One day, as Jesus was teaching, a man in the crowd shouted out, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13). Now, if we had been in that crowd, after cringing over such an awkward issue raised in public, what would we have assumed most likely prompted this man’s request? Probably a family injustice.
But what did Jesus hear? Covetousness. And we might have cringed over Jesus’s response more than the man’s request. Surprisingly, Jesus used the man’s plea for justice not to rebuke unjust oppressors, but to warn not only the man but all his hearers (present and future) of the greater danger earthly wealth poses to every soul that craves it: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
This wasn’t because Jesus didn’t care about injustice. It was because Jesus knew how deceptive, and spiritually dangerous, earthly wealth was to the plaintiff who cried out that day — and to all of us. So, he issued a strong warning to be on guard against all covetousness. Then he illustrated it with a powerful parable, and showed us the way of escape from its temptation.
What Is Covetousness?
The last of the Ten Commandments makes clear what covetousness is:
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:17)
To covet is to earnestly, even obsessively, desire what your neighbor has. It’s a sin-cousin of envy, though not the same, as Joe Rigney helpfully explains,
Covetousness is an overweening desire for that which is not yours. Or, as I try to explain to my young boys, covetousness is wanting something so much it makes you fussy. Covetousness wants what the other guy has; envy is angry that the other guy has it. Covetousness is oriented toward your neighbor’s possessions; envy toward the man himself. (Killjoys, 22–23)
Envy moved Cain to murder his neighbor, his own brother (Genesis 4); covetousness moved Achan to take forbidden treasure for himself, resulting in the deaths of numerous of his neighbors (Joshua 7). Envy moved Saul to keep trying to assassinate his neighbor, David (1 Samuel 19); covetousness moved David to steal his neighbor’s wife, and then murder him as a cover-up (2 Samuel 11).
Both envy and covetousness are destructive, even lethal, sins against our neighbor, but for different reasons. While envy is an evil, perverse, twisted kind of valuing of our neighbor (we wish we were him), coveting is an evil, perverse, twisted kind of devaluing of our neighbor (we care more for his stuff than for him).
Idolatry with a Double Edge
The unique evil of covetousness is that we value what our neighbor has more than what our neighbor is. We desire our neighbor’s possessions for ourselves rather than loving our neighbor as ourselves. Which makes coveting a particularly heinous form of idolatry (Colossians 3:5).
“The unique evil of covetousness is that we value what our neighbor has more than what our neighbor is.”
In literal idolatry, we “[exchange] the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things”; we value creatures more than the Creator, the one who gives them real value (Romans 1:23, 25). But coveting adds another dimension to this. For we exchange the glory of God inherent in a person (the imago dei, however marred by the fall) for the created things that a God-imaging person owns. In doing so, we both rob God of the glory he deserves and rob our neighbor of the dignity he deserves. Coveting is a double-edged form of idolatry.
When we covet, we love stuff more than human life, more than Divine Life, and more than eternal life. Which is why Jesus told the man, the crowd, and us that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). And then he drove his point home with a powerful parable.
Where Covetousness Leads
At first, it doesn’t sound like the parable has anything to do with coveting:
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.’” (Luke 12:16–19)
This story seems to be about a man who trusts his investment portfolio more than God, but it says nothing about the man desiring his neighbor’s possessions. So, what does it have to do with coveting?
Everything. We just need to understand that this parable isn’t about the man’s coveting, but about ours. Jesus isn’t showing us what coveting looks like; he’s showing us where coveting leads. The temptation to covet promises us that if we can have what someone else has, we’ll be happy. Jesus is about to show us the emptiness of that promise through the fate of the rich man. So, we’ll let him finish the parable:
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. (Luke 12:20–21)
This man had essentially what most people believe will make them happy: material wealth and security and a retirement of leisure and entertainment ahead of him. Many around him would have coveted his lifestyle. Then suddenly, death brought it all to a terrible end. The coveted life ended up being a foolish, trivial life since it wasn’t ultimately about life at all. For life never consists in the abundance of our possessions.
End of Coveting
This raises the burning question, So what does life consist of? That’s what Jesus turns to next (Luke 12:22–34), and his answer is quite shocking: life does, in fact, consist of wealth accumulation — a kind that liberates us from the sin of coveting.
Wait. Didn’t Jesus just say wealth is dangerous, so don’t orient your life around accumulating it? No, Jesus said a certain kind of wealth is dangerous, so don’t orient your life around accumulating it. Jesus isn’t against wealth. Jesus is against deceptive wealth, which ultimately impoverishes. But he’s very much in favor of true wealth. Which is why he pivots from this parable to encourage us all to pursue real treasure.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. (Luke 12:22–23)
He reiterates here that life doesn’t consist of possessions. He goes on,
Instead, seek [God’s] kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:31–34)
There’s the end — the death — of covetousness: desiring and providing for ourselves, through faith, an infinitely more valuable, more satisfying, longer-lasting treasure that isn’t possessed by any human being but is freely given to us by God and is, at its heart, God himself. This is a money bag with no holes, a treasure that can’t be stolen, a surplus that doesn’t end but actually begins with death. This is a treasure so liberating that it frees us from fearfully hoarding earthly wealth to instead give it away in love.
Pursue Real Treasure with All Your Heart
The rich man wasn’t wrong in wanting to lay up treasure for himself; he was wrong in what treasure he wanted to lay up for himself (Matthew 6:19–20). All he wanted was a heaven of fully funded retirement for a few toilsome, troublesome years when God was offering a heaven of eternally funded retirement of the fullest joy and forever pleasures (Psalm 16:11). The man wanted to be rich with what is not life when he could be rich with never-ending Life: God. And God called him a fool.
“Jesus isn’t against wealth. Jesus is against deceptive, ultimately impoverishing wealth.”
And perhaps the only thing more foolish than this man’s pursuit is for us to covet the treasure this man possessed.
This was the great danger Jesus saw for the man pleading for his share of an inheritance, and this is why he used this opportunity to explain why God commands us not to covet (Exodus 20:17). He wanted us all to keep our lives from the love of money (Hebrews 13:5), since “through this craving [many] have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10), only to discover it all ends tragically with death.
Jesus knew that freedom from “all covetousness” is possible only if we value a superior treasure. And so, his message from this section of Luke 12 is to protect us from the snare that plunges so many into ruin and destruction (1 Timothy 6:9) by instructing us to pursue the real, true, superior, eternal Treasure with all our hearts.
For he knew that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34).