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The Ladder of Life

Thomas Merton once said, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” 

Jesus often warned people about this very problem and he does so, once again, in our text for today. Listen for God’s word to you from Luke 12:13-21…

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull 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, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

In first century Palestine it was not unusual for a Jewish person to take an unsettled dispute to a rabbi. So, this man who came to Jesus with his request was not acting in any way out of the ordinary.

But, here’s the problem… the man was not really asking for Jesus to mediate between himself and his brother. Rather, he was asking for Jesus to carry out his own wishes.

I wonder, do we ever come to God like that? Do we ever tell God, in prayer, howwe want him to fix our life? I think we do that a lot. We not only ask God to solve our problems, but we also tell him howto do it.

What a waste of time! God knows all about our problems and our opportunities, and he knows exactly what to do about them both, if we would just be quiet long enough to hear what he has to say.

Now, in Jesus’ time, if a father had two sons, it would not be unusual for him to leave his property to both sons to share. But apparently this man who came to Jesus didn’t want to share with his brother. He wanted to have his share of the inheritance so that he could go off and live by himself.

Jesus obviously did not want to get mixed up in this business, and I don’t blame him. Even to this day, people will sometimes come to a pastor to settle a family dispute, and it is a very tricky business if one chooses to get involved at all.

Now, if Jesus really was the Son of God, the one who the New Testament claims is going to come back at the end of the age and judge the world, then he certainly is the best one to judge and be an arbiter. By his response, Jesus is not denying that fact.

But at the same time, Jesus realizes that this man’s focus is on the wrong thing. And so, Jesus knows it is not going to work for him to step into this family dispute and say, “Here, brother #1 you take this, and here, brother #2 you take this, and go your separate ways.” Instead, Jesus deals with the underlying problem. He addresses the attitude of this man’s heart and mind and soul. That’s why Jesus says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Jesus knows that when we are focused on money and possessions in life, we will never be truly happy. We will never be truly content. Life, real life, does not consist in things. You could lose everything you have tomorrow, and still have life, the kind of life Jesus is talking about, and you could be content.

But Jesus also knows that simply offering this man a proverb will not be enough to change his heart attitude. So, as Jesus did on many occasions, he offers the man a story.

It is not an unusual story at all. It is a story about something that happens all the time. It is a story about a rich man getting richer.

Doesn’t that seem to be the way of life? So many rich people get richer and the poor get poorer, and there are very few things that really work to change that equation.

Now, the rich man in Jesus’ story gets richer because his land starts producing more. There is nothing wrong with that. You might even say that such a happening was a gift from the God of heaven.

But this rich man doesn’t say that. If he thinks it, he certainly doesn’t verbalize it. He doesn’t thank God for the abundance of crops God produced on his land, land which ultimately belonged to God anyway.

No. Rather than talk to God about it and thank God for this blessing, the man talks to himself. 

Now isn’t that the way of things these days? So many people don’t even know how to pray because they don’t realize that prayer is a conversation with God. 

So many people are into meditation these days. The popular idea right now, I think, is that meditation means emptying your mind. And I would agree, sometimes we need to empty our minds of all the junk that we fill our minds with every day. 

But for the Christian, meditation doesn’t end there. The end of Christian meditation is that we empty our minds in order for God to fill our minds with his thoughts, his words.

This rich man in Jesus’ story doesn’t seem to know anything about that. He doesn’t seem to know anything about talking to God in prayer or asking for God’s advice. He doesn’t even seem to see any value in asking anyone else for advice. Instead, he talks to himself. He asks himself a question: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”

My mother used to say, “It’s ok to talk to yourself. It’s even ok to answer yourself. But when you say to yourself, ‘What did you say?’ that’s when the men with straight-jackets come and take you away to lock you up.”

I think that’s wisdom.

So, this rich man in Jesus’ story, isn’t totally crazy yet. He asks himself a question. And then he answers his own question: “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” That is this man’s answer to his storage problem. And it seems like a sensible answer doesn’t it? If you don’t have enough room for all your stuff, and if you have money to spare, you build yourself a bigger storage container. That’s what you do!

But again, this man’s problem isn’t so much in what he says or does. This man’s problem is in what he never thinks of doing or saying. For instance, it never seems to occur to this rich man to give away his bumper crop to those who are in need.

And why doesn’t the rich man do this? Why does he not even think of giving the bumper crop away?

I think it is because money and possessions can be addictive. Enough is never enough. Have we really saved enough? Do we have all the right insurance? 

Are rich people less worried about money than poor people? I’m not sure that is the case.

Enough never seems to be enough. I need just a little bit more. I need one more, bigger barn to store my stuff in, just in case I need that stuff someday.

So how does this rich man’s conversation with himself end? After he has built his bigger barn to store all his stuff, the rich man envisions saying to himself: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

There is an interesting play on words, words that sound alike, in the original Greek of this text. The rich man, who thinks that his “euphoreo” (many things) will produce “euphron” (the good life) is in reality “aphron” (without mind, spirit, or emotions). In other words, his formula for the good life is empty. He gets to the end of his life and realizes, too late, that the ladder of his life has been leaning against the wrong wall.

And that is essentially what God tells the rich man at the end of Jesus’ story. God says, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

You see, here is the problem… We all tend to think that the stuff we have, the money we have, even the relationships we have, and the body we have, and the life we have, we tend to think it is all our own—that we possess it all.

But that just isn’t true. Our stuff, our money, our relationships, our job, our church, our bodies, our life—it’s all on loan to us. God has loaned it all to us to see what we will do with it. Will we invest it all wisely or not? 

And here is the bottom line: one day God is going to ask for our life back. After all, he gave it to us. It is his. So, in the end, he is going to take it back.

If what I have just said is true, then would it not be wise for us to recognize that truth as fully and completely as we can right now?

I think so. It is something I have to remind myself of everyday—that everything I have, including myself, is God’s. So why not consciously give it all to him?

I have known this C. S. Lewis quote since I was 13 years old and I find it very striking…

Christ says, “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good... Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.

That’s the Christian program. That is the way of life for Christ followers, for Jesus People.

33 years ago, after my first year in seminary, I did a summer internship with Billy Graham’s pastor, a man named Calvin Thielman. In many ways, that summer changed my life, and it changed my ministry. Calvin was an amazing man. He could have gone into politics and been an amazing politician. Or he could have become a lawyer and done really well at that too. But instead, he became a pastor. And the reason was because, one night, when Calvin was in college, Jesus appeared to him at the foot of his bed. Calvin was so scared he ran into the other room and asked the elderly Christian woman he was staying with: “What do I do?” She told him to go back and ask Jesus if he had something for him to do. Calvin did that. But Jesus didn’t say anything. He just looked at him. And from that moment on Calvin Thielman dedicated his life to the service of Jesus.

Calvin prayed like no one I have ever met. We could be talking about someone, and in the middle of the conversation he would say, “We need to pray.” And he would bow his head and close his eyes, and just start talking to Jesus like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Calvin had amazing wisdom. When I first met him, I felt like he could see right through me. 

He was not the most stunning preacher I have ever heard. He would have failed any exam in church administration. But he was the most amazing pastor I have ever met.

It is no wonder to me that Lyndon Johnson (who had met Calvin when they were both young in Texas) asked Calvin to be his chaplain in the White House. Johnson sent Calvin on numerous spiritual missions to Vietnam and elsewhere around the world.
But here is the thing I want you to remember. Calvin used to say it all the time. And it has stuck with me all these years. He said, “Being a Christian means giving as much as you know of yourself to as much as you know of Christ.”

If we each start doing that today, and never stop doing that, then we won’t end up like the rich man in Jesus’ story.We won’t end up with the ladder of our life leaning against the wrong wall.


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