The paragraph we have before us this morning continues the thought of the parable of the rich fool. That will be obvious to you as we read, but Luke leaves us in no doubt by his use of the word “treasure” both in v. 21, in the concluding statement of that paragraph, and again twice in vv. 33-34, in the concluding summary of this paragraph. Both of these paragraphs are about where our treasure is and the importance of laying up our treasure in heaven not on earth.
v.23 The previous teaching was addressed to the crowd, to everyone standing there. This teaching is more specifically addressed to the Lord’s disciples. It is a lesson particularly necessary for Christians to learn. Their life is too important to squander worrying about temporary and much less significant things.
In the previous paragraph the Lord was concerned with greed and selfishness and the way covetousness distracts the mind and heart from what is truly important. Here he turned to worry, to anxiety, another consequence of a worldly state of mind. In any case we are reminded that worldly goods, status, and comfort can prove as much a temptation and distraction to those who do not have them as to those who do.
v.24 There may be some significance to the fact that ravens were unclean to the Jews as birds that ate carrion. Even these of his creatures God cares for. This about this: you don’t often see a gaunt crow!
This is a very important text to consider when we are forming our view of environmental responsibility. God cares for the birds, his creation, and so we should as well. On the other hand, human beings are much more important than birds. Both facts should be kept clearly in view.
v.25 Worry is not only unnecessary — because God cares for you — it is futile. You aren’t capable of guaranteeing anything in your life, much less determining its length. A wise person realizes and accepts his or her limitations and lives accordingly. I know people, perhaps you do as well, whose breakfast table looks like a pharmacy — vitamins, supplements, pills for this and for that — as if somehow this is going to make them healthy forever. There is nothing wrong with eating right, but as we learned from Jim Fixx, the exercise guru who died young of a heart attack, and Adele Davis, the author of the cookbook Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit who died relatively young of cancer, not all the exercise, healthy eating, food supplements, or vitamins in the world will necessarily lengthen a person’s life. In our day of clean water, sanitation, and amazing medical advances we still die pretty much when Moses said we would, some still die very young, and many lose their powers as they age. Nothing any of us can do about that!
v.27 The flower mentioned here is not our lily. In fact, among a great many possibilities that have been suggested, the identification of the flower the Lord meant is still today largely guesswork. It may be that we should render the term simply “flowers,” as the next reference is to “grass,” a still more generic term for the plants of the field.
v.29 The Lord is obviously not forbidding honest effort to provide for oneself and one’s family. Elsewhere the Bible can be very stern in condemning the idle and is willing to say that those who do not work ought not to eat. Take the ravens as an example. They serve as an illustration here of the Lord’s care for his creatures, but ravens are hardly lazy! No raven sits indolently on his perch waiting for food to drop into his mouth. He busily searches for it. The Lord is not talking about our obligation to work; he is talking about our state of mind, our attitude, and the level of our concern.
v.31 There ought to be a distinct difference between the way the Lord’s disciples live and the way of the world, a difference created by the Christian’s confidence in the faithfulness of his heavenly Father and understanding of the real issue of life.
Leaving one’s physical circumstances to the Lord then allows the believer to concentrate on matters of eternal importance, in particular, all that contributes to the rule of God in one’s own heart, in one’s family, and in the world. The promise is the ancient one: “He who honors me, I will honor.” [1 Sam. 2:30]
v.32 The reference to the disciples as a “little flock” is found only here in the New Testament. But the term reminds us that we have a shepherd who cares for our needs.
v.34 Concentrate on things of eternal importance and lay up your treasure in heaven where it is stored up permanently for the believer and cannot be lost and need not be left behind.
The final sentence is the great point: the problem with a concentration on worldly things is that a heart so distracted cannot be committed to God, to his kingdom, and to heaven. As the Lord said on another occasion, “You cannot love God and money at the same time.” It will always be one or the other.
Now, the problem with a text like this for a preacher is not to explain it. It explains itself. Who does not understand what the Lord is teaching us here? As a wise man once observed about another famous piece of the Lord’s teaching,
“This is the perfection of language. This is the attainment of the famous Arabian standard of eloquence, — ‘He speaks the best who turns the ear into an eye.’” [J.C. Ryle, Practical Religion, 204]
The commands and the illustrations — “Consider the Ravens; Consider the lilies” — go straight to our hearts. We can see the Lord’s point perfectly!
It is also unnecessary to convince any Christian of the importance of the Lord’s teaching here. We worry, you and I, about a host of things and our worries can be terribly distracting, enervating, and discouraging; keeping us up at night, distracting us throughout the day. We very often do not seek first the Lord’s kingdom precisely because we are worrying about lesser things. People, like many of you, who have accepted life on a modest income and are making no great effort to increase your wealth or physical comfort have not escaped the worldliness the Lord is condemning here if you are often anxious about your financial circumstances, thinking about them with furrowed brow, or find yourselves daydreaming about money. We all worry a lot!
And not always about lesser things. Sometimes the things that concern us most are matters of eternal importance: the welfare of our marriage or our children or perhaps the spiritual condition of the church or our culture and the great implications of it for ourselves and for the next generation. We can rightly be worried about the health of someone we love, about the health of relationships that are and ought to be of great importance to us. A Christian businessman may very well worry about the health of his business precisely because those who work for him depend upon it for their livelihood. That is surely the worry of love and of responsibility. A Christian attorney may well worry about the outcome of a case precisely because it concerns a person receiving justice in a matter. God cares about that too. A Christian politician may well worry about how to foster the welfare of the people for whom he is responsible given the great difficulties and complexities of national, state or local life that we face, and so on.
So we all need to hear and take to heart the Lord’s straight-forward orders here, first in the negative:
- “…do not be anxious…”
- “…do not seek what you are to eat and drink…” and
- “Fear not, little flock…”;
then in the positive:
- “Consider the ravens…”
- “Consider the lilies…”
- “…seek his kingdom…”
- “Sell your possessions and give to the needy…”
- “Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old…”
There are always these two sides, the negative and the positive. Always the need to stop doing one thing and to do another. Always the putting of sin to death — in this case worry — and bringing more and more to expression your new life in Christ. Never the one without the other, always the two together: mortification and vivification, putting to death and bringing to life, the repudiation of sinful thoughts and actions and the practice of righteousness.
And always a theological foundation is laid for both as the Lord lays such a foundation here. It is not simply a command not to worry or to sell your possessions to give to the poor, but a command to do that because God will take care of you, because God loves you and knows your needs, because worry is useless, pointless for creatures as finite as you are, because you are not like the nations, because you have higher things to live for, and because there is far greater wealth for us to accumulate by seeking first God’s kingdom.
As always in the Bible the Lord here is teaching us to live theologically, to live in the light of the truth we have come to know, to live according to the gospel and, as we said last time, in view of eternity. Here, as always, it is the theology that gives the commands their punch and it is the theology that convinces us to obey them and makes us want to obey them.
We are Christians! It matters to us that we live like Christians. And we have no difficulty understanding how, in this respect — that of worry and that of a concentration on worldly things — we ought to be very different from the people of the world, as the Lord reminds us in v. 30.
The world pays rapt attention to all the things the Lord tells us here not to care so much about. There are infomercials galore on how to improve your health, how to get rich in real estate, how to find fulfillment in life. None of them would survive on television if there weren’t a market for what they are selling. But Christians understand how ultimately unimportant all of this actually is and how far removed from what ought to be our concern, living as we do on a spiritual battlefield, surrounded as we are by the carnage of that battle, the dead and dying visible in every direction, and eternity hurtling toward us at breakneck speed.
I say we know all this, we’ve known it for a long time. But still we find ourselves succumbing to the lure of this world and its petty interests when the unfathomable wealth of the kingdom of God is ours to accumulate by lives of faith and the service of God and others. What we need is not understanding, in this case, but inspiration. So let me give you some. A true story that you have heard before, at least in outline, but perhaps never in a way that so perfectly illustrates the truth and the power of the Lord’s teaching here in Luke 12:22-34.
Francis was born in Assisi, a town in what was then Lombardy, in what is now Umbria, one of the regions of modern Italy, sometime in later 1181 or early 1182. His father, a successful merchant, was on a business trip to France when he was born. Francis was probably baptized on Saturday, March 28, 1182, Holy Saturday, the day before Easter that year. It was the custom of that time and place to baptize the infants who had been born since the previous Easter on Holy Saturday. He would have, even as an infant, received his first Holy Communion either that afternoon or the next day, Easter Sunday. [A. Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, 7]
He was groomed as a boy to follow his father and his elder brother in the family business. He learned some Latin and more French, which was the language of the songs that young people sang in those days and the poems they read and memorized. When he turned fourteen he began his work as an apprentice in his father’s store where imported cloth was sold. He had a keen mind and was personally charming and almost immediately proved successful as a salesman. On the social side, in the years that followed, Francis made friends among the sons of the more well-to-do of the town and became a leader of a sort of town fraternity or boys’ club. He did all those things that drive parents crazy still today. He led his friends in singing subversive music then popular among the young, in his case the French love songs (the rock and roll of 12th century Europe). He spent lots of his father’s money partying, in his case entertaining his friends at dinner in the town’s various pubs. He gained something of a reputation for being a dandy, wearing clothes of the latest style, not so unlike the jeans that come today with the holes already provided or the baseball cap worn backwards or sideways. [Thompson, 8-9; L. Cunningham, Francis of Assisi, 7]
He was something of a prodigal, but was so naturally charming and courteous that even his parents didn’t seem over-worried by the worldly obsessions of his life. He would grow out of them, they expected, as teenagers eventually will.
But when Francis was about 22 years of age and serving in the Assisi militia, he was part of a military assault on the nearby city state of Perugia. The result was a disastrous and bloody defeat for Assisi. Francis, who had witnessed his friends and companions butchered in a bloody battle was himself captured and spent a year in a Perugian prison in what were in all likelihood miserable conditions. By the time of his release, probably in 1203, the young man had changed dramatically. No longer extroverted and cheerful, he was quiet and morose and had lost all interest in the entertainments that had captivated him before the war. He was plagued by dreams, nightmares really. We would today say that he was suffering from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. He experienced war-related flashbacks, and it is likely, as with many survivors of battles in which many comrades are killed, he experienced bouts of self-loathing and guilt. [Thompson, 10]
He had lost his way. He thought on one occasion of going back into the army, this time to fight in one of the papacy’s fruitless wars, but buying a horse and armor and setting off, he made it only a single day’s journey before losing heart, selling his equipment, and returning home. Military life was no longer for him.
He made an effort to return to his old ways, but was moody and despondent. He no longer sang. He also stopped coming to work at his father’s shop. He withdrew into himself, often spending hours alone in his bedroom. He seems to have thought that his current woe was the result of his sins and attempted to atone for them as people did in Catholic Italy in those days: by ascetic practices, self-flagellation, and giving to the poor. He would give money to any beggar that asked and, if out of money, literally the shirt off his back. When his father ordered him to return to work, Francis disobeyed. Understandably, his parents grew increasingly concerned about their son’s erratic behavior. When his father was away and he had dinner alone with his mother Francis would take any extra food from the table — over her protests — and give it to beggars. Seeking spiritual relief he even went to Rome to pray at the tomb of St. Peter. He threw handfuls of money through the grille in front of the altar, startling onlookers both by the size of his offering and by his exhibitionism. On leaving the church he exchanged clothing with a beggar and then, in fractured French begged alms from passersby. [Thompson, 12-13] We would think of his behavior nowadays, I suppose, in terms of OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder.
To those who loved him and observed his life he seemed to be slipping into madness. His circle of friends had been reduced to one; he spent long hours walking alone in the forest or praying in a cave. Finally, some six months after his release from prison in Perugia, the young man left home without telling his parents and went to live, literally live, in a nearby church, San Damiano, an old rundown sanctuary with virtually no congregation left and in great need of repair located outside the walls of the city.
When his father learned where he was staying, he gathered some friends to help him collect his son; something like what we might call an “intervention” nowadays but someone told Francis what was up and he went into hiding. When finally he came out of hiding he was so emaciated that when he appeared on the streets of Assisi people threw mud at him. They thought his insanity was self-inflicted. [Thompson, 14] His father brought him home, locked him up in his room, and tried for days to bring him back to his senses, but as soon as he left on a business trip, his mother in her tenderness let him out and he immediately ran back to San Damiano and returned to his former habits. His father finally had to go to court to remove Francis from his will fearing that he would squander the half of the family estate that would be his on his father’s death.
There is more to the story, to be sure, but it came to its climax in this way. Francis had always had felt revulsion at the sight of lepers. Leprosy in those days was, as it is in the Bible, a term that covered a number of disfiguring diseases. In those days lepers were feared and loathed by virtually everyone. They were forbidden to enter the city, to drink from its wells, or allowed to talk to children. They had to keep a clapper handy to sound when people came near to warn them of their presence. It was, as in biblical times, an isolating and dehumanizing condition. It was widely thought that their physical deformity was punishment for sin. As a youth Francis had found lepers to lie beyond the limits of his sympathy. He could be generous to beggars, but he always held his nose and turned away from lepers.
But there came a day when, outside of Assisi, he had an encounter with a leper or a group of lepers. The episode is shrouded in legend and so we can have certainty only that some such event occurred. Francis himself, as a much older man, refers to it in his Testament.
“…for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards…I left the world.” [Cited in Cunningham, 9]
By which he means he gave up the things of this world. He was craving peace of heart and it was added to him because he began to serve the poorest of the poor. This encounter with lepers would always be for Francis the occasion of his religious conversion, the point at which he became a true child of God. For some time he remained among the lepers, earning his keep by caring for them.
What had occurred in Francis’ heart that lifted him out of the despair of the previous months? It was a fundamental reorientation of his spirit, a dramatic alteration in the purpose of his life, and, still more, the God-given discovery that there was true freedom to be found in seeking the kingdom of God first and above all else and in doing the work of the kingdom. As he showed mercy to others, especially to those most in need of mercy, he experienced God’s mercy himself. As he cleaned them and fed them he was himself cleansed and nourished.
What before had revolted and repelled him now became his treasure, loving the outcast, those Jesus calls here “the needy” and doing so in Jesus’ name. He had experience aplenty of the world’s pleasures, but they had proved incapable of sustaining his soul in the face of life’s crushing tragedies. He had money and status, but they hadn’t helped him. But loving others in Jesus’ name, selling his possessions to give to the poor, as Jesus puts it here, became for him the path to true freedom and to that treasure that can never be lost.
For all of us there is such freedom to be found in turning away from the things of this world and seeking the treasure of the heavenly kingdom, which is just another way of saying a life given over to the love of God and man, to everything that advances the divine kingdom in this world, and, especially, in the imitation of Jesus himself who embraced and cared for sinners and the needy and did not live for himself as they do and must do who worry about the things of this world.
As William Burns, the great Scottish preacher, was about to leave his homeland for missionary service in China. John Duncan, Rabbi Duncan as he was known, said to him:
“Take you care of his cause and he will take care of your interests; look after his glory, and he will look after your comfort.”
That was exactly what Francis discovered. That was Francis’ experience. His spiritual nightmare, his worries, his terrible anxiety about his life melted away when he began to seek God’s kingdom, began to provide himself moneybags that do not grow old and with treasure in heaven; when by God’s grace, he found his heart longing for that treasure and not for the things of this life and at that point everything else came to him as he had need of it.
Now, brothers and sisters, there should be something, some significant measure of this, in every one of our lives, of this attitude, and of this conviction that our freedom and fulfillment lies in serving God and Christ, not in the accumulation of what this world can give us for so short a time, whether money or pleasure or years of life. There must be this conviction in our hearts especially because if it is there it will be in our behavior as well.
When you are tempted to worry about such things as money or health or any such temporary thing, recall the Lord’s exquisitely beautiful teaching here. Remember the rainbows and the lilies. Go back to these first principles. God made you; he loves you with a deathless love proved in Jesus Christ and the cross; he wants only what is best for you. And powerful as he is he will care for you with more personal attention than he lavishes on the other creatures of his kingdom. Remind yourself that you are not a pagan and you are not to live like one, caring for what will so soon pass away. You are free; you have been liberated, to lay up incalculable wealth where it will await your arrival.
No one has ever out given God. Seek first his kingdom and you will discover, as Francis did, as vast multitudes of the saints have discovered, how liberating that is and how generous God is.