Then someone called from the crowd, “Teacher, please tell my brother to divide our father’s estate with me.”Jesus replied, “Friend, who made me a judge over you to decide such things as that?” Then he said, “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.”Then he told them a story: “A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops. He said to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have room for all my crops.’ Then he said, ‘I know! I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods. And I’ll sit back and say to myself, “My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!”’“But God said to him, ‘You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?’“Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.”Luke 12:13-21 NLT
How should we spend our lives? What is the task Jesus gives his disciples to do? What should we do with the years God gives us on this earth?
I remember being rather preoccupied with this question when I was leaving high school. I had finished my exams and life lay before me. What should I do? University seemed to be self-evident. I did not feel my education was complete. I did not feel inclined to learn a trade (though I have sometimes regretted that decision) so I needed to choose a course of study. I thought about my interests and talents and wondered how I could incorporate them into a job. I thought about my personality. I thought about what was worthwhile.
One thing I didn’t think about much was money and wealth. I was much more preoccupied with significance. I wanted to do something that was meaningful. I had an infant faith in God. I had grown up hearing stories of missions that excited me. Missions was surely the cutting edge of being a Christian believer. But even a missionary needs a trade, or a skill, something other than the simple message of Jesus to contribute to the world out there.
So I studied medicine, and became a doctor. Later I attended a discipleship training school because I recognised that being a missionary required more than just a practical skill. I needed a better understanding of God, and the message I was to take to the world. By the time I was 27 I was prepared.
But with one thing and another I never became a career missionary. I got distracted. I put energy and attention into other things. I was constantly listening for what God wanted me, then us (once I was married and family came along), to do, but the opportunity for long term missions never seemed to come, though I had always believed it would. I have never become the missionary that I believed was my calling. But it was not because I traded wealth for God. Wealth was never the distraction for me, and though we have always had enough for the basic necessities of life, we are far from financially secure in the eyes of the world. But the rich relationship with God which Jesus says we would be better to pursue has somehow eluded me too. I do have a “relationship with God,” but I often wish that it was deeper, more secure, richer. It is closeness, ease of communication, that I so often miss. Even after more than forty years of faith, God still often seems distant. So where have I gone wrong?
What has any of this to do with the story above? At first glance I thought it does not apply to me. As I have said, making money, accumulating wealth, “building bigger barns”, has never been my priority. But then I realised that I have been distracted, preoccupied, obsessed, by another type of wealth – the wealth of significance. It is not only the pursuit of money that can hinder our relationship with our Heavenly Father. For me the purpose of life was never to sit back and enjoy my wealth and possessions. Rather it was to be known, to be admired, to be remembered. Even as a young person I saw my retirement, as distant as it might be, not as a time to kick back and relax, but as a time to write my memoirs, memoirs of an extraordinary life.
So I cannot get smug about the fact that I have not pursued bigger barns, because they have not been sacrificed for the sake of knowing God better, but rather for the sake of pursuing my own significance. As it turns out, I have gained neither. Significance can be like happiness. The more it is sought, the more elusive it becomes. The most significant people in history are usually the ones for whom something outside of themselves, not themselves, has been their passion, their obsession. The problem, in the end, is self centredness.
Jesus spoke in this story about material wealth being a distraction from the most important thing – a relationship with God. But as I have seen in my own life, there are other things that can distract. The message from the Holy Spirit to me is simply this – the most important (and ultimately the most satisfying and rewarding) thing in life is a rich relationship with God. It is easy to be distracted, as I have been. It is time to refocus.
Jesus said, “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.” To me he says, “Life is not measured by how much you achieve, or how famous you become.” (Which is retrospect is a good thing, considering how little I have achieved!)
By what is life measured then? Simply this, the richness of our relationship with God. How much time and effort do I spend on that? How much worry do I expend on whether this relationship will sustain me through my years left on earth? Last week a friend preached at our church. He said simply this, if you want to know what or who you really worship, look at how you spend your time, your money and your energy. We invest these on our jobs, our houses, our holidays, our family, friends. Does God get anything at all?
If God has been squeezed out, it is not too late to refocus, not for me, not for anyone. As long as I have breath, I can pursue a rich relationship with the Father, and by God’s grace that relationship will grow. Having achieved neither wealth nor significance in life I realise how foolish it is, how stupid, to continue to focus all my energy on things I can never have, while neglecting something that I can. Something that is of infinitely more value. I feel convicted. I have wandered down the wrong path. May God give me wisdom, and the will to pursue what is best. True riches, worth working for, lasting riches, are found in relationship with the Father.
I am reminded of the words of the missionary Jim Elliot, who lost his life in his efforts to take the good news of Jesus to an unreached people group: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” He was simply echoing the words of Jesus: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” (Luke 9:24 and again in Luke 17:33)