The Sin Beneath Our Sins
Topic: Grace Pulpit Passage: Luke 12:13-15
The Sin Beneath Our Sins
September 13, 2020
Turn in your Bibles to Luke Chapter 12, and we will continue to learn from our Lord’s teaching. Today, we are going to get a brief glimpse into what we are calling, “Jesus’ Community Counseling Ministry,” as a man comes to Jesus to ask for help with a particular problem. You may remember that while Jesus had been teaching publicly, he was directing his instruction to his disciples. Even though there are thousands pressing in, trampling on one another—Luke 12:1—he’s really teaching his disciples. He is turning his attention to them. He’s encouraging them to fear God and not men. He’s encouraging them to turn away from the hypocrisy of the religious leaders and all that their hypocrisy was masking in the heart. He’s warning them about their influence and all the rest.
So, they are to fear God and not man, and at some pause in his instruction to his disciples, there is a man from the crowd that takes advantage of that pause, steps in and interjects to solicit Jesus’ intervention in a family matter. We’ll start reading in verse 13.
*Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable saying, “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?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” *
All of that instruction coming out of one question. It’s a community counseling issue. A man from the public comes up with a matter that is troubling his heart. This interruption in the middle of Jesus’ teaching becomes an occasion for Jesus to return to an earlier theme. He had been telling his disciples back in verse 7, “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” He is trying to assure their hearts, and in the context there, he’s assuring them they have no need for fear for reprisals from the public or from the courts, which is verses 8 through 12. As he is telling them not to worry or fear—“Fear God, fear no one else”—there is even more on his mind than that. He’s not just thinking about physical danger. He is thinking about their hearts and what is anchoring their hearts, what is troubling their hearts. He seeks to free them from all anxiety and worry.
If we look at verse 22, we can see that he intends to put our minds at ease about everything that might make us anxious—not just going to before the courts or having to testify against a violent public. He intends to put our minds at ease about all kinds of things, including the normal mundane matters of living our daily lives. He says in verse 22, “Do not be anxious about your life,” not even the food that you eat, or your body, about what you are going to wear.” Do not worry about the normal matters of life—the extreme situations of being dragged before courts—yes, but also everything in between, should it ever come to that. Don’t worry about even normal, mundane issues.
Jesus intended to teach that to his disciples all along. This man’s interruption into the flow of his instruction provides Jesus with a providential opportunity to make a point by way of contrast. That is a very good way to teach all the time. Parents, you need to think about this with your kids. We think about that all the time, not just by way of positive instruction, but also by negative instruction as well. It’s very helpful when we look around the world around us providing so many negative examples to say, “Look at that and see—that is the opposite of what I have been telling you here.” We do the same thing all the time. So Jesus is doing it here. And subtly, the contrast is, once again, between the fruit the truth produces and the leaven of the Pharisees—verse 1—which is hypocrisy.
There is fruit coming out of the truth he teaches, and there is the leaven's influence, and the deadly instruction of hypocrisy. At the end of Luke 11 and into the first 12 verses of this twelfth chapter, as you know, Jesus has been exposing the religious hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the scribes, who are the popular and academic leaders of the Jewish people. The Pharisees enjoyed the popular sway over the people. The scribes were there to back them up with academic, scholarly weight. They had their back. And for all their external piety, Jesus exposed the religion of the Pharisees and the scribes as nothing more than a show, a charade, a religious masquerade. All of them were wearing masks to present themselves as someone other than who they really were. A mask, as you know, is intended to hide something. So what are these guys hiding?
Back in Luke 11 verse 39, Jesus is condemning the Pharisees and indicting them. He said, “You Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” That’s what their hypocrisy is meant to cover over—a heart of greed and wickedness. They had greedy, covetous hearts, and that covetousness, that greed is the fountain of all kinds of wickedness and sin. That is why Jesus warned his disciples in Luke 12:1, “Beware [of that influence] of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” The influence of their hypocrisy had spread far and wide all through the culture so that many of these people were wearing the same mask of religious hypocrisy. That means if you remove the mask, what is underneath it is the same sins of covetousness and greed and wickedness. All of that hidden. All of that unaddressed. They thought themselves fine because they attended synagogue. They thought themselves fine because they kept up with the rituals. They thought themselves fine because they kept up the ceremonies and traditions and followed all of that. Rip that all away and what was underneath was covetousness and greed and all manner of wickedness. All of that was left unaddressed by the religion they lived in.
As if on cue, as an exhibit coming through, entering into Jesus’ instruction came this warning about the influence of the leaven of hypocrisy. A man from the crowd steps forward in verse 13, and he’s got this counseling issue. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” He’s coming forward—and I think there are a thousand pastors who have heard this same kind of counseling issue—he’s coming forward with what seems to be a rather common family conflict—one that involves finances. He is coming to Jesus with what appears to be some matter of injustice, maybe, or he feels he has been wronged and he wants Jesus to intervene for him. He wants Jesus to step in and help him to right this wrong—to do something about this. We’ve already read the passage and know that there is more to this man’s question than meets the eye.
As Jesus says in verse 15, this man’s issue is not about the just distribution of an inheritance, is it? This man’s issue is not about just some family squabble or a disagreement on how to use this inheritance money. The man’s issue is actually far deeper, much graver than he knows. This man’s issue is that he is enslaved to a heart of covetousness. The danger for him is not the potential of missing out on some money. The danger for him is not that he won’t have money for his investments, that he can’t build wealth or provide for his family. That is not the danger. The danger with him is that one day—verse 20—his soul will be required of him, and on that day, it will be revealed that he is not rich toward God. That is the real danger, isn’t it?
I wonder if someone came to you with this kind of complaint that this man has brought to Jesus—do you think you would diagnose the situation as Jesus did? Do you think you would see through it? Because here is what Jesus has in mind at this very moment—it won’t be written until later by his half-brother James, but it is neatly summarized for us in James 4:1 and 2. James writes this:
*What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. *
Listen, the sin of covetousness is so subtle, so dangerous because it is hidden beneath the surface. It’s deep within the recesses of the heart. It’s intermixed with even good and righteous motivations. In fact, often times, it uses the language of righteousness and justice, and it puts forth its own, insinuates its own agenda. Along with unbelief, a coveting heart is the single most influential sin in an unbelieving heart. Covetousness is the engine behind all unbelief, even for believers who have a regenerated new life from God, even for believers who are born again by the Spirit—they have a new nature, a new heart from God, one that is created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness—Ephesians 4:24—even for believers. We, too, are swayed by the haunting insinuation and the whisperings of covetousness resident within the flesh. You know what I’m talking about.
Coveting is one of the most common, yet least detected sins we commit because it lies at the root and because it produces such obvious sins at the fruit, at the surface. Covetousness so easily hides from scrutiny. It is so easily missed as a causal force for evil and for all kinds of wickedness. And that is deadly because the sin of covetousness is so pervasive, so insidious, so deceptive that it is truly at work in every single sin that we commit.
Admittedly, it may be hard to see all of that in what this man brings to Jesus just in his words taken at face value, but that is what we’re going to discover as we work our way through these verses—verses 13 through 15. We will get to the parable next time. But right now we want to look at verses 13 through 15. Follow Jesus’ logic here as he identifies and then rebukes and then confronts the sin of covetousness in this man’s speech, in his heart. So, two aims in this sermon—two points, two concerns that I have, as Jesus does in this text. One point or one aim or one concern is for Christians, and the other is for non-Christians—both of whom are represented in this room I am sure. For Christians, I want you to learn to identify this deceptive sin of covetousness that influences your desires. I want you to identify this so you can begin to notice it everywhere, so you can start to see it and detect it, and so you can commit yourself to making war against it. If you will do that—if you will kill covetousness at the root, do you know what happens? You will kill a thousand other sins besides. Get it at the root and you’ll choke out all the fruit as well, right? So you can think of today’s sermon like a big large group counseling session, right? It’s from the pulpit. You all are in the office. Pretend I’m wearing a sweater. I’m a counselor, very friendly. You’re lying on the couch, you’re comfortable. But that’s all a set-up because I’m about to dig right into your heart, just expose it and filet it right open.
For non-Christians, my prayer for you is that God will open your eyes to the sin of covetousness that drives you, that drives your decision-making, that drives your agenda, that drives your ambitions. I want you to see covetousness for what it really is. I want the masks to be ripped off so you can see what is driving you, what is taking you to something that you want and long for, but when you get there, you find it does not satisfy at all and so you find another goal. You set another ambition. I want you to see this for yourself in your life. And I hope that you can find freedom from the enslavement to this sinful and destructive passion. Paul says in Romans 7:5 that for those who are living as non-Christians—what he calls “living in the flesh,” he says, “[Your] sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work” in your heart, in your affections, in what you love and what you hate. They were at work in your will—what you set your heart and mind to do, “to bear fruit for death.” So, my friends, this is serious for you if you’re not in Christ because you don’t know any freedom from this. This is all that animates you—covetousness and greed, unfulfilled longing, insatiable desires. So our hope and prayer for you is that God will awaken you to new life, that you will escape death by faith in Jesus Christ and that you’ll be able to mortify—along with the rest of us—every instance of covetousness.
I’m going to give you three points in the sermon today. There will be one point per verse—13, 14, 15. Here’s the first one for verse 13: Covetousness is Persuasive, But Jesus Identifies it. Covetousness is persuasive, but Jesus sees it, identifies, exposes it. This man comes trying to persuade Jesus to do what he wants—that’s clear here. That is what is revealed in verse 13. What we also see, along with his desire to persuade Jesus, is a profound spiritual insensitivity. The covetousness of his heart has caused him to be blind to truth, to be deaf to what Jesus has been saying. This man has completely missed the point. Look at verse 13. “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’” Here’s the situation: This man is the younger brother in a dispute with his older brother. The parents have died—the father has died and left an inheritance, and so he wants to get his share in the father’s inheritance that has not yet been distributed to him.
According to the law of Moses in Deuteronomy 21:17, it says the older brother has the right of the firstborn. He gets the double portion of the inheritance. In this case, assuming there are just two brothers, which seems to be the case, two-thirds of the inheritance is going to go to the older brother and one third to the younger brother. So the dispute here doesn’t seem to be about the amount of the inheritance, but about the timing of the distribution. He’s not niggling about the amount or what he wants to get; he’s is concerned about the timing, about when he gets it. It hasn’t happened yet, and he wants it to happen now. The older brother is presented here in the man’s words as either reluctant, maybe even refusing at this point to disperse his younger brother’s portion of the inheritance. That could be. As I. Howard Marshall says, it’s possible, maybe even desirable for the heirs of a property to live together and so keep it intact. So it could be that the older brother is reasoning, “Let’s keep all the inheritance together—both the two-thirds and the one-third. We’ll keep it together, keep this capital, invest it in the business, allow the business to prosper, thrive, grow, and then we’ll distribute the funds later.” That may have been his reasoning.
If we see it in the best possible light like that, the older brother just wants to keep the inheritance undivided for the time being because the leverage of this collective of this capital. This financial strength increases the wealth of their estate. Perhaps that is what he is thinking. But in the worst possible light—let’s just assume the worst. Maybe his older brother is simply being stingy and unreasonable. Maybe he intends to cheat his younger brother. Maybe all the stuff about invested capital and keeping it in the family business is all just a ploy. Maybe he is hoping his brother will die in the meantime and he can get the whole thing for himself. Maybe he is just putting his own interests first. Whatever it is, we are not told. We are not told whether this is a just or an unjust situation. We don’t know if this younger brother’s claim is righteous or unrighteous, just or unjust, if he has the weight of law behind him or not. We do know for sure that he wants his share of the inheritance—and he wants it right now. In any event, whatever we don’t know, whatever is left behind the pages here, the younger brother is tired of waiting. He is tired of waiting for what is rightly coming to him. He wants it, and he wants it now, so he goes to see Jesus.
Why involve Jesus in something like this? Legal disputes like this were commonly settled by appealing to rabbis. Rabbis used their training and skill in interpreting law to adjudicate then arbitrate in cases just like this. That was a very common thing. In fact, you can find precedence in the law itself in Numbers 27. There is the matter of the daughters of Zelophehad and their own right to an inheritance. So at first glance, it may seem this man comes to Jesus with a legitimate legal request. He’s acting according to custom by coming to a rabbi. He’s acting according to what’s lawful. He simply wants Jesus to help him get something that is coming to him, to tell his brother to divide the inheritance. “Enough already! Let’s get a rabbi.” If we stop and observe this a little more closely, though, we can see subtle signs of covetousness that are driving this man’s heart, and it’s in the way he addresses Jesus here.
Covetousness has dulled his spiritual sensitivity big time. There are several signs of that. First, he has no ears to hear Jesus’ teaching. In light of the immediate context here and where he shows up, this shows a significant degree of spiritual insensitivity for him to ask this question at this moment and for him to interrupt Jesus’ teaching at this juncture and bring his counseling issue to Jesus—this particular one. What has Jesus been doing? He has been assuring his disciples of Trinitarian realities, of Trinitarian protection—the role of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in keeping his disciples safe from this widespread danger of religious hypocrisy. So you would expect somebody listening to tune in and not be thinking about money. Maybe somebody listening would be asking Jesus about the nature of the danger they’re about to face, or perhaps get more clarity about the form this danger is going to take— the timing, what to watch out for—maybe to ask him how one would know he has the protection of the Trinity—that the protection that exists exists for him personally. “How, Lord Jesus, might I be saved? How can I come underneath your protection?”
Instead, the man bursts out, right? It’s like he appears flustered here, frustrated, like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, enough about the Trinity. Enough about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Okay, I got that. I want my money.” What? I mean are you hearing the same things we’re hearing? He’s just waiting for Jesus to stop long enough for him to burst in with his own concern: “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” So without ears to hear, he’s totally missed it.
Second, notice how socially insensitive he is. He has completely ignored all true propriety in addressing Jesus. He called him, “Teacher.” That’s a term of respect, a title of respect. It’s equivalent to “Rabbi.” “He being the Rabbi, me being the student.” Then he proceeds to command his teacher, “Tell my brother,” using the aorist imperative, demanding immediate action for Jesus. Man, for someone who leads out with a title of respect like that—“Teacher, Rabbi”—he sure is pushy. He sure is presumptuous and demanding. If he really respected Jesus, wouldn’t a humble request be more suitable? Maybe in a private moment, maybe wait until the teaching is over and get to him later? He could say, “Hey, I’ve got this issue. I want to ask you for some counsel about it.” But commanding Jesus?
He is socially insensitive. He doesn’t recognize who Jesus is or who he himself is in light of who Jesus is, which brings us to a third thing—he’s theologically insensitive. I mean, Jesus’ authority—it’s always there. It’s always at the forefront of everybody’s thinking. Jesus is an authority. It’s inherent in the holiness of his demeanor—just the presence of who he is. His disposition, his attitude, his very aura around him is holiness. That’s authoritative. It’s evident in his teaching. It’s not like the scribes and the Pharisees. It comes with power and conviction, as God himself is saying what he is saying because he is God. It’s proven in his miracles. His authority is proven in his miracles as he works power over demons to cast them away, as he has power over disease. He has spiritual authority, physical authority, immaterial and material authority over those realms—power over even death itself. That is what drew this massive throng of thousands that are trampling on one another to get close and come and hear him—because they know something is unique about this guy. Something is powerful. Something is authoritative about him.
But this man has come seeing an advantage in Jesus’ authority. He intends to come and leverage Jesus’ authority for his own personal use. He wants to take Jesus’ authority—this is audacity, isn’t it? He’s totally insensitive, totally spiritually dead. He intends to take Jesus’ authority and leverage it to use it get what he wants. There are a number of problems with that, obviously, but chiefly, it’s this: He failed to stop and think about the source of Jesus’ authority. Where does Jesus’ authority come from, anyway? What is the meaning of his authority? What is the significance of it? Why does he think he’s to try to persuade Jesus this way? Because he has no fear of God whatsoever. Covetousness has made him theologically insensitive.
Fourthly, he is relationally insensitive in the demand itself, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance.” It shows he has no interest in really reconciling with his brother. I mean, he has more love of money than for family. He likes stuff over his family. No sensitivity to brotherly unity, to family harmony—he just wants what he wants and he wants it now. The subtlety of this covetousness is exposed even in the language he uses here, isn’t it? It is spiritual insensitivity that even draws this man to Jesus to make Jesus do what he wants. He’s bold enough here to try to persuade Jesus to see that he needs to use his authority for this man’s personal issue, which brings us to a second point.
Number two: Covetousness is Manipulative. This is the height of manipulation here. His covetousness is manipulative, and so Jesus rebukes it. In verse 13 the man said to Jesus, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” And then in verse 14, here is Jesus’ rebuke, “But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?’” Can you imagine coming to your pastor to get some counseling on just a private matter, a financial issue or family issue? In your mind your cause is just. There is really nothing complicated about the facts of the case. You’ve cleared up the facts. You can tell your pastor what it is. You have your right to the share of the inheritance. Your brother is not dispersing your share to you. Case closed. All that remains is to get your pastor to go with you to talk to your brother and get him to do what’s right. It’s really that simple. Just bring your pastor and say, “You tell him. Remember what I was telling you—you tell him.”
To your shock and dismay, your pastor answers in the most rude and abrupt manner. He says, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” Do you think you would be offended at that? Without this sermon, I guarantee you would have. Most pastors will tell you that this scenario is far more common than you might imagine. Maybe not this exact situation, but situations just like it, to the tens, to the hundreds and depending on how long a man’s been in ministry, it might even be thousands of demands just like this. People come in with dove-like innocence, wanting only answers that are pleasing to God, about seeing that justice is done. “I just have righteous concerns. I’m just concerned about my brother. He’s just holding onto everything. It’s killing him, you know, all that money.” And hidden just beneath the surface of this simple little request: “Can you come and talk to me with so-and-so and do it for me?” Lurking beneath the surface of this gentle persuasion can be this heart of covetousness, which is manipulative and greedy.
You can draw four pieces of evidence here from Jesus’ response to the man that help us to discern his heart of covetousness and to see this issue more clearly. And hopefully, in seeing these four issues in this man’s heart, which is safe because we can point to this guy here—then we can do what’s a little riskier and start talking about our own hearts, right? Let’s start with this guy. Everyone wants to talk about the other guy, right? So here is this guy. First, see that the man addressed Jesus as “Teacher,” showing him respect, deference. “Oh, you’re a rabbi.” Jesus doesn’t respond with the same respect. He addresses him simply as, “Man.” At the very least, this shows Jesus is remaining aloof. He’s keeping a distance, a relational distance from this man. He’s not about to attach himself to this guy’s cause. But more likely, Jesus is intending to sting this guy with a tone of disapproval. That is what he is doing.
You can contrast that with how Jesus addressed his disciples in the larger context here. Back in verse 4, he calls them, “Friends.” They are not strangers. They are not mere acquaintances. They are friends. If you look ahead to verse 28 at the end of the verse, Jesus refers to these friends, these disciples as, “You of little faith.” Now, that is corrective, certainly. He is chiding them, delivering a mild rebuke about a faith that needs to grow. But notice he doesn’t say, “You of no faith,” but rather, “You of little faith,” which means faith is present. Faith exists. That’s a good thing. If faith is present, if faith exits, so is salvation present, and reconciliation with God exists. It’s clear when Jesus refers to God in verse 30 as their “Father.” He says in verse 32, speaking in such tender words to his own, “Fear not, little flock”—“my friends, my disciples, sons and daughter of my Father in heaven”—“it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That is how he speaks to his own.
In verse 14, Jesus does not speak to the man like that. He doesn’t speak to him on familiar terms. He doesn’t even speak to him on friendly terms, frankly. It’s just, “Man.” “Anthropos.” It’s a rebuke. And notice, it’s not a rebuke without love. It’s a rebuke that’s loving because what Jesus intends to do here—and you can tell by the investment he puts into telling this parable—Jesus intends to get this man’s attention. He intends to stop him cold, cause him to shake his head and wake up with the verbal punch he just gave so he can listen carefully to the parable he’s about to deliver. So it is a rebuke. It’s not friendly, but I should say it is friendly because he’s loving.
Second, Jesus asked him a rhetorical question—he doesn’t expect an answer from the guy. He just wants him think about this very carefully. “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” What should this man be thinking about more carefully here? Well, if the man considers Jesus to be in a position of a judge or an arbitrator, since the source of all authority is God, well, then the question, “Who made me,” points directly to the one who sent him, right? What did God appoint Jesus to do? Did God send Jesus his Son into the world for the purpose of adjudicating inheritance law? Did he come to earth to divvy up the stuff that dead people leave behind? Jesus came to put death itself to death by his own death on the cross. He died to deliver men from enslavement to all sins, including covetousness, that they might find true freedom in the life lived for God. Leon Morris put it well when he said this: “Jesus came to bring people to God, not bring property to people.” Look, a mind that is preoccupied with stuff is a mind that is clearly still enslaved.
Third thing: Jesus named two roles in his answer, in his response. He said, “judge or arbitrator,” right? The man in his question—he only alluded to the second. He didn’t mention anything about a judge, only about an arbitrator. He wanted to co-op Jesus’ authority for the distribution of funds. Not so fast. Jesus stops him cold here by pointing out what the man had ignored. This man thought he could bypass the need for a judge, that he could just press Jesus into service as an arbitrator, a role of distributing the shares or portions to the heirs. The man doesn’t think he needs a judge. He’s come to Jesus with this case already decided. All he needs from Jesus is his authority, thank you very much. “Your authority is all I need for the sake of arbitration to get this disbursement going. I need you to unblock a jam for me.” He wants Jesus to help him get what’s coming to him.
So before executing any arbitration, before compelling an older brother to divide the inheritance, Jesus is insisting the case go before judicial review. He’s insinuating here the man needs to stop what he’s doing, go back and submit his case before the authority and the scrutiny of a judge and then abide by the decision of that judge. Jesus is being impeccably—I mean law-of-Moses lawful here, which brings us to a fourth evidence revealed in what Jesus says here. The impact of the whole response that Jesus gives is that Jesus wants the man to make use of duly constituted authorities, to stop trying to entangle him in worldly affairs because he is on a different mission. This man hoped to entangle the Messiah, of all people!—the Messiah—in his personal affairs! It’s like trying to get the president to come and fill a pothole on my street. It’s a little bit beneath his paygrade. So rightly, Jesus refuses. “Why are you coming to me?” He wants no part of it.
Even if the man came with a judge’s order in hand, he’s completely wrong to try to leverage the weight of Jesus’ authority, to use Jesus and his authority to lean on his brother and make his brother to do what he wants him to do. I like what Alfred Plummer said about this man. He said, “We are not told whether the man was making an unjust claim on his brother or not, but he was certainly making an unjust claim on Jesus, whose work did not include settling disputes about property. The man grasped at any means of obtaining what he desired, invading Christ’s time and trying to impose upon his brother an extraneous authority.”
Is it that Jesus doesn’t care about property and inheritance and all of that? No, that’s not true. It’s just that that is not his purpose. The law has already taken care of all of that. Go back and look at what the law says. God does care about property rights. He does care about people’s stuff. That is why he has a law in the Ten Commandments—"Thou shall not steal.” But the Son of Man did not come for that purpose. He did come not to be served, but to serve, according to Matthew 20:28. But not at the behest of the covetous whims of sinful people. He did not come to get caught up in financial squabbles. He did not come to adjudicate inheritance disputes. He didn’t come to divide up estates, to disperse shares to beneficiaries. He didn’t come to divide up stuff. The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.
Sadly, this man is so worldly-minded, so blinded by unbelief, so fixated on his physical, temporal life, that he’s failed to grasp Jesus’ entire purpose, his true significance, his Messianic mission, and identity. He can use whatever titles of respect and terms of endearment he wants to: “Teacher,” “Rabbi,” “Beloved,” “Love you, Great Guy,” whatever. In truth this man has not shown a modicum of respect for Jesus at all. He treats Jesus like any other rabbi—someone he can recruit for his own cause. He’s intending to use Jesus to get what he wants. That is not respectful no matter who it is. When we consider who Jesus really is, though—I mean it’s one thing for someone to come into a church and try to leverage an elder’s authority in their own personal squabble, to try to use the authority of the church to bend somebody else to their own will—that is one thing. That is offensive. But, man, when you consider what this man is saying to Jesus and who Jesus really is, this is insulting.
Listen, beloved, that is what covetousness leads to. Covetousness leads to exactly these kinds of sins. A covetous heart uses people. Covetousness treats people like tools. The driving force in this is not justice, it’s not righteousness, it’s not doing what is loving and in the best interest of other people. Selfish greed and covetousness are the driving forces here. Believe me, folks, that is exactly what is going on right now in the colleges and universities in our country, and now on the streets of our cities with the cry for social justice. Let’s call it what it is—it’s greed. It’s desire for money and power. People in the streets claim to be rioting and burning stuff and calling for the defunding of police because “Black Lives Matter,” as if what they really want is justice for black people. Look, looting, rioting, violence, destruction—that is the evidence that all their rhetoric is a lie. Covetousness is driving this movement—not a righteous concern for justice.
Covetousness turns people into users and abusers. It is violent; it’s oppressive. Covetousness leads to the objectification of people, to treat people like things, like commodities that are only valuable as long as they’re useful, convenient, helpful. That’s how the Black Lives Matter movement is treating darker-skinned people. It’s commodifying them and using them for their unrighteous, Marxist cause. This movement is cruel and abusive and oppressive because it is driven by a heart of covetousness and greed. That is why you see all manner of wickedness coming out in public—looting, rioting and burning. They are trying to abolish all authority. Only the authority of the mob matters because the mob promotes fear. That is wicked.
Jesus’ rhetorical question is his last word to the man and is personal. It’s all he’s got to say to him. He’s abrupt and curt in his reply, which should stop this man in his tracks and help him to think more carefully: “What have I missed?” If he’ll listen, he’ll learn. As Jesus then turns from this man to speak to the entire crowd, it brings us to a third point as Jesus clarifies covetousness by confronting it. So we’ve said, Covetousness is Persuasive, Covetousness is Manipulative—third thing, Covetousness is Deceptive. So Jesus confronts it. He exposes and confronts what is deceptive and hidden.
*And he said to them [he’s speaking to the crowd in verse 15], “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness because one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” *
“Take care, be on your guard.” We’re going to walk through this slowly phrase-by-phrase because it’s easier to see the hypocrisy out there in the protests and the rioters and all those bad people. It’s easy to see it in this man. What about when it’s in us? Let’s diagnose our own hearts. Jesus said to them, “Take care, be on your guard.” There are two verbs there. First, the verb “horao” has to do with seeing. Basically, when it is used here, it’s used to “watch out for, to be on your guard against.” And then the next verb is “phylasso,” which literally means to “stand watch, to stand guard.” It’s talking about standing guard duty, like a sentry, a guard posted, on the alert against the enemy, watching out for intruders or invaders.
Jesus can’t be more emphatic about what he says here, about making us aware of the gravity of danger presented in the sin of covetousness. He doubles up with two verbs about watchfulness—verbs that portray a mindset of vigilance and the posture of a sentry standing guard duty in a time of war.
This is how we need to see the threat of covetousness, folks, in our own hearts. It is insidious and dangerous like an enemy surrounding us. It’s even more dangerous because it’s coming from within. It’s a grave threat that is always ready to attack. Jesus said, “Take care, be on your guard against all covetousness.” We could say, “all kinds of covetousness.” Covetousness doesn’t produce just one sin, but a thousand sins. It’s also translated “greed”—this word “covetousness.” The construction of it illustrates its meaning. The word is “pleonexia.” It combines the word “pleon,” which means “more,” and “exia,” which comes from the verb “echo,” which is “to have.” So, “to have more.” Literally, “pleonexia” is “to be having more, to keep on having more.” More specifically, we could say the sin of covetousness is wanting more than we already have or wanting what we don’t have, even if it belongs to somebody else.
Contrast might help. What is the opposite of the sin of covetousness? The opposite of the sin of covetousness—always wanting more, greedy desire, insatiable desire for more, wanting what we have, but more of it, wanting what we don’t have—the opposite are the twin virtues of gratitude and contentment. Gratitude and contentment are the antidote to covetousness. When we’re grateful for what we have, we’re not going to be always seeking more. When we’re content with what we have, we’re certainly not going to be wanting what others have. We’re happy, grateful, contented. We’re not always chasing the next thing. The sin of covetousness is always at work in a forbidden desire, like a sexual lust or a desire to cheat and to steal. Wherever you find the sins of envy or jealousy, you’re going to find covetousness at work.
But the sin of covetousness can also be illustrated as a work in good and lawful desires. It’s kind of easier if you take a lawful, God-given desire, a natural desire we have, and take that and see where covetousness can take a good desire and pervert it to an evil end. Take, for example, the desire for food—the desire for good food, tasty food. Is it sinful to want food? No. Is it sinful to want good and tasty food? No. That is why we are all not eating bread and crackers all the time. We are actually putting flavors in stuff. Is it sinful to want good food? No, it’s not. It’s inherently good because God created it to be good, right? Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:3 that Timothy is to be on the look-out, actually, for deceptive doctrines, false teachers who “forbid marriage, and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.”
Do you know the importance of the word “thanksgiving” in those verses? It is used twice. That is what prevents a good desire, like the desire for good food from the things God created to be enjoyed, from turning into an opportunity for covetousness and greed, doesn’t it? You take something like a good meal, something you really enjoy, and just give thanks for the gift God has given. But if you see that as something that feeds covetous desire, what do you want? More. That, that, that, and that. You never stop, right? Gratitude keeps you thankful for the meal you’re eating, or you’re about to eat and the meal you just ate.
It’s been said you can put guard rails on either side of good and godly, natural, God-given desires—things like food, drink, sexual pleasure—whatever else God created to be good. So put guard rails on either side of those good, God-given desires. On the one side, ask the question of any God-given desire, like the desire for food, “Will I sin to fulfill this desire I have?” On the one side, ask, “Will I sin for my desire for good food?” On the other side, put another guardrail, “Will I sin if that desire for food is not fulfilled?” “Will I sin to get it, or will I sin if I don’t get it?” Those are the guardrails you put on any natural, God-given desire. Because if our natural, God-given desires are disciplined and under control, if they are lined up between those two guardrails, we will enjoy every gift from God with gratitude and contentment. We will enjoy the pleasure of the way God created us to live, thanking him for every gift, but not expecting another one to arrive.
We treat everything like grace. Grace isn’t merited. We don’t deserve another meal like that. We’re thankful for the one we’ve had. And if another one doesn’t come, well, we didn’t deserve the first one. We put those guardrails up, and we don’t allow the sin of covetousness push us into the deep ditches of sin that lie on either side of the good desires. Sins like stealing, ingratitude toward God—sins like complaining, like grumbling, like sexual immorality—are a violent stealing of virtue. What pushes someone through one of those guard rails or over them to the other side is the sin of covetousness. It’s a very powerful, very destructive force, and it’s deceptive. You need to understand, beloved, we are not victims—we Christians—we’re not victims of covetousness. It’s not covetousness that’s the fault; it’s us. We are responsible for mortifying every covetous impulse.
James tells us in James 1:14 to 15 that “every person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” The desire is covetous desire. It’s a greedy, lustful desire, which James tells us “when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Beloved, we are responsible to identify covetous desires within us, to go after them, to terminate them with extreme prejudice. Colossians 3:5—mortify all that remains within you. We’re on a search and destroy mission. Hunt down, kill all those desires that give birth to sin in our lives because those sins produce the stench of death within us, and for us Christians there ought to be no stench of death within us because we are the aroma of Christ.
Do you want a picture of the danger? Turn over to Proverbs 30 for just a moment. We are going to take a look at just a couple of very poignant word pictures used to illustrate the sin of greed and covetousness—and believe me, it is not a pretty picture. It says in Proverbs 30:15, “The leech”—do you know what a leech looks like? It’s black and it’s ugly and it’s squishy and it’s blood-sucking. It’s disgusting. “The leech has two daughters: Give and Give.” Twin daughters, both of them are alike, equally pretty. They’re black, slimy leeches that attach to their victims and suck their life out through the blood. Yuck! The verse continues to say no matter how much these greedy leeches devour, they’re never ever satisfied with what they take.
Look at what it says there. “Three things are never satisfied; four never say, ‘Enough’: Sheol [the grave], the barren womb, the land never satisfied with water, and the fire that never says, ‘Enough.’” It’s a picture of insatiable greed. That’s what it looks like. It is kind of unnerving to think that the sin of covetousness, pictured by Sheol, a barren womb, a desert land, a fire—pictured by two nasty looking little leeches—that’s inside your heart. It’s inside of you. In one place, I read someone referred to greed as a demon and described this as a morbidly obese demon—very fat, but with an extremely small mouth. Huge appetite, little tiny mouth. So it’s insatiable, always eating, always constantly feeding, like a leech. Covetousness is such a subtle sin. It’s a sin that enslaves a fallen, unbelieving heart, for which salvation in Christ is the only remedy. But covetousness can also entice the believing heart, the new heart. It insinuates subtle, deceptive temptations that lead to sin and produce all kinds of common sins—like jealousy, like envy, fill in the blank.
Turn back to Luke Chapter 12 and see the rest of Jesus’ warning about covetousness. Verse 15, “Take care, be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” There are several words Jesus could have used to refer to one’s life. There is “bios,” which is biology and refers to physical life, material life. The word “psuche” can also refer to life. It refers to the soul; we translate it that way. It’s the whole of a person. But here Jesus uses the word “zoe,” which often refers to eternal life. Here, he uses it to focus on what’s most fundamental to us as human beings, which is our spiritual, immaterial existence, our immaterial nature. We are body and spirit. We are material and immaterial. We are physical and spiritual beings. But what is primary to us as human beings, what is most fundamental to us is our spiritual nature, our “zoe.” We all know by instinct, by observation of others, by personal experience—every single one of knows and affirms what Jesus says here, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Rich or poor, we know stuff does not make us happy. In fact, more stuff can make us more unhappy. We have more anxiety and more worry about what we’re going to do with all the stuff. Who’s going to protect the stuff? What bank is going to hold the stuff? How do I guard against people stealing the stuff? What about cyber security, and all the rest? Stuff doesn’t make us happy. More of what we’ve had and spent, enjoyed and consumed—that doesn’t make us happy. The covetous heart is a sinful heart, and sinful heart is never, ever happy.
I first became aware of the seriousness of this sin of covetousness as a brand-new Christian reading through the Bible for the first time in my life. The first book of the Bible I studied was the book of Romans. In Romans Chapter 7, Paul gives insight into his own struggles with sin with a personal testimony. I didn’t really understand covetousness very well, but started thinking about it when Paul mentioned that particular sin in Romans 7:5. I quoted it earlier: “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” Then he adds this word of personal testimony—what he himself experienced as an unbeliever being overcome with the sin of covetousness. He says in verses 7 and 8, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” It doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand sin without the law of God, but he’s just saying that when he reads the law of God, suddenly he knows what to identify these desires with. It’s as if this is giving expression to it. “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”
What he is saying there is that he read the law, “Thou shall not covet,” and the more information he got about covetousness, the more it awakened covetous desire within him. It just proved covetousness is there. It’s lurking and you feed it with information, and it becomes more powerful. It grows. Apart from regeneration, apart from being born again, it grows into a monster you cannot contain. “Sin, seizing an opportunity through a commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind.” Covetousness is not only about the possession of stuff. It’s not only about getting things, material goods. I mean, why do people want more stuff in the first place? Why do people want money? Is it because we’re created with a natural, God-given love of paper that has fancy writing on it in green ink? No. It’s actually not that attractive. Compare it to a nice painting, a nice portrait or whatever. Money is kind of plain. Why do we like dollar bills? It’s because of what that paper can get for us. It’s about the power of purchase. It’s about the power of influence.
We will look at this more next week, but look at what the rich fool is after in accumulating more possessions. In verse 19, it’s not that he loves stuff—it’s that he loves what the stuff gives him—rest, relaxation—and he wants to satiate his natural, sensual appetite. He wants to consume food, drink. And all of that is supposed to equal happiness, right? That is how the world lives. Some people try to find happiness in rest, food, drink, and they realize how elusive that kind of happiness is. So they start using money and possessions and give up on that. Then they start using money and possessions as a means of buying friends, gaining influences, getting praise, approval, buying the applause of other people. The sin of covetousness goes way beyond the desire to get more money, more stuff. Money and possessions just symbolize a myriad of things people might want. It awakens within them the sinful impulse of coveting of every kind—coveting for power, authority, fame, glory, respect, admiration, beauty, the attention of other people, appreciation from people, prominence, position, influence, glory for self. All those things and so many more are objects of covetous desire.
Beloved, we’ll get into this more next time. But what we’re going to find is that the antidote to covetousness and the cure to covetousness, how we follow Jesus’ command to “Take care, and be on guard against all kinds of covetousness” is this: It’s a heart of gratitude for God’s gifts. And if you really think about God’s gifts, they are abundant—from the air we breathe to the people we know, to the things we enjoy—and let’s not forget the salvation we share in Christ. A heart of gratitude, a heart of contentment, that we are satisfied, that God is enough, and that we need nothing else. We rest in the abundant provision of God. We recognize our treasure is in heaven, that we are so free with our stuff and our money because we want to use it to bless others, that we become the conduit of God’s gift toward other people When we do that, we become, as Jesus says to the crowd, “rich toward God” We’ll see more of that next time. Let’s pray.
Our Father, we’re so grateful for what you have taught us by sending the Lord Jesus Christ. None of us could be so discerning, so acute in coming to a sober judgment about that man’s questions. None of us could see through it to see the heart of covetousness that drove him. But once it’s exposed, we all realize that he could be any of us. We could be in the same position. Sometimes we are in the same position. We completely ignore sermons like this, and our hearts return back to something that’s mundane and stupid. So, Father, please help us as believers to get our heads screwed on straight, to get our hearts filled with gratitude, settled in contentment, that we might be building treasure in heaven, that we might be rich toward you. And if there’s anybody here who is still bound by the chains of covetous desire, enslaved to sin, not set free, who doesn’t know any of what I’m talking about here, any of what Jesus has taught—it’s foreign to them—oh, Father, we pray for their salvation today, right now. Please send your Spirit; be gracious, as you’ve been gracious so many times in the past, and let us have the pleasure and the joy of introducing someone to Christ for the first time, that they would see in him as their all-in-all and let go of all covetous desire. We thank you, Father, for the salvation that we share in Christ. We thank you for the beauty and glory of having him because when we have him, we have need of nothing else. We thank you for our eternal reward, which is you. Help us to enjoy that even now. In Jesus’ name, Amen.