their emotional restraint, good tailoring, punctilious manners, and grammatical training, while it made romantic heroes of the poor Irish and the unlettered. If Cameron’s film had caricatured the poor as it did the rich there would have been an outcry.” [Richard Davenport-Hines, Voyagers of the Titanic, 10]

There is little evidence, for example, that third class passengers were prevented from getting to the boat deck, after the great ship began to sink; in fact, some later testimony given to a Senate committee by one third class passenger who survived was that third class passengers “were not prevented from getting up to the upper decks by anybody, or by closed doors, or anything else.” What is more, there were acts of cowardice and acts of nobility, generosity, and bravery on the part of men and women of all three classes. Isn’t that what we would expect of human nature given the teaching of the Word of God?

Now, as you all know who have seen the various movie portrayals of the catastrophe or who have seen documentaries about the great ship and its sinking, the tragedy was that so many of the lifeboats left the stricken ship only half full, in some cases less than half full, when, to begin with, there weren’t nearly enough life boats to provide a place for every passenger on board.

What I had not realized until reading this new study is that the reason the lifeboats were lowered without their full complement of passengers was, in a number of cases if not most, because the ship’s crew could not persuade the ladies to get into them and didn’t think they could safely wait to get them away. For some time after the collision most women, in fact most people — and it mattered not what class they were in — felt more secure on the ship than in a small boat hanging on its davits some 70 to 80 feet above the water. Not only did some of the women of the second and third class refuse to enter the lifeboats, many of them returned to their rooms because it was much warmer there. They could not be persuaded that they were in peril until it was far too late. Not unlike the rich fool!

But what is so poignant about the story as it is told in Richard Davenport-Hines’ Voyagers of the Titanic is the fact that everyone on board, whatever his or her class, was on board in pursuit of a particular plan or purpose. Some were returning home from vacations or business trips in Europe and Great Britain. Some were traveling to America to be married. One young man of a wealthy family had become, by avocation, a collector of rare books. He had been to England on an expedition to find valuable old tomes and had found some. One of the rarest, late that Sunday night in April, he put in his pocket, and took with him to the floor of the Atlantic, two miles below the surface of the sea. I told you some months ago of the Baptist pastor John Harper, who was en route to Chicago to preach a series of sermons at the Moody Church. A number of the third class passengers, as you know, were en route to Ellis Island with the dream of making a new life in America.

“Many of them began their journey with an entrenched fear of slipping back into the abyss of poverty. ‘My father,’ wrote the son of [an] immigrant…, had a fear of want, a dread in his blood and brain, that the “rainy day” might come and in fair weather he hadn’t prepared for it.’ It was, on the Titanic, the wrong fear.” [181]

All of these people had plans for tomorrow! All of them thought they were going somewhere; no one thought he or she would not make port. Some of them were  Christians but most were not.  All of them were looking forward to their arrival in New York in two days times. No one was thinking of the end of their lives rushing toward them at breakneck speed as the great ship approached the iceberg traveling at 38 feet per second.

John B. Thayer Jr., known as Jack, the seventeen year old son of a wealthy family traveling in first class, had eaten dinner that Sunday evening with his parents and Captain Smith. He later took a few turns on deck. He described conditions those few hours before the ship hit the iceberg and began its long dive to the seabed:

“I have never seen the stars shine brighter; they appeared to stand right out of the sky, sparkling like cut diamonds. A very light haze, hardly noticeable, hung low over the water. I have spent much time on the ocean, yet I have never seen the sea smoother than it was that night; it was like a mill-pond, and just as innocent looking, as the ship rippled through it. I went onto the boat deck — it was deserted and lonely. The wind whistled through the stays, and blackish smoke poured out of the three forward funnels… It was the kind of night that made one feel glad to be alive.” [119]

Or, so it was for a few more minutes. Then it became a night first of confusion, then of dawning fear, then of shrieking terror. Hardly anyone drowned on the Titanic. The some 1500 that died froze to death in the sub-freezing water of the north Atlantic and in the minutes in some cases or half an hour for others that it took them to die, they filled the night with the sound of their terror, a memory that remained vivid for virtually all the survivors.

What is all of that terrible history but a dramatic illustration of the lesson the Lord Jesus was at pains to teach those gathered around him that day. No one can anticipate what awaits him tonight or tomorrow. Florence and I had plans for this past week, but they were changed suddenly and comprehensively when my mother went to the hospital on Tuesday and remained there until yesterday. We weren’t sure what lay ahead, though thankfully she is now home. How little we control events!

But that is not the Savior’s main point. The great issue we face is not that we are mortal and that we might die today or tonight or tomorrow. That fact is significant enough, to be sure. But whether death comes sooner or later, whether we die suddenly or gradually, by accident or at the end of long illness, the time comes for each of us when we must die. And if we have not lived our lives in the active recognition of that fact and if we have not lived our lives with a view to what lies beyond death, then our lives have been squandered. We have wasted them. What will become of us when our souls are required of us?

As the great preacher of the American Presbyterian south, Daniel Baker, once put it in a sermon:

“God Almighty never sent us into this world merely that we might plant, and build, and buy and sell, and get gain, and then go to sleep an everlasting sleep in the grave. How much less did he send us into this world that we might run the round of worldly pleasure and fashion, and sin and folly, and then drop into the pit which has no bottom! O no! Man has an immortal soul, and a higher destiny awaits him. He is to prepare for another and a better world.” [In Kelly, Preachers with Power, 56]

That fact is to loom over our lives, the future beckoning our attention every day and flooding our lives with bright illumination. Our life is measured, for good or for ill, according to the extent to which we live it in view of eternity. The happiest and most-pleasure filled life in this world is pure misery if it not lived in view of eternity. As Bernard of Clairvaux put it, “There is no greater misery than false joys.” And the life filled with the cruelest disappointment, heartbreak, and pain is the purest pleasure in truth if, through faith in Jesus Christ, it empties into the better country and the city that has foundations.

This rich man could see nothing but his present good fortune and his growing wealth. He could not see, he would not see the future that was right around the corner or just beyond the horizon. Remember how Dante describes the fate of the covetous, whom he encounters in the fourth circle of hell? He sees them ranged around a great circle in two groups, both fated to trudge forever in opposite directions pushing great weights in front of them and eventually crashing into one another, only to turn around, trudge the opposite way, until they crash together on the other side.

Just as the mighty wave above Charybdis
Shatters itself on the opposing tide:
So must these spirits dance and counterdance.
More numerous than elsewhere, I perceived
On both sides of the ring, a screaming crowd
Pushing heavy weights by strength of chest.
They came together with a shock; and there
They wheeled about, shouting to one another:
“Why do you squander?” “Why do you hoard?”
                        And then
Along the gloomy circle they returned
On either hand, shouting their words of shame
Till at the opposite point they met again.

It is a true picture, if an imaginative one. It is suggested by the question the Lord finishes with in v. 20 and his concluding summary. What a terrible reversal of fortune for the man who hoarded his pleasures here but was not rich toward God. When the Bible describes someone, when Jesus describes someone as a fool, it is not an intellectual evaluation but a spiritual one. Very clever people can amass enormous fortunes and be utterly foolish in every way that finally matters. Here is a man — the world is full of people like him — who lives his life as if he were to live forever when it is perfectly obvious that he will not.

My mother is eighty-nine years of age; I am now sixty-two. But we will both tell you — as many of you already know — that it seems but yesterday when we were young. My two eldest daughters, babies in arms it seems but a few years ago, are now mothers of children and they are in their thirties and my third daughter, also a mother, will be there soon enough. There is, there can be no authentic human life, no life wisely lived, no life that is pleasing to God that is not known to be a brief life, soon over, and so a life lived with a view to the world to come, to eternity more than to time.

Alexander Whyte said that he used to go into the Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh where he would someday be buried and see if he could see in his mind’s eye, next to his little son’s gravestone, his own. “Here lies Alexander Whyte.”  Can you see your name on a gravestone? John Bunyan has Interpreter say to Christiania in the Second Part of Pilgrim’s Progress, “If a man would live well, let him fetch his last day to him, and make it always his company keeper.” Samuel Rutherford advised a friend to “fore-fancy” our death. Nicholas Ridley, the Christian martyr, wrote long before his glorious death, “let our death be pre-meditated.” Robert Murray McCheyne, who died quite suddenly at just twenty-nine years of age, had a setting sun painted on the face of his watch, to remind himself that time was short. Perhaps that’s why he accomplished so much in so short a time.

But you say, “What a gloomy way to live!” But these were not gloomy men at all. They were cheerful men, good men, extraordinarily useful men, happy men. But they were also honest men who faced facts and lived in the light of them. It would only be gloomy to face each day the prospect of death if death were either the end or the door to greater misery. If, in Christ, to die is gain, if it is a going home, if it is the believer’s best day, if it is entrance into paradise, all of which the Bible says the believer’s day of death is, then to face the fact of the brevity and uncertainty of life is pure freedom and the very best sort of encouragement to redeem the time and make the most of the few years we have in this world to enjoy and serve God by faith and enjoy and serve others in his name.

By faith in Christ, brothers and sisters, we have everything! Is that not what Paul says in 1 Cor. 3:21-22?

“So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.”

This wealthy farmer had barns and crops aplenty, but that was all. He did not have death and because he didn’t, he soon lost all of what he had. He had barns, but he didn’t have, never had death, life, the present and the future. He didn’t have a happy place in the universe no matter what the circumstances of his life, no matter whether he was alive or dead in this world.

Whenever we are tempted to envy the lot of the wealthy and the powerful in this world, whenever we are tempted to give our hearts over to the acquisitive impulse, let us remember the rich fool. I don’t care what the circumstances of your life may be, however difficult, however disappointing — though I know that there is great joy and satisfaction and blessings of every kind for the believer in Jesus already in this world — but, I say, however hard your life may be, if it is lived in view of eternity it will be a life lived, like Milton’s March of the Angels, “high above the ground.”

And remember this from time to time. We are heirs of this world. Jesus said that the meek, which true faith in Christ makes of every man or woman, will inherit the earth. We will fall heir to this world once it has been renewed by the power of God at the end of history. It will be a world of beauty and perfection beyond our ability to conceive. Compared to the fruitful farm of this rich man it will be impossibly more fruitful. And it will be ours and ours forever to enjoy and to use to our own perfect fulfillment, to the blessing of others, and to the glory of God.

The wealth represented in first class that April night when the Titanic sunk was staggering. John Jacob Astor was the wealthiest man on board. He was, not to make too fine a point of it, a New York City slumlord. His body was recovered from the ocean and his wallet was found to contain $4,000 in bills, a staggering sum in those days: the equivalent of over $100,000 today. I don’t know about you but I rarely carry $100,000 in my wallet. But do you understand and appreciate that the wealth represented in this room this morning — that wealth to which we will fall heir when Christ comes again — is simply beyond calculation. Just one sanctuary full of Christians!  Just this single group of Christians here represents more wealth of every kind than has ever existed or shall ever exist in this world altogether. Whatever wealth will be in heaven, it will be grander and more splendid than anything wealth has ever been here by many orders of magnitude. Physical wealth and, much more, spiritual wealth! For the Christian to live in view of eternity is simply for him or her to wait for fabulous blessings still to come and, all the more, to wait to be with God who has promised all of this to us and to wait for the Lord Jesus Christ who said he would come again. To live waiting in that way is what it means to be rich toward God, and the man or woman who is waiting for God will surely love and serve him in the meantime!

The great Ambrose, in a fourth century sermon on our text and speaking of the rich farmer’s remark, “I have nowhere to store my crops,” observed: this man already had storehouses in which to put his crops: the stomachs of the needy, the houses of widows, and the mouths of children. [Cited in Trench, Parables, 341]

What is it to live sub specie aeternitatis? It is to live for Christ so that your death will be gain; it is to be rich toward the God whom you are so soon to face; and it is to remember that one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his or her possessions but in the prospect of one’s future.