Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? “Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Luke 12:22-34).
In the midst of some of the pleasure—at least excitement—of the ice storm this past week, there was also the tragic discovery of a child’s body, a submerged automobile, and then another child’s body. Adding to this tragedy was the failure to find the body of the driver of the car, the mother of the two children who perished in the icy waters. The car, we learned, slid off the road, which did not have any guardrails, virtually unnoticed.
If it were not for the tragic circumstances surrounding this incident, one event would have been almost comic. A massive effort was waged to discover the bodies of those who had drowned. One was that of a self-styled religious group. They ignited a bale of hay and set it afloat, believing that it would somehow mark out the location of the mother’s body. It didn’t.
Perhaps you watched and listened to the reports of this futile, even foolish, effort, and laughed, or perhaps groaned. How foolish, I thought for such a waste of effort. How stupid to think that a bale of burning hay would be able to do what skin divers, trained dogs, proven dragging methods, and even sophisticated electronic equipment had failed to accomplish. If such a method worked, it was well worth the effort. If it could not work, what a silly waste of time.
Why work at something that is fruitless and futile? Its really easy to see the folly of the burning bale of hay, isn’t it? It all depends on what our “bale of hay” is, though. In our text, Jesus asks a simple question, “What person has ever increased his stature (or lengthened his life) by worrying about it?”211 We know the answer. No one has ever done so. If worrying is so futile an activity because it doesn’t work, even in such a small matter, why then is worry consuming so much of our time and of our energy? We all know that worry is unproductive, indeed, counter-productive, and yet we persist at it.
In our text, Jesus is going to spell out some of the reasons why worry about our material needs is wrong. Then, after proving that worry is both foolish and evil, He will provide us with a very simple solution, a solution that many might not wish to hear, but this is what sets the true disciple of Jesus apart from others.
I have had to change my title after further consideration. Initially, I had entitled this passage, “Getting By: The Preoccupation of the Poor.” I had come to the conclusion that Jesus was addressing “the poor” here based on several premises. First, the Lord dealt with the greed of the rich in verses 13-21. Would it not stand to reason that the “poor” would come next? Second, Jesus was specifically addressing His disciples here (cf. v. 22), and they had left their jobs, their homes, and much more. They, it seems, were supported by the gifts of others (cf. Luke 8:1-3). Third, the things about which the disciples were said to worry about were “food” and “clothes.” These are the concerns of the poor are they not? Thus, I concluded that the disciples must be poor and that Jesus was therefore here giving the poor instructions on how not to worry about what they don’t have.
Now I believe that I was wrong, however. I base this on several lines of thought. First (and foremost), at the end of our text Jesus will instruct the disciples to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. If one gives to the poor, they are not the poor. If the recipient of charity is the poor, the donor is not. The disciples are to be the donors. Also, those who are poor do not have possessions to sell. Second, a key concept in Luke chapter 12 is hypocrisy. While the term is not found in our text, I believe the concept is present. The very people who worry about “food” and “clothing” are those, Jesus implies, who have possessions to sell. Thus, their worry is hypocritical. They are not nearly as hard off as they think, or as they wish us to think. Third, if Jesus addressed only the rich and the poor, the vast majority of men would have been omitted. In the way Jesus has addressed the disciples here, both the middle class and the poor can learn at the same time. The temptation to worry is little different for those who really have nothing and those who merely fear that they won’t have the next meal.
These verses, then, are for us. If, for some strange reason, our affluent culture was not devastated enough by what Jesus has said in verses 13-21, we will find ourselves looking down God’s gun barrel here, where He teaches us the folly of worry about our material needs. He will tell us how to facilitate setting our hearts on heaven as well. Let us listen well to these words of our Lord.
Jesus is in the midst of a large crowd, teaching various segments of that crowd from time to time. In verses 1-12 Jesus addressed His disciples, speaking to them about the danger of hypocrisy, not the hypocrisy of trying to seem more spiritual than they were, but that of seeking to appear less spiritual than they were. The motivation for this back-handed kind of hypocrisy would have been fear of the crowds and their resulting rejection of the gospel, resistance, and persecution.
In verse 13 the subject changed from hypocrisy to greed. While the disciples would be tempted to shy away from boldness in the proclamation of the gospel, they might also be tempted to pursue material things. The subject of greed arose when a man in the crowd cried out to Jesus, requesting Him to instruct his brother to give him his share of the inheritance. Jesus refused to act as a judge or arbiter, but did not hesitate to point out that the problem was greed, and then to teach that even those who are able to attain an abundance of possessions will find that life does not consist of possessions. His parable of the rich fool drove this point home.
But now, in verse 22, Jesus presses this same principle even further. He speaks directly to His disciples now and tells them how the principle should govern their own lives. If Jesus was, in the previous verses, speaking to those who are affluent—the rich—He is now speaking to those who are not. If, in the earlier verses, Jesus was dealing with those who sought to store up possessions for the future, He is now speaking to those who are worried about today’s needs. If, before, Jesus was talking about food that we might call “steak and ale,” here He is speaking about “beans and corn,” about “bread and water,” the bare essentials. If Jesus spoke to the rich about their preoccupation with “getting ahead,” He speaks here to those who are anxious about “getting by.” Let us take note, however, that while the application is different, the principle is the same:
“FOR NOT EVEN WHEN ONE HAS AN ABUNDANCE DOES HIS LIFE CONSIST OF HIS POSSESSIONS” (Luke 12:15b).
I find several “tensions” in our text, which serve to spur us on in my study, to guide us in our observations and interpretation, and to lead us to specific answers to seek from this passage, or from other passages in the Bible that help to explain and illuminate it. The tensions of this text, as I see them, are:
(1) Why does Jesus tell the disciples to sell their possessions and give to the poor, when He did not command the rich to do so in the previous section?
(2) Is Jesus teaching us that those who are poor, who sell their possessions and give the money away, are more spiritual than those who are rich? Is it spiritual to be poor and carnal to be rich? Jesus said, “Blessed are you poor,” but is this the same as saying, “Blessed is poverty,” or “Blessed are you for being poor,” or “Blessed are you if you are poor”?
(3) How far did Jesus intend for us to take His words? Is poverty the touchstone of discipleship? Are we supposed to sell all of our possessions?
(4) We read in the Book of Acts that many of the saints did sell their possessions, giving the money to meet the needs of others. Were these zealous Christians foolish for doing so, as some of the commentators suggest, since these people seemed, later on, to have serious financial needs, which had to be met by other saints?
(5) Jesus’ examples of the ravens and the lilies both specifically refer to the fact that neither “toil.” Is Jesus teaching His disciples and/or others that they need not work, and that God will provide?
The structure (or flow) of our text needs to be seen in its larger context, and thus I will attempt below to represent how I understand the text to fit together in the light of what Jesus is teaching here:
(1) THE PROBLEM OF GREED IS EXPOSED (Brother wants Jesus to act as arbiter and is refused)—vv. 13-15a
(2) A (NEGATIVE) PRINCIPLE IS STATED (Life doesn’t consist of possessions)—v. 15b
(3) THE PRINCIPLE IS ILLUSTRATED (The Parable of the Rich Fool)—vv. 16-20
(4) THE PRINCIPLE IS APPLIED GENERALLY (Don’t hoard possessions, be rich toward God)—v. 21
(5) THE PRINCIPLE IS APPLIED SPECIFICALLY TO DISCIPLES (Don’t worry about food and clothes—seek God’s kingdom)—vv. 22-34
(6) A POSITIVE PRINCIPLE AND ITS PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS Verses 28-34
22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? 27 “Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!
In verses 13-21, our last text, Jesus was dealing with greed principally from the point of view of the affluent. The “fool” of Jesus’ parable was the rich fool. Jesus was in this passage emphasizing the negative aspect, as is indicated by the action words Beware and be on your guard (v. 15, NASB). The positive aspect has not yet been dealt with, but only alluded to by the words “rich toward God” in verse 21. Verses 22-34 are also quite negative in their application.212 Just as the rich need to beware of a preoccupation with acquiring possessions, so do the rest. Jesus therefore warns His disciples not to worry about their material needs, not even such basic matters as food and clothing.
I much prefer the way the NASB renders verse 22.213 It reads: “And He said to His disciples, “For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious… ”
The reason to which our Lord referred is, I believe, the principle that He stated above, in response to the man’s request that his brother be instructed to give him his share of the inheritance:
“Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
The principle, as Jesus stated it, applies to rich and poor alike. Even if one has an abundance of possessions, life does not consist of possessions. If this is true, surely we must see that life does not consist of possessions for those who do not have an abundance. Thus, for a poor person to be preoccupied with the accumulation of possessions is as foolish as for a rich person to be so. Furthermore, since Jesus warned against “every form of greed” we should be able to see that greed has its “poor man versions” just as it has its “rich man versions.” Jesus is now focusing on anxiety214 concerning food and clothing as the form which greed is more likely to take on among His disciples.
The disciples could just as easily come to a wrong definition of “life” as did the rich fool. For the disciples “life” could become getting by, and thus one’s daily requirements of food and clothing can become a preoccupation. If the accumulation of such things is not in mind, at least the acquisition of them would be. The rich fool set about to store up large quantities of goods, so that his future could be self-indulgent, secure, and pleasurable (he thought). The less affluent could be just as preoccupied with acquiring food for their next meal, and with clothing to wear now (“Honey, Johnnie’s shoes are worn clear through the soles … ”).
Jesus’ instruction to the disciples not to worry is based upon the following truth: “Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing215“ (v.23).
In what sense is “life” more than food? While it is true that both food and (to some degree) clothing are essential to sustain physical life, life is greater than either, or both. Life is more than that which sustains it. In a similar way, we might say that the beautiful sounds which come from a stereo system, playing one of our favorite records (excluding rock music, for me at least), is greater than the electric energy by which the sound system operates. An airplane may require fuel to run, but it is greater than the fuel by itself. Put in other terms, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In another sense, “life” is more than “food” in the same way that the end (or the goal) is more than the means (this does not justify the means, however).
We are not left to our own speculations as to what this means. WHAT A COMMENTARY WE FIND IN OUR LORD’S WORDS TO SATAN IN THE TEMPTATION! When Satan challenged Jesus to command stones to become bread, Jesus’ response was based upon the same principle which He is teaching here: “Man shall not live on bread alone” (Luke 4:4).
In citing this text from Deuteronomy chapter 8, Jesus was saying that life was sustained by more than just food. I believe that Jesus clearly implied that “life” was to be defined in terms of more than mere physical existence. He was also teaching that this “true life” was produced by the Word of God, not by physical food. Thus, if abiding in God’s Word required abstaining from food, He would gladly choose this path, the path of life.
From the gospel of John we learn that Jesus Himself was “life” (John 14:6), and that He was, indeed, the “Bread of Life” come down from heaven, greater even than that bread (manna) which was provided by God through Moses. This “Bread” is the source of true life:
Jesus therefore said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” They said therefore to Him, “Lord, evermore give us this bread.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:32-35, NASB).
I believe that in these words Jesus has given His disciples a first reason as to why worry is wrong, which can be summed up in these words: WORRY ABOUT FOOD AND CLOTHING IS MISDIRECTED, FAILING TO FOCUS ON WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT.
If “life” is more important than “food,” then worrying about food is worrying about a minor matter. While all worry is wrong for the Christian, as we shall see, worry about minor matters is even more foolish. It is like a woman worrying about how her hair looks as she is sitting in a boat about to be swept over Niagara Falls.
The second reason why anxiety is wrong is given by our Lord in the next verses. The thrust of these verses can be summed up this way: ANXIETY ABOUT FOOD AND CLOTHING IS FOOLISH WHEN ONE CONSIDERS GOD’S MARVELOUS PROVISIONS FOR HIS CREATURES, AS SEEN IN NATURE.
The foolishness of worrying about food and clothing is played out by our Lord by pointing to two illustrations from nature—the raven and the lilly. They are, we might say, “material witnesses” to God’s faithful provision of food and clothing for His creatures. The raven demonstrates God’s provision of food, and the lilies of the field, God’s provision of clothing.
The raven teaches a lesson concerning God’s faithfulness in supplying food. Two things would seem to put the raven in a position of disadvantage. First, the raven, you will recall, is not considered a “clean” bird, and would thus be looked down upon somewhat by the Jew. Second, the raven does not even work for his food. The raven, in contrast to the “rich fool” above, does not plant, harvest, or warehouse food for his future needs, and yet God provides for its daily needs.
Likewise the lilies of the field. Two things would seem to put them at a disadvantage. The lilies of the field do not toil, and they do not even “spin” to create the materials with which they are clothed (this is a poetic image, you understand, so that the lilly is personified, viewed from a people point of view). Further, the lilies of the field are extremely short-lived. One day they bloom with such beauty, and yet (it would seem) the next day they are cast into the fire as fuel, good only for burning. Yet the “clothes” of the lilly put the garments of Solomon to shame.
If such unimportant and insignificant things as ravens and lilies receive such generous provisions from God, will not God’s children fare much better? Of course they will, which is the force of our Lord’s argument.
The illustrations of ravens and lilies are, as you can see, separated by two verses, which give a third reason why worry about food and clothing is foolish. We can state the principle this way: ANXIETY IS FOOLISH BECAUSE IT IS FRUITLESS AND FUTILE.
Worry, Jesus reminds us, simply doesn’t work. Like the burning bale of hay which I mentioned in my introduction, worry does not produce anything. Worry does not make one taller, nor does it extend one’s life, depending upon which sense we give to these words. And if worry will not do such a little thing, why should we think it would do any greater thing? Worry never produced a single meal, indeed, not even a single bite. Worry has not produced a stitch of clothing. A little thought would even cause one to conclude that worry has probably hindered in these matters.
There is yet another reason, a fourth reason, why worry is foolish: ANXIETY ABOUT FOOD AND CLOTHING IS FOOLISH BECAUSE IT IS A LACK OF FAITH IN GOD AND HIS PROMISES TO PROVIDE FOR HIS DISCIPLES.
Worry disregards God’s care of His creation and disbelieves His love and care, as expressed by His promises.
In verse 28, Jesus gets to the bottom line. WORRY IS REALLY FEAR, AND ITS ULTIMATE CAUSE IS A LACK OF FAITH IN GOD, IN HIS GOODNESS, IN HIS POWER, AND IN HIS PROMISES TO PROVIDE FOR ALL OF OUR NEEDS, BEGINNING WITH THE MOST IMPORTANT—LIFE.
The problem with material things is just that, they are material. They can be seen. Faith is not rooted in what is seen, but in what is not seen. The things which are eternal are not seen, but the things which are temporal are seen. When we seek after material things, like food and clothing, we seek after that which we can see, and thus we live according to sight, rather than faith.
… we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18).
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 12:1).
Faith is rooted in the Word of God, which is both certain and eternal, not in those things which we see, which are fleeting, soon to pass away. Heaven and earth will pass away, but not His word. Thus, the Word of God is the basis, both for faith and for life. And it is at this very point that Jesus gives His disciples a sure and certain word:
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
The antidote to fear is faith. The fuel of faith is that which is not material, but is eternal, the Word of God. His “flock” does not need to fear about food and clothing, or anything else, for His kingdom (which, in essence, is synonymous with life) is assured. And not only is it certain that His “flock” will be given the kingdom, God has purposed to gladly give it. We can be assured that God will do that which gives Him pleasure, and giving us His kingdom will be pleasurable to Him, and so it is sure for us.
Jesus has not just warned His disciples not to worry about their material needs, He has promised them the kingdom and He has promised to provide for them until that day comes. Now, Jesus will tell them how it is that they may be rid of that malady of materialism. Our Lord’s two commands are found in the final verses of our text.
The first command is a general one—they are to seek first the kingdom of God, and in this way be assured of having their material needs met. It is not that man’s material needs are insignificant, or that they should be ignored. Jesus is teaching us that it is wrong to worry about these things, for worry does not produce food or clothing. The opposite of worry is what Jesus requires: faith.
Seeking the kingdom of God is the means to meeting one’s material needs. That seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? One tends to think that it would work the other way, but God’s ways are beyond man’s thinking. We gain our life by giving it up, we lead by serving, and we have our material needs met by not worrying about them, but by seeking His kingdom as our priority.
Jesus now moves from a general solution to materialism to a very specific, practical step which every disciple should take:
“Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys” (Luke 12:33, NASB).
This step of selling one’s possessions and giving to the poor is based upon the principle that one’s heart follows one’s treasure:
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34, NASB).
This course of action, which Jesus calls for, seems radical indeed. We would certainly like to find some reason for taking His words in some way that is not literal. I do not think that Jesus is commanding every disciple to sell every possession, and thus all Christians to live in dire poverty. I will explain why I have come to this conclusion in a moment, but before I do, I want to ask this question, “If Jesus did call on you to sell all of your possessions in order to be His disciple (as He did the rich young ruler), would you do it?” Do Jesus’ words make you uncomfortable? I think they are supposed to. Let us not brush these words aside too quickly.
I believe that we can gain much insight into our Lord’s command as we consider carefully the words which Jesus does and does not use. First, I want to focus your attention on the word “sell.” Why did Jesus command His disciples to sell their possessions, rather than to give them away? Several observations came to my mind as I pondered the meaning of the term “sell.”
(1) Those possessions which we sell must be something other than necessities, like “food” and “clothing.” The necessities of life which we possess can be given to the poor. Jesus does not command His disciples to give their food or their clothes to the poor. John the Baptist has dealt with this matter:
Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise” (Luke 3:11b).
Here Jesus is commanding the disciples to sell their possessions and to give the proceeds of the sale to the poor. These “possessions” can hardly include food or clothing. I am assuming that that which is given to the poor is that which is most needed: food and clothing. Thus, more “luxury” (at least not necessary) items are in view as those things which should be sold.
Isn’t it interesting that while we often worry about “necessities” such as food and clothing, we often are literally laden down with non-essentials, luxuries. In order to excuse our self-indulgence, we just add to the list of what is essential. Thus, the list of “necessities” always exceeds our income, and thus we never have money to give. Jesus solves this problem quickly, does He not? He tells those of us who are, in our minds, “barely getting by,” to sell off some of the excess baggage.
There is a real hypocrisy here, isn’t there? Our text begins by addressing the folly of worrying about necessities like food and clothing, as with those we are barely surviving. It ends with a command to sell off some of our stuff. We give the impression of being in dire straits, but we are really in “fat city.” That, my friend, is hypocrisy. And we are so good at it that we have even convinced ourselves we are in trouble, so much so that we worry about these material needs.
(2) Those things which we sell must have value to us and to others. If we are going to sell something, it must have a value to someone else, or there will be no buyer. What we sell, in other words, must be worth something to someone. Here, our Lord’s words expose what I have chosen to call the “Goodwill outlook on charity.” The “Goodwill mindset” is that we give away to the poor that which we don’t want, and that which no one else wants either. We give away to the Goodwill the things which didn’t sell at our garage sale. If we are to give as Jesus commands, we must give away more than our garbage, our castoffs.
Because the things we sell must have value to others, they will also have some value to us. Indeed, we can probably say that what we “sell” may be more painful to lose than that which we give away (“I didn’t want it anyway.”). Sometimes the pain is not just in the loss of that item, but in knowing who will have and use (or abuse) it. I can think of owning a car that I have carefully restored, and which I have lovingly cared for, being bought by a greasy, sloppy fellow, who will haul his trash in my “pride and joy” and who will never change the oil. Selling such a car (if I had one like it) would be torment.
(3) Those things which we sell are sold so that we can “buy” something better. People sell one thing to obtain another. People have garage sales in order to earn money to buy something they want more than that which they are selling. A biblical example is the merchant who found “the pearl of great price” and who gladly sold all that he had to purchase it (cf. Matthew 13:44-46). Jesus says in our text that when one sells his earthly treasure, which corrupts and won’t last, he gains, in its place, lasting treasure. In this sense, selling our possessions is hardly a sacrifice, in the long term.
(4) We sell our possessions so that our assets may be “liquid,” accessible and available. I have another mentality to bring to your attention, one that is not very commendable. It is the “cash on hand” or “offering plate” mentality. We tend to think of our obligation to give to God only in terms of the cash we have in hand. Have you ever been approached by a beggar on the street? If you are like me, you put your hand in your pocket, jingle around the loose change, and if you’re really big-hearted, you give the man all the change you have in that pocket, as though it were a real sacrifice. You would be offended if he were to ask for or expect more. Even the folding money in your wallet is seen as off bounds.
When we go to church, that all changes—or does it? When the offering plate is passed, we would hardly think (or dare) to go only to the pocket where the loose change is kept (unless it is to give some pennies to our child to give—Good training!). We go to the wallet. We go for the greenbacks, at least those with small denominations. Although there are a few “cutting edge” churches who accept credit card donations, we think that our only obligation to God in terms of material things is that which we have in cash. No wonder we all are in debt! We think that God should respond like the street-beggar, and gladly take the pittance we dole out in cash.
Jesus goes far beyond this. If we cannot give to the poor because “we don’t have it” (in cash), Jesus tells us to “go get it.” We may have to let the offering plate pass this Sunday, but when we have assets, assets that are not liquid, Jesus tells us to convert non-liquid assets into liquid ones, so that we are never hindered from giving by a “cash-flow” problem. Now this, folks, is downright threatening. This isn’t even meddling, its just plain pushy, but then that’s what discipleship is all about—finding out who is Lord and who is servant, Who (or what) controls us, and what we are in control of.
Jesus’ words here are not just revolutionary and extremely “taxing,” they reveal a most interesting and informative fact. The problem of the disciples, like us, is not our “lack of having enough to get by,” but rather our having too much for our own good.
It occurred to me as I thought about our need for daily bread that Jesus has taught His disciples what to do about this matter—they are to pray:
But why doesn’t Jesus tell His disciples to pray for their daily needs of food and clothing, rather than to worry about such things? Isn’t this the place where our Lord’s instruction on prayer for such things is most applicable and relevant?
I think the answer is simple. Painful, but simple. The reason why He doesn’t teach us to pray here is because He knows that we wont. And why won’t we pray for our daily bread? Because we don’t need to. The disciples didn’t need God’s help in this matter because they had too much, not too little. If we were really in need and only God could supply our needs, we would pray. Our lack of prayer is almost in direct proportion to our affluence, unfortunately. While it is true that “we have not because we ask not” (James 4:2), it is also a sad fact of life that we “ask not because we have.” James goes on to say that when we ask, we don’t ask for our needs, but for our indulgences, our “pleasures” (James 4:3).
Do we wish to “turn our hearts toward home”? Then let us lay up treasure in heaven. The way to lay up treasure in heaven is to keep our assets liquid, to sell those possessions which only indulge us, and to give to the poor.
It occurs to me as I am writing this that the non-liquid form which our wealth often takes is that which, in our minds, is the safest and surest investment. Thus having our wealth in non-liquid form seems to be the safe thing to do, and thus it assures us that our wealth will be around for a long time. Jesus says, once again, the opposite. If we keep liquid and give away our wealth our wealth is the most secure, it is in purses without holes, it is treasure which lasts, it is treasure in heaven.
And so Jesus has, once again, taken us from the realm of the theoretical to that of the most practical and painful areas of our lives. He has given us several explanations as to why worry about material possessions is foolish, futile, and sinful. He has promised us that God will care for us now, just as He does the birds and the lilies. He has promised His disciples the kingdom. He has told us that therefore we are to lay up treasure in heaven, doing so by selling our possessions and giving to the poor.
But how does this all work out? Is every Christian to live in dire poverty, possessing nothing? Are we to sell all? Is poverty the key to piety (Here is a heart-stopper for the “Prosperity Gospeleers”)?
I have several observations which should help us understand these words.
(1) In our text, Jesus did not command His disciples to sell all of their possessions. I believe that there is a significant difference between commanding one’s disciples to sell all they possess (this was said to the “rich young ruler,” Mark 10:21) and telling them to sell their possessions.216
(2) We need to view our text and its commands in the light of all the texts which bear on the Christian and material possessions. Some people use certain promise texts as a “name it and claim it” device. If Jesus once said that whatever any two people agree on will be given them, which He did (cf. Matthew 18:19), we need to beware of seeking to use this text independently from all other texts on prayer. So, here, we need to view Jesus’ words on material things in the light of other texts. Some texts teach us to give away things, rather than selling them (cp. Luke 3:11). This in no way minimizes or undermines Jesus’ words, as we find them in our text, but it does remind us that Jesus has said many things about material things, our attitude toward them, and our use of them. Let us seek to understand and apply this command in the light of the many things Jesus has taught (and will teach later) in Luke.
(3) Jesus has a great deal more to say about money and its use later on in Luke’s gospel. In a way, this text is merely an introduction to the subject. In chapter 16 and following texts, Jesus teaches us that we are to use money and material things wisely. Selling them and giving to the poor is a wise use of possessions because it does “lay up treasure in heaven” and thus turn our hearts toward home. But there are other ways to use money shrewdly, and thus selling our possessions may not always be the best course of action.
(4) We learn a great deal about the way our Lord’s commands about possessions in his gospel are to be understood and applied from Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts. In Acts we find that the church did take Jesus’ words seriously:
And everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need (Acts 2:43-45).
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need (Luke 4:32-35).217
The saints in Jerusalem did take Jesus’ words seriously. They did sell their possessions. But they did not sell them immediately,218 nor did they sell them entirely. Peter’s words to Ananias suggest no condemnation of him if he had kept his property (cf. Acts 5:4). But that which marked out the disciples in the early church was the fact that they renounced their claim to ownership:
… and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own (Acts 4:32).
This is not communism, at least as we know it today. Communism says that no one owns anything (or rather that the state owns it), and then the state insists on keeping it for the people. In the early church, people still retained possession of their possessions, but they did not claim the right to own or to keep them. In effect, they kept the goods until there was the need to sell them, but in their hearts they had already signed the title over to God. They had a change of heart, from seekers of possessions, to stewards of the possessions which God had placed in their care for a time.
Here, I believe, is the key to what our Lord is teaching us in Luke chapter 12. Greed seeks to gain more; while grace and generosity is eager to give it away if and when it is needed. After all, it isn’t worth worrying about. It isn’t going to last. And it will only be of eternal value as we convert it into lasting treasure by using it in a way that is obedient to God’s instructions.
When I think of our Lord’s teaching here on the way a disciple views possessions, things that he is inclined to think are his, I am reminded of His attitude toward those things which He possessed:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Have this mind in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).
I see two very important lessons here. The first is that our Lord does not ask His disciples to do anything which He has not done Himself, and more. No one will ever have given up as much as He did. No one was ever as rich as He, nor have they become as poor.
Second, we are informed by these words and the example of our Lord, to which they point, that our “possessions” include much more than “food” and “clothes,” indeed, even more than material things. Our possessions are those things which we think are ours, to which we cling, which we don’t want to surrender for the benefit of others. Our possessions include our “rights” and our “Christian liberties,” which we may need to surrender for the benefit of others (cf. 1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14). Jesus has begun with material possessions because this is a “little thing,” but it is a starting place, a beginning point.
There is a lot of talk these days about “values clarification.” This is the teaching which is taking place in our public schools, teaching on values. The problem with this approach is that there are no moral values taught as absolutes. Instead, situationalism is taught (or at least caught) in this process of “clarifying” the values of the students by asking them how they should act in a given set of circumstances—sometimes those which seem to call for or justify immoral acts, like adultery or murder. Obviously I oppose the values clarification method and message in our schools.
As I view this passage in Luke I am reminded of the vital role which values play in our lives. The actions which we take are based upon moral assessments—values. Notice how often values are referred to in our text, often in the form of comparison. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Life and the body are of greater importance/value than food and clothes. We are of greater value to God than birds or the lilies of the field. Treasures on earth are of little value, but heavenly treasures are of great value, because they last. Seeking God’s kingdom is much more important than seeking material things.
Knowing the difference between good and evil, between good and best, between temporal and eternal is the basis for discerning value, and it is our value system which determines our actions. The man who found the “pearl of great price” knew that he had discovered something of great value, and he joyfully sold all his possessions to purchase it. Satan is a master deceiver, and he is constantly at work to reverse men’s values. Let us learn that it is only God’s Word which can be trusted to define our values, and to make those critical distinctions which shape the course of our lives (cf. Hebrews 4:12-13). Let us constantly return to His Word so that our values conform to His.
Finally, let me say that value is often defined in terms of the future. Earthly treasure is of little value because it doesn’t last—it has no future. Heavenly treasure is of infinite value because it never perishes—it has no end. Therefore in the remaining verses of this chapter, our Lord addresses the disciple’s attitudes and actions pertaining to the future. Let us press on to consider these verses and the role which they play in defining our values and in helping us to loosen our grasp on material things. Let us look to these verses to help us stop worrying and to start waiting and working, as our Lord commands us.
Let me conclude with these words on the matter of materialism by J. I. Packer, as he comments on the meaning of 1 John 2:15-17, a text very relevant to our study:
What does it mean to love the world? John analyzes this love in terms of the lust (desire) that says ‘I want … ’ and the pride (vainglory) that says ‘I have … ’ He is speaking here of restless craving for what you do not have along with complacent crowing about what you do have (v. 16).… Passion to possess, and pride in possessing, what the world around us has to offer is what love of the world means.
From this we see why love of the world excludes love of the Father (v. 15). Love of the world is egocentric, acquisitive, arrogant, ambitious, and absorbing, and leaves no place for any other kind of affection. Those who love the world serve and worship themselves every moment: it is their full-time job. And from this we see that anyone whose hopes are focused on gaining material pleasure, profit, and privilege is booked for a bereavement experience, since, as John says (v. 17), the world will not last. Life’s surest certainty is that one day we will leave worldly pleasure, profit, and privilege behind. The only uncertainty is whether these things will leave us before our time comes to leave them.219
211 There is a difference of opinion as to what the meaning of the image used here means, as can be seen from these comments by Morris: “A cubit is a measure of length (the distance from the tip of the fingers to the elbow). But measures of length were occasionally applied to time (e.g. ‘handbreadths’ in Ps. 39:5). So the expression might mean ‘add a short period to his life’ or ‘add eighteen inches to his height.’ Those who favour the former meaning hold that few men worry about increasing their height by eighteen inches, but many worry about lengthening their life… Those who see a reference to height point out that this fits better with the growth of plants in the context. Plants do not worry, but they make great increases in height. The more natural use of the terms seems to favour this second view.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 214.
212 Notice the frequency in these verses of the term “not” and that what is not done (or not to be done) is more emphasized than what is to be done. Later texts (chapter 16ff.) will deal with the positive dimensions, but the negative aspect is first and foundational, as we shall soon see.
213 I find myself vacillating between the NASB and the NIV, but there are, in my opinion, some general characteristics of each. The NIV excels in its smoothness, and in the simplicity of its vocabularity. The strength of the NIV is that one can pick it up and read, in a simple and flowing account, the biblical text. All of us can use the NIV for such reading of large doses of scripture. The problem with the NIV, for the student of the Bible (which we all should be at times), is that its smoothness and ease of reading sacrifices some of the fine nuances and meanings, better and more often preserved by the NASB. Here, for example, the rather precise Greek expression (rendered “for this reason” in the NASB), focuses back on a specific reason or basis for not worrying, which, in my opinion, is the principle Jesus laid down in verse 15. The NIV’s more general “therefore” does not point to a specific basis, but to a more general one. This distinction between the two versions is typical, in my opinion, and thus several versions should be used for serious study, and the tendencies of each version should be kept in mind.
214 Please excuse this mini-study on anxiety, but I believe that it is both pertinent to our text and beneficial to us in our lives. As I was reflecting on the matter of anxiety, I determined to do a concordance study to see what it is that men worry or are anxious about. I learned some very interesting things.
First, I learned that anxiety is directly related to sin. Anxiety is, in fact, a direct consequence of sin. While the precise words are not used, I believed that when Adam and Eve sinned, they became anxious about facing God. Those intimate walks in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8), to which they had once looked forward, now were a cause of anxiety. Adam and Eve hid themselves to avoid God, if possible. But the first place I found anxiety is in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 28. In the first part of this chapter, God spells out the blessings which come upon Israel for loving and obeying God, and keeping His covenant. In effect, they need not worry about anything, for God will bless, protect, and provide for their every need. But if the Israelites disregard the law and break God’s covenant, they will, as a result, forfeit God’s protection and provision, and will thus have good cause for anxiety. Thus God says, "Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart" (Deut. 28:65).
He then said to me: “Son of man, I will cut off the supply of food in Jerusalem. The people will eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair, for food and water will be scarce. They will be appalled at the sight of each other and will waste away because of their sin (Ezekiel 4:16-17).
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, tremble as you eat your food, and shudder in fear as you drink your water. Say to the people of the land: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says about those living in Jerusalem and in the land of Israel: They will eat their food in anxiety and drink their water in despair, for their land will be stripped of everything in it because of the violence of all who live there. The inhabited towns will be laid waste and the land will be desolate. Then you will know that I am the Lord’” (Ezekiel 12:17-20).
If sin and rebellion against God produce insecurity and anxiety, repentance will lead to renewed security, and anxiety will pass away. Thus, while the prophets warn Israel of days of anxiety, due to sin, they also speak of future days of blessing and security: "And I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore, as they did at the beginning" (2 Sam. 7:10; cf. 1 Chron. 17:9). As I looked on in the Old Testament I found further evidence of the direct link between sin and anxiety: “I confess my iniquity; I am troubled by my sin” (Psalm 38:18).
Psalm 94:12-23 Blessed is the man you discipline, O Lord, the man you teach from your law; 13 you grant him relief from days of trouble, till a pit is dug for the wicked. 14 For the Lord will not reject his people; he will never forsake his inheritance. 15 Judgment will again be founded on righteousness, and all the upright in heart will follow it. 16 Who will rise up for me against the wicked? Who will take a stand for me against evildoers? 17 Unless the Lord had given me help, I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death. 18 When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your love, O Lord, supported me. 19 When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul. 20 Can a corrupt throne be allied with you—one that brings on misery by its decrees? 21 They band together against the righteous and condemn the innocent to death. 22 But the Lord has become my fortress, and my God the rock in whom I take refuge. 23 He will repay them for their sins and destroy them for their wickedness; the Lord our God will destroy them.
Psalm 139:23-24 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
In this last psalm (139), is it not interesting that David knew that where there are “anxious thoughts” there would be sin an “offensive way” in him? We say, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” David would say, “Where there is anxiety, there is sin.”
How significant our Lord’s words are in the gospels, then, words which consistently tell those who have faith in Him not to worry or be anxious. Why? Because to trust in Christ is to trust in the One who is the source of security and blessing. It is only those who reject Christ who have good cause to be anxious.
I am inclined to think that Satan promotes anxiety concerning things like food and clothing so that he can keep men’s attention off of that concerning which they should be most anxious—facing God when He comes to the earth in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Such anxiety, like guilt, is not God-given to cause men torment, but to turn men to Christ, who forgives and who removes all anxiety.
215 I do not think that the Lord is trying to press the distinction between “life” and “the body.” Essentially, I think they are virtually the same. It was (and usually still is) assumed that a person had to have both food and clothes in order to live. Food, however, does sustain life, just as clothing covers the body. This distinction between food and clothing is played out in the two illustrations of the ravens (for which God provides food) and the lilies of the field (for which God provides “clothing”).
216 I need to point out that in Mark’s account the “rich young ruler” is commanded to sell all his possessions, while in Matthew the “all” is omitted. Thus, it could be argued that the less specific command to “sell one’s possessions” may indeed be a command to sell all. I believe that the “rich young ruler” needed to sell all his possessions, for if Jesus had not put it in such tough terms he might have sold off a pittance, hoping that to be enough. Jesus did not wish to make the path of discipleship look easy for this man.
217 In both of these texts I think we find a very interesting fact. God was miraculously bearing witness to the resurrection of Christ by mighty signs and wonders. Thus, the power of God was visible and active. Nevertheless, God did not choose to miraculously provide for men’s material needs, as He had done in the past (Elijah and the widow), but He worked through those who sacrificially gave of their own goods. Herein was a great and mighty wonder, a sign to unbelievers: God had so worked in the lives of these people that they held loosely to material things and they responded generously and sacrificially to the needs of others. When our possessions cease to possess us, that is a miracle.