Scripture: Luke 12:32-40
“Be afraid, be very afraid.” This was first uttered by a scientist transforming into a monstrous insect in the 1986 movie The Fly, but this sentiment seems eerily similar to much of what we hear coming from our televisions today. This year our political parties and candidates are peddling this same fear, a chorus from both sides echoes, “Be afraid, be very afraid,” whether that fear is aimed at falsehoods surrounding immigration, the economy, or merely the machinations of the opposing political party.
Jesus’s message in our passage today begins with the opposite. He urges his followers, “Do not be afraid.” Apparently, Jesus’s political advisors haven’t made him aware of the powerful motivational quality of fear. This charge to put aside fear comes right after Jesus’s lengthy rebuke to his followers not to worry about food or clothing. Jesus urges his followers to instead, “strive for the kingdom.” Our gut response to this admonition is probably very similar to the response of the disciples: But there is so much to be afraid of! It seems as if nearly every day we hear of another mass shooting taking the lives of unsuspecting men, women, and children. Tragedies such as fatal car accidents, being laid off a job, a cancer diagnosis, and many more threaten to spin our lives into chaos and pain. And at the center of our worries are often our finances. After all, it is money that allows us to take care of the basic needs of our families and ourselves. Money buys the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and pays the rent or mortgage of the home that provides us with shelter. As we heard last week in the parable of the rich fool, Jesus reorients our striving and our worries away from the possessions that entangle us. He reorients us toward striving for the kingdom, and immediately assures us of the availability of that kingdom. The disciples are not to fear because “it is [their] Father’s good pleasure to give [them] the kingdom.”
Growing up in a small rural church, I remember my favorite Sunday every year. It wasn’t Easter or Christmas, but Homecoming Sunday. I didn’t love this day because of reconnection with prior church members making their annual pilgrimage back or because of the one Sunday only return-engagement Pastor, and I sure didn’t love it because I had to put on my most uncomfortable dress and let my mother fuss over my hair for 30 minutes in an ultimately failed attempt to get it to curl. I loved it for the veritable feast of all manner of delicacies immediately following service. The tables practically bent with the weight of deviled eggs, fried chicken, and every casserole known to humankind. My cohorts and I would plan our escape route during Sunday School, and as soon as the preacher said “Amen,” we would rush out the side doors, down the stairs, and straight to the front of the line, loading our plates up with the premium first fruits, straight through the main course to the dessert table where our highest priority lay: Brenda’s brownies. Now, you’ve never had the chance to experience one of these treats, but as best I can describe them: they are two parts chocolate and one part fairy dust, or so I’ve heard. They went fast, and there were never extras. If you waited too long, there would not be enough. We rushed because we were afraid that we would miss out, that there wouldn’t be enough brownies for us. We didn’t care about Jesus’s teaching about the last being first, the last in that line sure wasn’t getting Brenda’s brownies.
The mindset of my young friends and me is not just the mindset of a few children, but is the pervasive mindset in our world today. We operate out of a fear of not-enoughness. Pushing and scratching our way to whatever our current day brownies may be: the next step on the career ladder, a higher paycheck, a larger house, power and prestige in the community, or perhaps just more brownies. Surely, if we aren’t at least moderately selfish, we will not have enough. This fear of not having enough and subsequent greed keeps us from entering into abundant life. It keeps us selfish and isolated from God and our communities. However, in this passage, Jesus assures us that, unlike Brenda’s brownies, which surely will run out, the kingdom is already God’s gift freely given to us in abundance. Unlike money and possessions which we must strive for and earn, this kingdom is a gift of God. We shouldn’t be afraid because, while we may experience pain and suffering and financial insecurity, the best thing, the kingdom, God desires to give us. If acquiring this kingdom is our ultimate goal rather than amassing wealth and our security on this earth, we shouldn’t be afraid. This doesn’t erase the difficulties of this earthly life but is an acknowledgement that this life isn’t merely what it appears to be on the surface. The phrase here translated “good pleasure” has also been translated by some as “delightful decision.” It’s not just that God will take pleasure in giving the kingdom, it’s that God has already decided to give us the kingdom, and that is indeed a delightful thing. But what is this kingdom? Is God promising us a castle, complete with a moat and serfs to rule over? Most assuredly not. The kingdom that Jesus speaks of is the kingdom of God, and entering into this kingdom is precisely abundant life. Theologian Richard Carlson states, “Kingdom does not simply mean eternal life in the sweet by-and-by. Here ‘kingdom’ refers to God’s active reign over heaven, which Jesus is now inaugurating on earth through his ministry. It involves God’s lordship over human hearts, minds, values, and actions. God has delightedly decided to include us in this royal rule so that our identity and activity are totally transformed.” The kingdom of God is eternal, perfectly good and just and beautiful, and incredibly, available to us here on earth. We are able to live a life with the quality of eternity, a life of abundance. Abundant life is not something which we have to hoard for ourselves, like Brenda’s brownies at homecoming. There is more than enough, but being able to partake in God’s banquet also requires something of us.
Jesus instructs his disciples, “Sell your possessions, and give alms.” In a crazy twist of logic, abundant life is not received by taking or grasping but by giving. In this way, we are able to overcome our fear and partake in God’s kingdom. The constant fear of not having enough possessions is not assuaged when we acquire them, it is only continued as our fear shifts to the protection of those possessions. How much time do we spend worrying about losing the possessions we own? We live in a constant state of paranoia that our homes or our cars will be broken into and our possessions will disappear. We pay more money to put up security systems to protect our treasures, and we install apps on our phones so that we can keep an eye on those treasures from afar while we are on vacation. Laying on the sand with our phones in our hand watching an empty house full of stuff. This is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus, to truly living abundant lives. Our fears and our hearts are misplaced. Jesus doesn’t say protect your possessions or buy new possessions but sell your possessions. Without following Jesus’s second and third imperatives to sell and give, we cannot follow his first imperative: “Do not be afraid.” Our grasping and constant taking keeps us from striving for the kingdom, it keeps us operating out of fear. When we sell and give, we resist the mentality of scarcity. We don’t wait for the fear to leave before we take action to change our desires, it is the very act of selling and giving that causes our fear to cease.
While we may not like to take this command to sell our possessions very seriously, there are many in the course of Christianity who have. Anthony the Great, often considered the father of monasticism, heard this passage as a young wealthy landowner. He then sold and gave away his land and possessions, donating the proceeds to the poor, before entering into a life of asceticism in the desert. Anthony’s dramatic biography inspired numerous people including not only the generations of monks and monastic orders that followed him but other figures incredibly important in the history of Christianity such as St. Augustine. Although living the life of a hermit, he was also sought out by younger monks following in his footsteps for advice and teaching. One account of his interaction with a fellow monk is as follows:
“A brother was leaving the world, and though he gave his goods to the poor he kept some for his own use. He went to Antony, and when Antony knew what he had done, he said, ‘If you want to be a monk, go to the village over there, buy some meat, hang it on your naked body and come back here.’ The brother went, and dogs and birds tore at his body. He came back to Antony, who asked him if he had done what he was told. He showed him his torn body. Then Antony said, ‘Those who renounce the world but want to keep their money are attacked in that way and torn to pieces.’”
This story sounds wild and completely ridiculous to me. I want to tell Anthony, “Calm down, it’s not that big of a deal.” But Anthony seems to know far too well the danger of making our earthly possessions our treasure. While we may not be called to pull a St. Anthony and sell all our electronics and move alone to a cave in the middle of nowhere, the reordering of our lives that Jesus calls us to here is just as radical. It was a radical and jarring statement then just as it continues to be a challenging and seemingly nearly impossible one for us now. We would rather move straight past this verse or spiritualize it to mean something other than simply “sell your possessions and give alms.” Shane Claiborne comments on our desire to skip this over or explain it away, “We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the Kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy, too. But I guess that's why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.” Shane speaks of the rich young ruler’s conversation with Jesus, but in our passage Jesus is addressing a much larger crowd. We can’t dismiss this verse. The first step outlined by Jesus here is to start reordering our lives with what we already own. We have too much while others have far too little.
Not only does Jesus instruct us to release our overabundance of possessions and redistribute wealth in line with God’s kingdom, but Jesus also instructs his followers to invest in purses that won’t wear out rather than filling our earthly purses. He tells us to build up an unfailing treasure in heaven that cannot be adversely affected by moths or thieves. We must be careful not to make this passage merely about our own gain or benefit. Jesus isn’t simply sharing a better business strategy. These heavenly purses are not Jesus’ version of an even longer-term 401k. Rather, we make these purses that do not wear out when we rightly reorder our treasure, when we invest in the kingdom of God rather than in our own personal earthly wealth. Our treasure is that on which we place a great deal of value. Treasure to a toddler may look like an interestingly shaped rock or a shiny piece of what we may dismiss as trash. Our treasure, what we value and invest in should be the values of the kingdom. We make these heavenly purses when we live truly abundant lives, working to make the words of the Lord’s prayer a reality, “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” When we live like this, all that we do counts forever as our treasure is preserved in our life within God’s eternal life. This isn’t our own personal treasure in the afterlife, mirroring the broken and corrupt systems of the world. This treasure isn’t diamonds and rubies and gold bars. This treasure is so much more than that. These heavenly purses can take many forms. They could look like our next-door neighbors, hungry children, grieving widows or widowers, our ravaged earth, animals experiencing daily neglect and abuse, the homeless, the sick, or the incarcerated. These are the purses we should be investing in. This is where we should lay our treasure. Moths will eat up a cashmere sweater, but they can do nothing to destroy the food we share with our brothers and sisters. Thieves may come in the night, but they can’t steal our visits with a brother or sister in prison. Love, kindness, peace, mercy, and reconciliation: these are all imperishable and eternal.
It is at this point that Jesus answers the big why question. Why is it so important to invest in heavenly purses? Why is all this necessary to receive abundant life, to inherit the kingdom? Jesus’ answer is, “For where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” This word for heart carries more meaning than simply the organ that pumps blood through our bodies or some vague acknowledgement of a symbol of love. The heart here is the center of all physical and spiritual life. All that we are flows from this point. Where we invest, there we will find our hearts, the center of our being. Are our hearts oriented with the heart of God or are our hearts with our possessions which inspire greed, fear, and selfishness? Does the very prospect of God asking us to sell our expensive plasma television, iMac, or luxury sedan and instead give alms bring us a deep dread and discomfort? Are we grasping or are we giving? If you are like me and Jesus asking you to sell your possessions makes you want to run away or quickly turn to the next page, Jesus has one response: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Just in case these words weren’t enough to propel his followers to act, he stresses the urgency of reordering our lives in the two parables which end our passage. It’s as if Jesus knows that we need an extra nudge. Jesus doesn’t want us to hear his commands to sell and give with initial good intentions that are soon forgotten and placed aside as we let other priorities and ideas capture our minds. These parables on readiness are admittedly weird. In the second parable, Jesus urges his followers to be alert as a homeowner would who doesn’t know the hour a thief will come. If we have indeed been placing our treasure in heavenly purses, this thief cannot take anything of great value to us. The thief may come but we will be ready because we have ordered our lives with the kingdom of God. Our treasure is elsewhere. In the first parable, God takes the role of a master returning from a wedding banquet, and Jesus’ followers take the role of the slaves. These wedding feasts often lasted for days, so while the coming of the master was certain, the exact time could vary greatly, and the slaves had to stay in a state of constant readiness for what could be days. This parable ends with the slaves who have stayed alert and prepared receiving the master who returns. When the master finds the slaves ready, he unexpectedly starts serving the slaves. This is completely absurd. Imagine the President at a fancy state dinner instead offer the servers a position at the table and proceed to serve them a great feast throughout the evening. Incredibly, it is indeed the masters good pleasure to bless the slaves with this great banquet, but in order to partake, the slaves had to be ready.
How can we live an eternal, abundant, kingdom life now? We must be ready to receive this life with the quality of eternity: ready like the good Samaritan when we pass the bruised and broken on the side of the road, ready like Mary when Jesus calls us to sit at his feet while busyness and chaos swirl around us, ready to boldly ask, seek, and knock for the gift of the Holy Spirit, ready to put aside our greed and abundance of possessions rather than following in the footsteps of the rich fool, ready to put aside our fear and selfishness and invest our lives in true heavenly purses that won’t wear out. It is God’s good pleasure to give us abundant life, but we must be ready to receive it by following and obeying God and allowing the Spirit to transform our hearts. To those who strive for this abundant life, Jesus’s response is, “Do not be afraid,” but it is also, “You must be ready.” We can’t receive this gift in the way we store up earthly wealth. In the upside down kingdom of God, to receive, we must give. To receive the kingdom, our hearts must be with the kingdom as we place our treasures with the things of God and make purses that do not wear out. For truly, where our treasure is, there our hearts will be.