Of all the New Testament writers St Luke is most concerned about what we do with our money. We saw this last week in the parable of the foolish landowner. Luke showed us that we will not only be judged on how we made our money but how we spent it as well. Luke speaks too often and passionately about wealth for it to be of only academic interest for him. His writing style reveals a costly education. He seems to have accompanied St Paul on one of his travels at his own expense. Both require private means. He will write sympathetically of the rich man who would not follow Jesus because he was tied to his possessions and “went away very sad” (Lk 18:18-23) Luke is a rich young man who did give up his possessions and followed Jesus. He has much to teach us, and it only begins with money.
The section we read today does not follow immediately upon last weeks. That ended with the rich man begin told by God: “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.” (Lk 12:20–21)
A striking statement to say the least but Luke continues by telling his readers that “life is more than food and the body more than clothing” (Lk 12:23) He observes, perhaps, from experience, that the more one has the more one worries about keeping it. “Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your lifespan?” (Lk 12:25). Knowing Jesus should affect every part of lives. If Christians believe that the kingdom of God is already here but is still growing among us should not our behavior be different from others? (Luke 12:29-31)
His first line today also seems based on personal experience: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom “(Lk 12:32) Unlike the rich fool who trusted in and was ultimately owned by his possessions, Luke knew the true freedom of trust in the LORD and knew that that could never be taken from him.
He did not invent the expression “treasure in heaven”. It was found throughout the Jewish scriptures but of relatively late origin. For most of their history the Jews did not believe in an afterlife. Some may have held there was a rather murky place called Sheol but the idea of an afterlife that we would recognize did not emerge until the 3rd century BC for a very specific reason. Jews questioned what the justice of God meant. They sang in the palms that God would reward the just and punish the wicked. Indeed, today we sang from Psalm 33 that “God would deliver their souls from death, and keep them alive in famine” (Psalm 33:18)
Yet that was often not the case, the bad did prosper and the good often failed in this world. They saw plainly if painfully that we would not see justice in this world and so if the LORD was not a liar there needed to be another. The primary purpose of the afterlife was to show the justice of God not to reward us. It is also not immediately immaterial. We are not immortal; we do not leave our bodies behind forever when we die but are all resurrected all together. The good and the bad are separated one from the other and the justice of God revealed.
How a person treated others is the criterion for what will happen to us after death. Therefore, the good we do here is what will ultimately count with the LORD. The great teachers of Judaism from 200 BC on were quite explicit about this. The book of Tobit, written about this time, says: “give alms from your possessions, do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. So, you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity for almsgiving delivers from death. (Tob 4:7,9) About the same time, the greatest of all the sages Ben Sirach wrote “Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from every disaster (Sir 29:1) If we see our true treasure as charity then our hearts will be with Jesus.
Luke knows the practical consequences of this. The Lord will return, and he will separate the good from the bad. It will be how we are living, not our learning, nor spiritual pedigree nor even pious practices, which will matter. Luke also makes clear that all will be judged but not by the same standards. Those who have positions of leadership in the Church will be held to a higher standard. We might once have seen this as directed to priests, religious and mostly directly Bishops. Luke would have had a more expansive understanding. Ministry went well beyond those who presided at table and was limited neither to men nor the unmarried.,
As we have seen with the preparations for the Synod on the Church and will see even more clearly as we explore it in the Fall the church needs more stewards to fulfill her role in Christ’s plan. Although we could certainly use more priests and religious most stewards will be lay people who will be called by God for formation.
He very consciously puts this matter here after a discussion on possessions. Like the rich young man, absorption in possessions will obscure the call and weaken the will to follow. Giving to others is essential. But Alms cannot be limited to money. That is the easy part. Your greatest possessions are your time and talent. God needs all of us to share them and some more than others. This is as real a call as mine was to the priesthood, and if I may be allowed a piece of advice: resistance is futile.