Guard Against All Covetousness
I remember when I was about 9 years old there was a family gathering. My uncle had just found out where he was going to be serving, pending the completion of his Seminary studies, and many different extended family members had come to show support. There was probably about 9 children and 10 adults, so pizza seemed the best thing to order for everyone. At the time my favorite pizza was mushroom pizza, and to be honest there were two reasons for it. For one, I did, and still do, genuinely enjoy mushrooms on pizza. But the other reason why I always ordered that is because very few other people enjoyed just mushrooms on pizza, and so I usually got to eat a majority of that pizza. Well the pizza arrives and as I grab two slices, I look up and see the eldest person who was there smiling down at me. I don’t know what compelled me to speak at that moment, but with a smile on my face and a combination of pride and admittedly a selfish sense of ownership I exclaimed “this is my pizza.” My elder just continued to smile, seemingly unfazed by my comment. But shortly after my dad, who had observed the entire encounter, shared with me a bit of wisdom. He says do you see that man, pointing to my elder, he paid for all the pizza. So if the pizza is anyone’s pizza, it is his pizza, and he was kind enough to share it with you. Uh, I felt like I was hit in the stomach. How foolish I was thinking that it was my pizza just because I had asked for it and because I thought I was the only one who wanted it. Amusingly enough, my elder also ate some of my pizza that night, I guess he also enjoyed mushrooms.
I bring up this story because we, that is all people, have a difficulty with the concept of ownership. In the gospel lesson for today, Someone in the crowd says to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” At first glance this could seem like a reasonable request, after all, Jesus is a person of authority and one who claimed that he has come to proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the oppressed. It seems like one brother withholding inheritance could easily cause the other brother to be poor and oppressed, so why would Jesus not help the man out? But Jesus responded “who has made me a judge or arbitrator over you? And then he says to the crowd, “take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Now to be honest, that second statement confused me growing up. This is because after Jesus basically says, don’t bother me with this problem, it seems like Jesus is then saying be on guard from being the brother who won’t give what belongs to the other brother. As in if brother A received the inheritance first and rather than giving brother B his appropriate share, he covets brother B’s stuff and keeps it. So then it seemed odd that Jesus is like no, I won’t help, but while we are on the subject, you should not be like brother A. It was puzzling, especially in light of the parable that Jesus tells next. Jesus continues: “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ And Jesus concludes, so is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
What did this story have to do with coveting. After all, I understood what coveting was, it was wanting something that belonged to someone else. I was taught that Luther explained the 9th and 10th commandments as saying that we should not “scheme to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, or get it in a way that only appears right, but help and be of service to him in keeping it,” as well as “we should not entice or force away our neighbor’s wife, workers, or animals or turn them against him, but urge them to stay and do their duty.” So even in Luther’s explanations it seems as though under the heading of actions that would be considered coveting, the scenario is that there is a possession or a relationship which my human neighbor has and I desire it for myself. So I act in a way that could cause what previously belonged to my neighbor to now belong to me. That seems to be the definition of coveting. So I am left still baffled at what this parable has to do with coveting. Perhaps that is because my understanding of ownership is all wrong. Perhaps it is because I look at the wages that I earn performing the work that I do as belonging to me, and that subsequently anything that I purchase with said wages also belong to me.
However, this story from Luke helps us to recognize that it is possible to covet your own things. This is because the things that you call your own, your money, your house, your television, your couch, the clothes you are wearing, everything, doesn’t actually belong to you. As Paul says in his 1st letter to the Corinthians, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” You are but a steward of everything you think you have claim to, with the true owner being God. If God chooses to bless you with abundance, what purpose do you think that God has in doing so? Jesus tells of a man who builds bigger barns and intends to take life easy, and this is abhorrent to God. Why? Is God opposed to having large bank accounts and even larger retirement accounts, that we might someday take life easy? Not entirely, but a problem always arises when we fail to recognize how and why God has chosen to bless us.
In our sinfulness, we are likely to covet the things that belong to God which he has blessed us with, we are also likely to look at the gifts of money, of strength, of knowledge, and the like and put them solely toward our further gain. But if God has blessed you with abundance, then it is done for the purpose of using the abundance to bless others. That is why the man in the parable was a fool. He failed to recognize that God was the owner of the plentiful land, and what he ought to have done to be rich toward God was to give away a significant portion. If he had done this, he would have kept the proper understanding of fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things. So too the initial man who demanded that Jesus force his brother to give him what was due was more interested in stuff, that ultimately belonged to God, than in his own relationship with his brother and his God.
This can be an easy trap for any of us to fall into. We get so angry when we think someone is trying to cheat us out of some small amount of money. We are hesitant to help someone in need because we don’t think that what they will use the money for is what they are claiming, and then after refusing to help go on our way with pride that we had not been duped. We are hesitant to give what we ought to as a tithe or offering because we bought more house than we actually need, and a big television to watch Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and all 300+ channels of cable and a fancy car with all the bells and whistles. It’s my money, I have a right to do with it what I want…all the while, forgetting our place, that we are not the owner, but instead are stewards, and we have been coveting what belongs to God.
But things don’t have to be that way. You can turn from thinking that all that you have is yours. Repent of the thought that your stuff, your reason, your energy belongs to you. Instead, with the help of God, you can have a right perspective and say to Him, Lord you have given me this day this much money, guide me to be a good steward of it, and help me to bless others with the blessings you have given me. You can say, Lord, you have given me this much energy, guide me to be a good steward of it, and help me to bless others with the blessings you have given me. You can say Lord, you have given me this day this much reason and understanding, guide me to be a good steward of it, and help me to bless others with the blessings you have given me. This is how you can be rich toward God.
So it is not that the man whom God has blessed with an abundance of blessings is inherently evil. But rather, it is the man who, after being gifted, makes the gifts the god, to be served, sought after and worshiped, who is the fool. Not so with you, you instead trust that your blessings come from God, who invites you to share in the work of the kingdom, by blessing others with what you have been given. It is by recognizing who is the true owner of your things and putting your trust in Him that you guard against all covetousness.