Luke 12:13-21

You Don’t Always Get What You Ask For

July 31, 2016

            A bride to – be and a groom to- be visited a chapel to pray before their wedding. The groom to – be prayed that his bride would never change.  The bride to – be prayed   that her groom would change. Neither one got what they asked for.

            In the passage from Luke 12:13-21 that we are looking at today Jesus is in the middle of a teaching session when a man in the crowd interrupts him with a request. That man doesn’t get what he asks for either.

            You know, we’d like to believe that God always answers prayer, but sometimes it may appear that God seems to not respond  to our requests.

            In Luke 12:13-21  we meet a man who comes to Jesus with a problem. Apparently he’s unhappy with the distribution of the family inheritance and wants Jesus to side with him against his brother so he can get his “fair share” of the estate. Perhaps his experience can give us some insight into why God doesn’t answer some of our prayers the way we think that God should.

            “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,” this man demands. Even though he calls Jesus “Teacher,” he really doesn’t want to learn what Jesus thinks about the matter. He’s already decided what he believes Jesus should do.

            But Jesus doesn’t accept the role the man wants Him to take. “Who set me to be a judge or arbiter over you?” Jesus asks.

            It’s not that Jesus is unqualified to judge the matter correctly. In fact, scripture teaches that someday Jesus will judge the living and the dead, but here Jesus refuses to be put in the middle of a family squabble.

            This incident may be instructive concerning our own prayer requests that go unanswered. God is God and we are not, so we can’t say with certainty what God will or won’t do, but the scripture reading suggests three types of requests God might not answer.

            First of all, God might not answer prayers that are framed as demands, as though God is there to serve us rather than the other way around. Yet we sometimes approach God not humbly asking God to give us what He knows is best, but demanding God to give us what we want.

            Jesus apparently recognizes that this demand for Him to intervene in this family feud is a symptom of a deeper problem.  There is actually jealousy and covetousness here that make the man care more about money than about his brother. Jesus advises him to get a new attitude toward money and toward his brother.

            “Take care!” Jesus says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” In other words, who we are and how we treat others are more important that what we have.

            That’s not exactly the answer the man wanted, is it? But Jesus knows that even if we got everything we wanted, we wouldn’t be fulfilled. Ecclesiastes 5:10 says, “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money.” A Roman proverb from the time of Jesus says, “Money is like sea water; the more a man drinks, the thirstier he becomes.” In one of Aesop’s fables a dog finds a juicy bone and heads home to enjoy his prize. Along the way, as it crosses a bridge, it catches sight of it’s reflection in the stream below. Thinking that it is another dog, and one with a meatier bone than it has, it opens it’s mouth to snatch the “meatier bone”, dropping the real bone into the rushing water. In it’s greed the dog loses what it had, and fails to attain what it coveted.

            To illustrate His point about the danger of greed, Jesus tells a story about a wealthy landowner whose land produces a bumper crop, but instead of being content with the harvest, the man becomes anxious. “What should I do?” he frets. “I have no place to store my crops.” It’s clear from the text that he’s not asking God or anyone else for advice. He’s talking to himself. He doesn’t wait for God’s answer, but draws his own conclusion. He decides to squirrel away his assets for his retirement so he can be prepared for his sunset years. Isn’t that what most of us seek to do, so we won’t end up on the street in our old age?

            But the problem is not that he acts prudently to provide for his needs so as not to burden others in the future. Instead, he foolishly assumes that he can create and keep wealth without God’s help, forgetting that, as the Psalmist writes,  “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” and that it is God who “gives the  power to get wealth.”

In the movie Shenandoah, set during the American Civil War, a large farm family gathers around the table for meals, which begin with prayer led by the patriarch, Charlie Anderson, played by Jimmy Stewart. He begins, “Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the harvest,” he continues. “It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you, Lord, just the same for the food we are about to eat. Amen.” At least Charlie acknowledged, albeit begrudgingly, that God had something to do with providing the family with the food on their table. But the man in Jesus’ story doesn’t even do that. He fails to give God credit or thanks, and sees no need to consult God about how to manage his wealth or his life.

            The person who answers his own prayer has a fool for a god. And that leads us to the second sort of prayer God might not answer.

            The landowner’s choice of words, five “my” pronouns and seven “I’s”,  reveals that he has a much bigger problem than lack of storage space for his surplus grain. He has no room for God or his neighbor in his language or his life. He assumes the crops, barns, grain and goods belong to him as the owner, rather than that he is the caretaker. He forgets that everything he has, including his soul, is not his to own, but is his on loan.

            But after he lays out his plans to stockpile the excess harvest so he can live like there are unlimited tomorrows, God tells him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” God has loaned us this life for a finite amount of time and can demand repayment of the loan at any time. None of us has any guarantee of tomorrow, and we have no reason to boast about it since we do not know what a day may bring.

            God doesn’t call this man a fool because he is intellectually slow, but because he has focused on earthly pleasure in the here-and-now, rather than on eternal treasure.  He tends to his physical needs at the expense of his soul. He clings to wealth that can’t buy immortality.  

            That’s how it is “with those who store up treasures for themselves,” Jesus concludes, “but are not rich toward God.”

            If your prayers don’t seem to rise any higher than the ceiling, maybe you should ask yourself whether yu are approaching God humbly or as a demanding child throwing a temper tantrum to try to get your own way. Are you really asking God to give you what He knows is best for you, or giving a list of demands to the Creator of heaven and earth as if he were a slave you can order around?

            When you pray, are you really in dialogue with God, expecting Him to answer, or are you just talking to yourself?

            A third reason our prayers may go unanswered is that our prayers are sometimes hindered by the self-centered nature of our requests. When we are intent on storing up treasure for ourselves, we miss the joy of learning how to be rich toward God.

            James tells us, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” That word “spend” has the connotation of wasting or squandering resources on our own desires.

            Whether we have much or little, we are called to trust God and to use what God has entrusted to us to do good to others.

            The next time you find yourself having trouble with your prayer life, you  might want to take the opportunity to evaluate whether you are putting God above gold, people above pleasure and service above self, or gold above God, pleasure above people and self above service.  If you can put God above gold, people above pleasure and service above self, you can invest in what really matters, the  true riches that last forever. Amen.